Zak Bond
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A budding progressive alliance wants to take back the Brexit heartlands

Caroline Lucas, Vince Cable and Clive Lewis want to work together.

Late evening sunshine warmed the grand interior of Westminster’s Emmanuel hall on Tuesday night, where over a thousand people had gathered to discuss the need for “Post-Brexit Alliance Building”.

The building itself, inscribed with biblical quotes, could not help but set a tone of business-as-usual. But this was part of the problem the speakers wanted to address: how can the metropolitan bubble reconnect with those turned off by politics?

According to the assembled politicians – Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, the SNP’s  Tommy Sheppard, and the Liberal democrat’s Vince Cable -  there is now an urgent need to reach out to those who feel politics has failed them. And who may have voted Leave as a result.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was first to take to the podium, where, like a fairy-godmother come to rescue listeners from disappointment, she laid out her battle-plan for a better Britain and a better democracy:

“The Tories are readying themselves now for another round of disaster capitalism using the post-Brexit turmoil to further shape the economy in their interests," she said. "I believe we need to prepare for that and lobby for an early general election.”

"[We need to] prevent the formulation of a Tory-Ukip government that would enact an ultra-right Brexit scenario, I think there should be a pre-election pact between Labour, the Greens, the Lib-Dems and Plaid together. And that the glue holding together such a pact would indeed be a commitment to Proportional Representation.”

Yet a more inclusive politics, she suggested, should also be built within the system as it currently stands - by harnessing grassroots energy, signing up individual candidates to a core set of progressive principles and pressing for more open primaries and non-aggression pacts. And, not least, in and seeking to pull opportunity from the jaws of defeat:

“The referendum was a wake-up call. Lets honour it by rejecting xenophobia, lets rise to it by pledging to share the economic benefits of migration with the many, lets respond to it by giving real power to the people with a voting system that genuinely allows their voices to be heard.”

Some may have been disappointed that a call to reject the referendum result was not part of her agenda. But Lucas’ message of conciliation was clear:

“In my heart of course, I believe Britain’s future should be in Europe [...] but friends, I believe that to seek to overrule the outcome of the referendum is bad politics and worse democracy. What better way to reinforce the belief that the metropolitan elite care nothing for the views of predominantly working-class people in disconnected communities, than to seek to ignore their views and overturn the result.”

Labour’s Shadow Minister for Defence, Clive Lucas, the Lib-Dem’s Vince Cable and SNP MP Tommy Sheppard all echoed Lucas on this position. Yet it was the speakers from outside the seats of government that drove home the point to greatest effect:

“Please let’s not think about the vast majority of people I've talked about who voted Leave as stupid, or deluded, or bigoted, and hateful”, pleaded Guardian journalist John Harris. “If you woke up on Friday morning thinking that the country you lived in was suddenly being controlled by a social tribe you didn't know much about and you suddenly felt terrified about the future, bear in mind that’s how millions of people in this country have felt for decades.”

Harris’s account of his experiences reporting outside of London, particularly in his native Wales, helped ground the talk of Westminster squabbles and Brexit bungle in the deeper, longer story of Britain’s industrial decline:

“About two years ago, in 2014, around the time of the Scottish referendum, John and I made a film set in Penegraig, in the Rhondda valley in South Wales. It's a place where my family is from, so I know it, and it's a place missing what I used to associate with it – coal mining. And nothing has come along to replace coal mining at all really in that place and it feels like it has an emptiness, really, at its heart. It’s a place we still call a ‘Labour heartland’ and it still has a lots of heart – but its affinity with the Labour party (you only need to go around and talk to people to know) has waned. ”

Most popular of all however, at least with the younger audience members I spoke to, was the appeal of singing teacher and Take Back the City organiser, Amina Gichinga:

“It would be a mistake to think that we just need to get rid of the Tories. The forms of political organisation that we have at the moment are inadequate and they’re failing to engage the vast majority of people in London and the rest of the country. Obviously we would prefer a left-leaning progressive alliance to a Tory government. But this isn’t about left-leaning political parties working together - it isn’t going to be progressive if parties don’t change the way they do politics and make it more open to young people, people of colour, women, working class people, migrants, refugees - people who lack a political voice but make our city and our country what it is.”

The obstacles to such a vision are not insignificant. Clive Lewis’ speech highlighted the internal disputes occupying Labour, as well as hinting at reservations surrounding Proportional Representation.

Comments from the floor touched on a range of further considerations. “I fully support a progressive alliance but I also oppose oppositional politics,” said a representative of Makes Votes Matter. “Our campaign certainly welcomes Ukip supporters, Tory supporters, and I really believe that we have to work together to include everybody if we want to get PR”.

But, overall, the message was one of action that starts at home. “If a change to the system [of first past the post elections] means I will have to give up my seat tomorrow, I will gladly do so”, volunteered the SNP’s Tommy Sheppard.

There are also plans afoot to repeat similar gatherings around the country. Tonight’s event in Brighton will see Neal Lawson and Davy Jones discuss the Progressive Alliance. While Compass, the left-wing pressure group responsible for organising Tuesday’s event, has plans to stage at least five bigger meetings out in Brexit heartlands. These will be accompanied by an online engagement platform and a callout for self-organised meetings that can feed back in to eachother.

In the words of John Harris: “Let’s go out of this stateless country that some people are calling ‘Remain-ia’  ... Let’s go out into the country and reinvent our politics”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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