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The Green Party's Molly Scott Cato: “We have to stop Brexit before Christmas”

The MEP on opposing the EU Withdrawal Bill and the need for a second referendum.

“I believe we will be the most influential party of the 21st century,” Green co-leader Jonathan Bartley told his party conference in Yorkshire earlier this week.

The bold claim is a necessary morale boost at a time when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is sucking away Green members and votes. At the last general election the party's vote share fell in key target seats such as Bristol West, where it was down 14 per cent.

But Bartley’s boast also has weight. From promoting renewable energy, to attacking the lack of action on air pollution, Green positions often put the government on the backfoot – and have public opinion behind them.

Not least on Brexit. Together with the Lib Dems, the Green Party is calling for a second referendum on the terms of any deal for leaving the EU.

Speaking at the recent conference, the Green MEP Molly Scott Cato stressed that this was not an attempt to undermine democracy – but to reinforce it: “We are asking for more democracy, not less. We are asking for a democratic choice between two real, possible futures at the end of the Brexit negotiations: the deal, or remaining a member of the EU.”

Any hope of securing a beneficitial Brexit for Britain has already been undermined by the government’s own anti-democratic approach to the process, she adds over the phone a couple of days after her speech.

Scott Cato describes the government's trade plans, shared in the last few days, as “guff”, and says far greater transparency is urgently needed:

“Sure, there are ways we could improve things which we couldn’t do while we’re part of the EU,” she says. “But we can only do them if we’re living in a genuine democracy where our representatives are informed and listen to us and have the power to make change. And at the moment I’m afraid the government isn’t making that possible.”

Of particular concern is that the EU Withdrawal Bill presently asks MPs to vote for an “empty box” on Brexit's terms, incuding things like the border with Ireland and the UK's debts. Once that bill is passed, she says, the country will have signed up to leaving the EU no matter how bad a deal the Conservatives bring back from Brussels.

If the government thought they could secure a good deal for the UK, they would ask MPs to vote once the terms were defined, Scott Cato believes. Instead, she thinks the fact they are asking for the vote before a deal is reached, having committed to Brexit whatever the cost, spells trouble. “We have to stop Brexit before Christmas. Or it’s going to be incredibly difficult, as things get worse, to change our minds.”

For these reasons, the Greens are pressing hard for a second referendum. And according to Scott Cato, the best time for this would be October next year. This date would be the latest the UK government could leave defining a deal if it is to travel through the European Parliament in time for the March 2019 deadline. 

But what if a second referendum in 2018 becomes riddled with the same uncertainties as the first? A new trade deal would take even longer to agree than the divorce deal. 

“That’s the risk we face," Scott Cato responds, "but the truth is once we’re out of the EU, we’re out of the EU.” 

Even if a later trade deal fell through and we decided we wanted to return, there’s no certainty that France wouldn’t exercise their veto, she warns. “We’ve totally burned our bridges with Europe now, and the second referendum is the last chance of us not being out in the cold for a decade or more.”

And how confident is she that a second referendum would go the way of Remain?

“I think people do have a clearer idea of what [being] outside the EU means now and the risks that it entails,” she says. “We've seen the fall in the pound, and we've seen the loss of jobs, the companies saying that they're going to move overseas ... We’ve seen that it's not possible to pick off one member state against the other, that they won't let us have our cake and eat it, and they've seen that we're not going to get £350m for the health service – and I could go on a long time here, couldn’t I!”

“I have to trust the people - I'm a democrat,” she adds. “But I have to trust the people to make a decision between A and B. Not between A and Not-A. Not just bundling up all their frustrations and blaming them on Brussels.”

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

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.