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Brexit Plus Coronavirus Is Too Much To Take

Along with what I hope and believe is the majority of Labour supporters, I welcome the election of Keir Starmer as the party’s leader. It takes neither hope nor belief, because we have the evidence already, that he and those he has appointed to shadow ministerial positions far outshine the inadequate group of Conservative MPs currently in government.  They make us determined to see these latter replaced as soon as possible.

There are two points I wish to urge on Keir. They are and should be pressingly familiar ones because of their importance. The first concerns extending the Brexit transition, the second concerns electoral reform.

The approach of Brexit has already harmed the UK economy, with a number of firms closing or relocating, and uncertainty affecting both domestic and foreign investment. The hostile attitude to fellow EU citizens living and working in the UK has prompted many to leave, the impact on the NHS in particular now being the most stark of the harms this has caused, with the fruit harvest on the country’s farms also serving as an early warning.

But now that we see the COVID-19 pandemic wrecking terrible harm on the economy; all the signs are the downturn it is causing will be more than twice as bad as the crisis of 2008. In this circumstance, it is unthinkable to add the yet further harm that actual Brexit will cause. 

Brexit’s effect on supply and food prices, added to increased unemployment and fewer resources for public services and welfare, is a catastrophe as predictable as the pandemic’s effects are on an ill-prepared nation. The people Labour exists to protect and help are those most vulnerable to the triple whammy of Brexit-pending+Covid-19+Brexit-happening. Keir should join and lead all the other opposition parties and the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland administrations in their plea for an extension to the transition period. The maximum allowable is two years; that is the minimum necessary to help a damaged and weakened economy and to mitigate the harm this represents in terms of individual lives and families and the fabric of our nation.

The second point is electoral reform. The Johnson government with its 80-seat majority in the House of Commons was elected on 43% of votes cast last December, representing 28.5% of the electorate. On this minority, it has 100% of the power in the land, to use and abuse at will. Keir’s fine performances at PMQs give heart, but make no difference to the fate of the British people: the House of Commons is a rubber-stamp mechanism for the government.

Two considerations apply to the question of electoral reform, one practical, one of principle. The practical point is that Labour is going to find it extremely hard to secure an overall parliamentary majority ever again, unless it comprehensively wins back Scotland, which is unlikely. It will be the Conservatives who will find it hard to form a government if a system of proportional representation is introduced, and Labour will have an excellent advantage in its chance of leading coalitions of the leftward span of the political spectrum, to the benefit of us all. 

The point of principle is that the current First Past the Post electoral system is unfair and undemocratic. If you vote for a losing candidate, your vote is useless; you are completely unrepresented; your vote is not equal to the vote of someone whose candidate wins. If you refuse to vote you thereby silently support the winning candidate, whoever that is. No system of PR is perfect, but the Single Transferable Vote System is one of the best and simplest, and will change the face of British politics, which has for too long been a tug of war between rival factions fighting for the levers of government and winning them on minorities of the peopl

Labour should join with other opposition parties in an electoral reform coalition for the next election, to secure this desperately needed rehabilitation of our system.

I believe that if Keir and his team come out unequivocally in support of an extension to the Brexit transition and of electoral reform, they will thereby do our country a huge service.

By A C Grayling - British philosopher and author

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