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Pro-European MPs have got bigger problems than the Labour leadership

Even if the leadership is persuaded to change its view, the hard core of Labour leavers may not. 

What I love about covering the Labour Party is that if you live long enough, every possible position will be adopted by every available faction. 30 pro-European grandees, ranging from the parliamentary party to the mayors of the cities of Liverpool and Manchester to, have written to the chair of the party’s ruling national executive committee, calling for party members to be consulted on the party’s European strategy.

Although the ideological make-up of the list is not exclusively drawn from those you could fairly call “Blairite”, it is fair to say that it is not a list of people who, in the main, have been particularly excited about opening up the party’s policymaking processes to ordinary members, although there are exceptions. Equally, of course, the Labour leadership has a longstanding history of support for consulting the party membership beyond the confines of party conference, and polled members on the question of whether or not to bomb Syria.

The problem Labour's pro-Europeans have is that they have the numbers to override the government's majority as far as retaining the single market and customs union goes on paper. That is to say, the number of willing Conservative dissidents is enough to overcome the Tory-DUP majority. Unfortunately, it's not enough to overcome the votes of the seven Labour leavers and the Tory-DUP majority. 

The difficulty is, the pro-Europeans were right the first time. No vote – not of the country, not of the Labour membership, not of Parliament – can make leaving the single market and customs union the right approach for the United Kingdom. No vote – not of the country, not of Parliament, and not of the Labour membership – can make it the wrong approach for the country either. That’s not how economics or policymaking works.

Ten million people voted for the Conservative plan to close the deficit in 2010 and 11 million did so in 2015. In both cases, that plan turned out to be unrealistic and unachievable. The last election narrowly repudiated a plan to take the East Coast rail franchise back into public hands but now the demands of running that franchise may mean it happens anyway. Votes can change a lot of things but they can’t change facts.

The only question that ought to matter for MPs is not what the party whip says, not what they think will happen to them at the next election, and not what their membership says, but whether staying in the customs union and single market is the right approach or not. And the problem for pro-Europeans is that a critical mass of Labour's Brexiteers think that it isn't. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Like many others, Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was left in charge of a failing aircraft

Ony when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility properly resource the NHS. 

The day Leicester trainee paediatrician Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was struck off by the High Court for her involvement in the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt posted a tweet expressing his deep concern about possible unintended consequences of the ruling. He was referring specifically to the impact on patient safety.

At a stroke, efforts to build a culture of open learning – a cause Hunt champions – had been set back decades. You don’t get people to talk honestly about critical mistakes by threatening them with prison and professional ruin.

There may be other consequences that Hunt didn’t anticipate. Comparisons with another safety-critical industry – aviation – are instructive. On the day Jack died, from undiagnosed sepsis, Bawa-Garba was functioning as would a first officer on an aircraft. The plane’s captain was elsewhere, training other pilots on a simulator in a different city. The chief steward had failed to report for duty, so Bawa-Garba was expected to oversee cabin service as well as fly the plane single-handed.

The aircraft’s IT systems had gone down, meaning one of the stewardesses was permanently occupied looking out of the window to ensure they didn’t collide with anything. Another stewardess was off sick, and her replacement was unfamiliar with the type of plane and its safety systems. And Bawa-Garba herself had just returned from a year’s maternity leave. She’d done quite a lot of flying in the past, though, and the airline clearly believed she could slot straight back into action – they arranged no return-to-work programme, dropping her in at the deep end.

Not one of us would agree to be a passenger on that flight, yet that kind of scenario is commonplace in hospitals throughout the country. Critically ill patients have no awareness of how precarious their care is, and would have no choice about it if they knew. Since the Bawa-Garba ruling, doctors have been bombarding the General Medical Council (GMC) for advice as to what they should do when confronted with similarly parlous working conditions.

The GMC’s response has been to issue a flowchart detailing whom medics should tell about concerns. But it has failed to confirm that doing so would protect doctors should a disaster occur. Nor does it support worried doctors simply refusing to work under unsafe conditions. This is akin to telling the first officer they must inform the airline that things are bad, very bad, but that they still have to fly the plane regardless.

Jeremy Hunt has responded to the crisis by announcing an urgent review into gross negligence manslaughter, the offence of which Bawa-Garba was convicted. This is welcome, and long overdue, but it still serves to retain the focus on individuals and their performance, and keeps attention away from the failing systems that let down doctors and patients daily.

An action by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin is, arguably, more important than Hunt’s review. The organisation has written to Leicestershire police requesting that they investigate Bawa-Garba’s hospital trust for alleged corporate manslaughter. I sincerely hope a prosecution follows. I’m no fan of litigation, but change is only going to come when those who manage the NHS know that they are going to carry the can when things go wrong.

We need clear statements of what constitute minimum acceptable staffing levels, both in terms of numbers, and training and experience. When departments, or even whole hospitals, fall below these – or when unexpected problems such as IT failures occur – managers, faced with the real prospect of corporate lawsuits, will close the unit, rather than keep operating in unsafe conditions, as routinely occurs.

Only when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility – Jeremy Hunt and the rest of the Conservative government – finally act to resource the health service properly. 

This would be an unintended consequence from the Dr Bawa-Garba case that would be welcome indeed. 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist