Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Why voting for Article 50 may ruin an MP's career

The last time I did something like this was to urge Labour party members to vote for Smith rather than Corbyn, knowing full well that Corbyn was almost certain to win. Being proved right on that occasion is no consolation, because I would rather have been wrong. This is even more futile, but now as then I feel a decision is about to be made that is both disastrous and irreversible.[1] I also want to say something about the longer term interests of MPs that I have not seen said elsewhere.

There are so many principled reasons for MPs to vote against triggering Article 50. Let me summarise what I see as the main ones here, but this is far from comprehensive.
  1. The vote was close, and is advisory. Unlike the Scottish referendum, it excluded 16 and 17 year olds, who by the time we actually leave will be able to vote. Demographic trends suggest that at some time in the near future the referendum would go the other way. Migrants from the UK were excluded, even though they are directly affected by the vote and legislation is on the table to give them votes for life in a UK election.

  2. The vote was also won on the basis of clear lies of a kind that have never been used in a UK election before. There is strong evidence that these lies helped swing votes. I would add that the broadcast media facilitated the propaganda coming from most of the tabloid press, in particular by treating knowledge as opinion.

  3. The referendum was only about leaving the EU, and not about how we leave the EU. In particular, it was not about leaving the Single Market. We have no way of knowing which way a referendum on the Single Market would go. May’s logic that the referendum was ‘really’ about immigration and that therefore we have to leave the Single Market is conjecture. Polls on immigration that do not also note the costs of reducing immigration are worthless, like polls that ask about cutting taxes.

  4. A proper response to the referendum would be to note that many ways exist to leave the EU, including staying in the Single Market, and allow parliament to decide what the UK’s negotiating position should be. The statesman like response to such a narrow vote would be to seak the softest of Brexits. The fact that May does not wish that to happen is an affront to parliamentary democracy. That alone is reason enough to vote against.

  5. [Added 30/1/17] What triggering Article 50 actually means is still unclear. Is it reversible? Do we have to wait until we leave before we can negotiate new trade agreements with the EU? As Rick says, you would not exchange contracts on a house with these kind of fundamental uncertainties unresolved. Why has everything to be so rushed?   
But alas, being realistic, this is not the basis on which many MPs will vote. Instead they will think about their political careers, and the backlash they will encounter if they vote No to Article 50. But conventional wisdom on this is at best incomplete and quite probably wrong for many MPs.

The assumption in much of the media, encouraged of course by the tabloids, is that MPs in constituencies that voted Leave will face a backlash from angry Leave voters if they personally vote No to triggering Article 50. However it is far from clear that the number of Leave voters who would change their vote on this basis is greater than the number of Remain voters who will do the opposite. My reason for thinking this is partly the local and national election results since the Brexit votes, where we have seen huge swings to the LibDems in both Remain and Leave constituencies. It is also because, unlike Leave voters, many remain voters are personally affected by the referendum result. They may have family living in the EU, or have close colleagues who are from the EU. They may work in firms that could well decide or be forced to downsize if we leave the Single Market.

If May is defeated on Article 50, she will almost certainly call an immediate election. How will the fortunes of a MP that voted for Yes to triggering Article 50 compare to any that vote No? Labour MPs that vote No will lose some Leave voters, but these are likely to split between Conservatives and UKIP. They may do this even if they vote Yes because they will have read in their papers that Labour is stalling Brexit. Conservative voters that vote No are unlikely to lose many votes to UKIP. Those from either the Conservatives or Labour that vote Yes are likely to lose many Remain voters to the LibDems. How these opposing forces pan out is very difficult to judge, and is likely to vary a great deal across constituencies, and without additional information it is far from obvious why MPs should only worry about Leave voters.

Labour MPs may feel that they are bound to lose badly in a quick election because Corbyn is so unpopular. I think that is right, but for every reason why that might get better by 2020 I can think of reasons why it will get worse.

But all this is thinking short term. MPs that are not ideologically opposed to the EU must surely know that Brexit is very likely to be a disaster. The impact of leaving the Single Market is going to be pretty bad, but as the OBR has made clear the impact of reduced immigration from the EU on the public finances is also going to be large. To tell yourself that this is all uncertain is to deliberately ignore the judgement of the best economists both at home and overseas and the major economic institutions. The outlook for the NHS and other public services is therefore dire.

The government’s position is full of contradictions. They are desperate to make trade deals with anyone, but are prepared to see a sharp fall in trade with the huge market that is our closest neighbour. They say that leaving the EU is to regain sovereignty, but every expert knows that the major gains from trade, particularly for the service orientated UK economy, come from reducing non-tariff barriers which inevitably compromise sovereignty (look at UK trade to the EU before and after we helped create the Single Market). Do we really want to take back control from Europe only to give it to Donald Trump?

The political implications of May’s strategy are more speculative, but initial signs are not good. May now finds herself unable to condemn the immigration policy of President Trump that overtly discriminates against Muslims including UK MPs, and which is the biggest gift to terrorists since Bush talked about a crusade. (At least when that happened Blair was quick to tell him to stop.) May has threatened to turn the UK into a tax haven if the EU do not meet our demands, once again without parliament having any say. All this makes her desire to help the left behind and the just managing into empty words that will become a sick joke. She sees reducing immigration as an absolute priority, which will further hurt business and feed growing UK xenophobia.

All this means that Conservative MPs who will vote with the government because they have ambitions for a ministerial career will find if they succeed that they will spend most of their time administering cuts. If it passes, the Article 50 vote will soon be regarded by Labour members as they now regard the vote over the Iraq war, meaning that those that vote Yes will find it very difficult to achieve a senior position in the Party. Another comparison with similar implications is Suez, another failed attempt to regain a lost imperial past.

All this should make MPs very reluctant to base their decision on perceived self interest, when that cuts so many ways. They should instead heed the words of a well known ex-MP.
“The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate. Burke's famous declaration on this subject is well known. It is only in the third place that his duty to party organization or programme takes rank. All these three loyalties should be observed, but there in no doubt of the order in which they stand under any healthy manifestation of democracy.” Sir Winston Churchill on the Duties of a Member of Parliament. (Source)

MPs should ask where stands the honour of Great Britain when its leader feels that Brexit
prevents her joining leaders in Europe and Canada in condemning Trump's Muslim ban.

[1] At present there is no mechanism for parliament to stop the process of leaving the EU once they trigger A50, whatever Corbyn may imply. Once we leave, rejoining will almost certainly mean we would have to join the Euro, which is not a good idea..  

32 comments:

  1. Why would anyone wish to take the business advice of these:

    "The latest set of ABC figures for national newsprint sales may not be too surprising in that they confirm a long-running downward trend in the popular and mid-market sectors...Not that the market-leading Sun did much better: down by 10.5% to 1,611,464. And that total included some 95,000 bulks, the largest use of the multiple sales option. The Daily Mail will hardly celebrate the fact that its own year-on-year decrease, at 6.7%, is running ahead of the Express’s decline. Its headline total, 1,491,264, relied on 66,000 bulks...Sun on Sunday: 1,383,048 (-5.83%); Sunday Express: 335,271 (-5.6%); and Mail on Sunday: 1,284,121 (-7.34%)."

    (Roy Greenslade, Thursday 19 January 2017).

    And they continue to fail to make increased internet traffic profitable.





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    1. Why is it that that the electorates of Scandinavia are relatively hostile to the views of their right-wing newspapers? Presumably these countries have the equivalent of, say, News Corporation tabloids, and yet they cannot persuade enough Scandinavian people to accept inequality and unfair voting systems in the same way that the people of English-speaking countries do.

      The USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand are the top five of a mini-league of twelve democracies for income inequality (see the article entitled Trump: Misleading the People on this very blog).

      These countries also love Electoral Colleges and first-past-the-post voting systems.

      I note of course that News Corporation and its offshoots have wide interests in newspapers and TV in these English-speaking countries although I’m not sure about New Zealand.

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  2. Your point about the referendum being close and indicating a soft Brexit is not an unreasonable one; I voted for Brexit but I don't consider the result a "winner takes all" situation.

    However, it is difficult to see how a soft Brexit, particularly one that retains membership of the single market and therefore free movement, can be reconciled with the result. You may quarrel with May about the weighting one gives to the immigration question but it was, as most would agree, a very significant factor and we would have no control if we remained in the single market.

    What the remains for a "soft" Brexit? very little I suspect and this may be the sticking point or even dilemma in the equation.

    Of course your quote of Winston Churchill omits the context of a referendum (which I think Churchill would have deplored); like it or not that does provide a constraining factor. Make no mistake if this process does result in what appears to most as effectively continued membership of the EU that will have very serious political consequences and mebers will have to give due weight to that in any deliberations they make.

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    1. In 2014 the CJEU gave power to member states to prosecute European citizens who were abusing social benefit systems.

      European Courts backed the British government in stopping child benefit to European citizens. Early in 2014 it was made clear to member states that immigrants, even European citizens, do not have an automatic right to benefits. It is up to the member states what they want to do.

      European member states can also apply for emergency brake on immigration if they feel it is too high. But Eurosceptic Tory MPs were against these measures in 2016. It is clear that the people who claim they have no control over immigration are lying. There exist controls but they do not want to use them.

      Britian can remain in the single market and have control over immigration.

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    2. Sacrificing some border control to maintain good trade relations with the EU is significantly more popular in current polls than hard Brexit, which has always been a minority preference:

      https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/01/16/public-split-what-kind-brexit-they-think-governmen/

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    3. Robert. A majority of a majority is not necessarily a majority, so your logic does not work. Ask people if they would lose 6% of their income permanently for the sake of limiting immigration, and the majority answer would be No.

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  3. Perhaps your column needs a reality check. Implicit in trade theory and more broadly globalization theory is the price convergence not just of goods and services but also of production factors, including wages – the price of labour. For high wage economies, that implies wage stagnation, subdued growth and rising inequality for as long as there is a large difference in wages and returns on productive investment across the globe.

    Most economists are ideologically committed to free trade and make claims for its benefits far beyond anything actually supported by theory. In consequence, they have chosen to deny the basic economics of globalization leaving politicians the unenviable task of managing the discontent of populations disillusioned by stagnant living standards and growing inequality.

    Had economists at least explained the possible adverse consequences of their continual drive for ever more open economies then the political classes might have had some chance to mitigate its worst effects. As it stands, our politicians are oblivious to the very poor distributional outcomes that can accompany the gains from trade. Brexit and Trump are, in part, the misdirected backlash from the many left behind by the free trade policies supported by your profession.

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    1. Free trade hasn't left anybody behind. "Trade" is irrelevant. Trump wasn't even elected by the United States, but by the electoral college. Trump is also a major zionist who's lost family members to the holocaust(Drumpf's). That appealed to Judeo-Christian pro-zionists who voted for him 80%. What did "trade" have to do with that? People like you do not get it. I mean, you simply do not.

      Maybe, just maybe, Brexit was something that had been simmering for decades in a country that lost out to Germany for control of the EU infrastructure. That made it easy pickens for de Rothschild manipulate. In otherwords, who gives a crap about 'Brexit'. When more non-white immigrants surge in to take the place of the "euro-trash" that departs, I will be laughing up a storm.

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    2. The gains from trade do not arise from price convergence, but from differences in option costs. The criterion we use to advocate for freer trade is the Kaldor-Hicks criterion which says that no one would loose and at least one would gain, provided the policy is coupled with appropriate redistributions of gains.

      Here, it means that victims of specialization should be offered cheap or free training in sectors where the country has an edge following freer trade. Basically ease their way into the more productive sectors.

      This doesn't need to result in stagnating wages.

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    3. The decline of labour share can not be pinned on just international trade. Technology has had a larger impact especially for low skilled labour. Economists have repeatedly argued for centuries the merits of state provided education and other mechanisms such as social protection while they are training.

      Trade is good for consumers from a utilitarian perceptive. Labour are consumers. The two can are the same and can not be viewed apart as that gives a false impression.

      I think you naively let the politicians off the hook by arguing that they would implement useful policies if only that they knew about the problems. They are well aware of the counter arguments to their position (if they don't then that is a catastrophic failure of free speech) but they have their own policy platform to implement/maintain.

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  4. Do you think it is possible that Brexit might turn out to do negligible harm to the UK economy and ultimately have a positive effect? Principally because people in UK, EU and ROW will want to make their businesses work regardless of the regulatory background.
    Have you discussed this with people who actually do international trade on a day-to-day basis? There are quite a few people in and around Oxford whose livelihoods depend on buying and selling raw materials and finished products to and from EU and non-EU countries. What do they say?

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    1. The 'if we try hard enough, we can make anything work' school of thought.

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    2. I suppose so.
      In the same way as the screen you are looking at has been put together from a diverse range of raw materials and technologies that have originated from all round the globe. How is that even possible? Clue: the EU single market has very little to do with it.

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  5. I fail to understand how an academic misses the key ingredient to economic stability when we have ongoing trade deficits of this magnitude.

    http://www.tradingeconomics.com/united-kingdom/balance-of-trade

    What does it matter whether we are inside the EU or out, certainly being part of the EU has not stopped our decline?

    The simple truth is the EU is just another trading block, our decline has been accelerated by Neo-Liberal politicians with fixed agendas that have no regard for British public opinion.

    Of course we do not wish to see any further erosion by adverse trading conditions, but should the EU raise tariffs against us then we would reciprocate. It is also understood that environmental issues need collaboration not competition but Britain has played little part in most things EU and just accepted that which has emanated from Europe. Our passed involvement has been almost kept at shoulder length and we were seen as the gross dissenters rather than full blown members.

