A People’s Vote will be impossible without cross-party consensus

  • Unless the Labour leadership unequivocally backs any cross-party backbench initiative for a People’s Vote, we won’t win the vote when it comes.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

The Independent’s editor, Christian Broughton, asked me how many people we expected on the combined People’s Vote and The Independent’s March for the Future on Saturday. “I think we might make a quarter of a million” was my private assessment at the start of the day. As it turned out, the number was closer to three quarters of a million, with more than 700,000 people from every walk of life and every part of the country travelling into central London to march on Westminster.

It was the biggest demonstration the country has seen since the protest against the Iraq War in 2003. Those marching were demanding that 650 MPs should not make a decision on this alone, but 65 million voices must be heard when a final decision is made on our relationship with the European Union.

MPs from all political parties marched together and spoke at the rally on the day. I was holding a banner demanding a People’s Vote alongside the Conservative MP Anna Soubry, Joanna Cherry MP from the SNP, and others. The three of us spoke alongside Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable and Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas in front of tens of thousands in Parliament Square. Countless people came up to Anna and I, telling us how refreshing and welcome it was to see two politicians from each of the main parties working together on the biggest issue facing our country since the Second World War.

Cross-party work is crucial in these times. The picture painted of our politics both here and in the US is one of increasing polarisation between the populist right and populist left, amplified by social media, with a barren land in between. However, a report called Hidden Tribes, just published by More In Common, refers to an “exhausted majority” stuck in the middle, which “disapproves of the hyper-partisan conflict that has overwhelmed political debate” and “wants to see the opposing tribes move beyond constant conflict”. More In Common is an international think tank that works to build more united societies that are resilient to the threats of polarisation and social division. In the US they estimate that this exhausted majority makes up 67 per cent of the electorate. In the UK, the equivalent group appeared to be on the march on Saturday – fed up with the division and seeking more collaboration.

This cross-party way of working, which seeks to build consensus and not engage in opposition for opposition’s sake, has presented challenges for the People’s Vote campaign. Joint campaigning, events and media, which I often do with Anna, frequently attract bile and abuse from keyboard warriors of the hard left and, as you would expect, Ukip and the hard right. Unbelievably, the fact that centre-left figures and MPs from other parties have been at the forefront of the campaign has been cited as a reason not to back the cause within the Labour family, notwithstanding the merits of the argument for a People’s Vote on Brexit (with Remain on the ballot). If the principle is right, surely that is all that matters? In a spirit of openness we invited senior figures from the Labour leadership to speak on Saturday – the offer was not taken up.

The truth is a People’s Vote will be impossible without building a cross-party majority for the proposition in the House of Commons – this might explain why some Eurosceptics on the right and the left try to toxify cross-party working at every turn on Brexit: because they know it is effective. For reasons of tribalism, many Conservative MPs who may be willing to support the cause would not be prepared to support an amendment to a motion or legislation, which is necessary to bring about a People’s Vote, if it is tabled by the Labour front bench. However, they would be prepared to support cross-party initiatives tabled by backbenchers. In the absence of a general election – which most think unlikely – this is the only route to securing a proper People’s Vote on the Brexit deal.

This is why, right from the start, Anna and I have sought to do as much as possible to build bridges between pro-European MPs in each of our parties through the campaign and the All Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations which we founded and co-chair. Of course, unless the Labour leadership unequivocally backs any cross-party backbench initiative for a People’s Vote, we won’t win the vote if and when it comes.

Cross-party working is not new nor confined to Brexit. It happens every week parliament is sitting in the various House of Commons select committees, which scrutinise the work of each government department. The chairs of these cross-party committees are elected by MPs and are not appointed by the whips. Because their reports are signed off by MPs of all parties, they carry weight and attract attention. During my eight years as an MP I’ve been a member of the Treasury and Home Affairs select committees, and seen for myself how much more effective the Commons can be when party political differences are put to one side and you work across the aisle together in the national interest.

The more informal all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) and other groups of MPs also have impact for the same reason. The ministerial team at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government told me that the government heavily drew on the report produced by the APPG on social integration, which I chair, on immigration when producing their integration communities strategy. Likewise, the Youth Violence Commission, of which I am a member, has promoted the public health model to addressing this very serious issue blighting our streets – it has subsequently been taken up both by the Home Office and the mayor of London.

Above all, a major problem – there are many – with our politics is that it is too short term and too focused on general elections, which occur every five years. This works against taking a long-term view. Big challenges, such as funding the NHS and social care, can only be solved if we can build a cross-party consensus on a solution that endures beyond the changing political persuasions of successive governments. If a new administration simply scraps all the reforms made by their predecessors, how can there ever be progress on problems requiring a long-term answer?

Earlier this year the Conservative MP Nick Boles, my Labour colleague Liz Kendall and the former Liberal Democrat health minister, Norman Lamb, joined forces and published 10 principles for the long-term funding for the NHS and social care. Predictably, they were attacked from the usual quarters for being “centrists”, “Blairites”, “neoliberals” and for things they had not mentioned, rather than for the principles they did mention that the majority of people would sign up to. These objections should be ignored. Party politics has its place and it’s important our democracy gives people a choice, but excessive tribalism has stood in the way of progress for too long. For most people outside of the political bubble – our constituents – working across party lines makes common sense. Long may it continue.