A ‘pro-Remain’ alliance for Euro elections is in practice impossible

  • I am a pluralist who thinks tribalism is overrated, so I can see the attraction of a coalition. But no one has been able to explain to me how the practical hurdles can be overcome

  • Chuka Umunna MP

A ‘pro-Remain’ alliance for Euro elections is in practice impossible

Parliament reconvenes tomorrow after a short recess. For much of the past few months the focus has been on the action in the chamber of the House of Commons; this will now broaden to include the local elections on 2 May and the European elections which are almost certainly going to take place on 23 May.

The Independent Group of MPs was established only eight weeks ago when 11 of us left the established political parties to build an alternative to our broken politics.

Those of us who had left Labour were horrified at the antisemitism, were appalled at a leadership facilitating Brexit, and were not prepared to sponsor our national security being placed in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn and his team. Those leaving the Tories could not stand by and watch that party hijacked by Eurosceptic nationalists out of step with modern Britain and failing to govern in the national interest. Fundamental change is needed.

So we applied to register as a political party, under the name Change UK – The Independent Group (Change UK-TIG), at the end of last month, sooner than intended, once it became clear European elections were likely. While we were not able to apply in time to stand candidates in the local elections, we have managed to do so in order to stand a full slate of candidates across the UK in the European elections.

Following the granting of an extension of our EU membership to 31 October, the UK will take part in these elections and send MEPs to the new European parliament which convenes in July, unless the Commons agrees to the prime minister’s Brexit deal beforehand (and there is zero chance of that).

Many have asked: why don’t all the pro-EU parties, who are unequivocally committed to a people’s vote, run as a “pro-Remain alliance” in the European elections?  

Before answering, it is important to address the position of the main parties. A number of Labour’s MEP candidates are committed to a Final Say on Brexit but, under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation used to elect MEPs, you stand on a party list and vote for a party and not an individual. You cannot separate the position of the candidates from that of their party leaderships (unlike, say, under the first-past-the-post Westminster voting system, where you vote for a named individual on the ballot paper).

Labour’s MEP candidates can say what they like about a people’s vote but what matters is that their official party policy is to prioritise facilitating Brexit through Labour’s alternative Brexit plan.

The party says a new referendum is only “an option” in certain specified circumstances, a number of members of the shadow cabinet are opposed to a people’s vote (including the party chair, Ian Lavery), and the party is not committed to campaigning for Remain if it were to happen.

The same applies to any pro-EU Conservative MEP candidates – they may be personally in favour of a Final Say but you vote for the party and not the person, and the Tory party leadership is even more opposed to a people’s vote than Labour’s leader. So a vote for either of the main parties is a vote to endorse the Brexit chaos overseen by government and the official opposition – it is not a vote to give the electorate a voice on Brexit.

The so-called Leave vote is likely to be split between Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, Ukip, the Tories and, also, Labour. The European election campaign starts in earnest this week and polling day is five weeks away. The 2017 general election taught us that a lot can change during a campaign but, in spite of this, some are beginning to panic that Farage’s hard-right outfit looks like potentially sweeping up all the Leave votes and potentially winning the election.

This has led to demands that the other parties run as a pro-EU “Remain alliance” with one list of candidates. Change UK-TIG , the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru are, in the main, unequivocally committed to a people’s vote and to remaining in the EU.

Change UK-TIG has not been formally approached by any of the other pro-EU parties with a view to running one list of candidates. That is because it is impossible to run one list of candidates unless you merge to form one party which, not unreasonably, none of us are prepared to do.

For example, we are committed to the union which is the UK; the SNP and Plaid are not. We left the established parties to build an alternative party, not to merge with an existing one. The Green Party has a particular focus on climate change –that is a key part of our agenda too but our party is not built solely around this. In any event, if we all merged for the sake of the European elections and then split afterwards for the purposes of a general election, it would look rather odd, to say the least.

There is also a huge danger in mimicking the main parties if we were to do a backroom stitch-up behind closed doors which would have the effect of dictating to voters what the choice is in the ballot booth, rather than by giving them the opportunity to make that choice themselves. This is the whole rationale behind the argument we make for a people’s vote on Brexit: let the people decide.

The alternative suggestion has been for the pro-EU parties to at least agree among ourselves to stand down in favour of just one of our number in particular regions.  However, it is not clear at the start of this European election campaign which party is most likely to win in which region in five weeks’ time.

Again, a lot can happen in five weeks. And, even if agreement could be reached on who is most likely to win, that degree of cooperation is highly likely to lead to the Electoral Commission treating all those parties as one party for compliance purposes around the treatment and reporting of election expenditure – it can all get very messy.

As a pluralist who thinks tribalism is overrated, I can see the attraction in the argument for a pro-EU coalition of the sort argued for, but no one has been able to explain to me how these practical hurdles can be overcome. That is because they can’t be.

Change UK-TIG is already composed of MPs from the centre-left social democratic and centre-right One Nation political traditions, who left both Labour and Conservative parties to build something new. Of the 3,700 applicants to stand as our MEP candidates, 895 were former Labour Party activists, 105 former Liberal Democrats and 92 ex-Greens as well as prominent former Tories, including former ministers, MPs, MEPs and councillors.

A huge number who have put themselves forward as our MEP candidates, the list of whom we will unveil at the launch of our campaign tomorrow, are new to politics. None of the other parties can say the same or draw from different political traditions in this way. The truth is there is already a grassroots, Remain alliance – Change UK-TIG is it.