    One over-riding issue about Europe is the way Greece has been treated and the attitude of Germany via Schaeble in discussion with Yanis Varafoukas, in that whilst he personally (Schaeble)as a German Patriot, would not sign the agreement he was foisting on the Greek people, but that he was going to do it regardless of that fact. In other words he was coldly telling Yanis that he must just do as he is told. The fact that German banks were being bailed out by conveniently changing the EU rules, didn't enter into his psyche, the Neo-Liberal agenda is only concerned about transferring public assets into the private sector, human consequences are secondary to that.

    The EU is therefore not for changing, and so how we are supposed to get any worthwhile reform from within the EU is to my mind something of a pipe-dream.

    A serious question to our intellectual elite should be, what are all of these complex trade agreements about? why are they held in secret and who are the beneficiaries of them?

    The obvious answer would be the 1%












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    1. Since we joined the EU, the UK has not been declining in terms of output per head, even though the trend in other major countries has slowed a little.

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  6. All elections are fought on claims that may or may not be true. Voters are nowhere near as naive as you assume Simon. They believe what they want to believe and add a pinch of salt to anything said by a politician. As for the EU referendum setting a new high in dishonesty, are you unaware of the Zinoviev letter ; a claim more fake than even Nick Clegg's Tuition Fees pledge :

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zinoviev_letter

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    1. I was thinking in my living memory. I do not remember a campaign before that deliberately lied about key issues. It is like a politician saying growth last year was 4% when it was actually 2%. In fact, it is like Donald (biggest inauguration ever) Trump.

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  7. The problem with the soft-brexit idea is that the EU has basically said it won't happen. It's just not in the gift of the British government.

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    1. Where have they ruled out a Norway type arrangement?

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  8. Enormous respect for Simon as economist- only wish more economists, including myself, were of his calibre. And I agree with so much of what he says here, but he was strategically wrong on JC and the leadership challenge, as love JC or hate him , it was futile and damaging to support an internecine battle that has simply achieved an easier path for a 'throw in the towel' hard Brexiting Theresa May.
    Equally, I hate the referendum result, and it should never have been called. But it was, and I'm very scared that the worse consequences of defying what is seen by so many as the will of the people is not merely damage to the nice careers of those in the Westminster bubble but more of the sort of atrocities we saw with Jo Cox and the Pole who had his brains dashed out by a mob nearby where I live -simply for being foreign. Civilised intellectuals too often under-estimate the potential for brutality and the ever present threat of the far-right.
    Triggering Article 50 is sadly unstoppable anyway, but it says nothing about the terms of BREXIT, Article 50 will be revocable if the EU hierarchy wills it so.
    But I whole-heartedly agree with Simon that there was not a mandate for a hard BREXIT and that some economic illiterates in the Corbyn camp need to be contained. When the impacts of BREXIT appear more in the data the mood in the country may change, more substantially than it has so far. If the UK is seen to have made a genuine attempt to leave but the costs are too great then rejection and soft BREXIT may be safer, but to just 'defy the people' (include a nasty mob in that) is not safe now, and could be very counter-productive.

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    1. Be very careful with this 'there will be riots in the streets if parliament says No' kind of argument. If you want to reduce violence close down the Daily Mail.

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    2. I was once at a conference of policy advisers where we concluded that the single action that would most enhance UK welfare would be to close down certain tabloids- unfortunately it had to be recognised that this was ultra vires. History shows the dangers of fuelling and ignoring populism.

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  9. This is saying, at some length, that leaving the single market will be economically damaging, and when voters realise this, they will punish MPs who failed to stand in the way. However the Treasury's forecast, and most of the others, was of slower growth until 2030. How do you propose to pin this onto Brexit in a way that will convince the electorate? You can't. There will therefore be no penalty for MPs who voted for article 50.

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    1. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that for every angry Leaver there is an Angry Remainer. People seem to be ignoring the fact that the LibDems are winning election after election as a result. If Labour loses it new heartlands in the cities, they are dead.

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  10. Labour constituencies which voted Leave aren't necessarily constituencies where most Labour voters voted Leave.

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  11. Lies were also told by the remain side (there will have to be an emergency tax raising budget, end of western political civilisation, immediate recession, warnings that Brexit would fuel war in europe etc etc). Isn't it a fair point that lies told by each side may in the end have cancelled each other out? You seem so sure that Brexit will be disastrous where as many of us saw a nuanced choice with powerful and persuasive arguments on both sides.

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    1. Look up "false equivalence."

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    2. No! Take your examples. How do you know that if Osborne had kept his job we wouldn't have had an emergency budget. The OBR is much more pessimistic about the public finances. End of western civilisation - who on earth said that. Immediate recession was a forecast, not a fact, and all unconditional forecasts are wrong. No one said Brexit would fuel war in Europe. The Leave campaign lied about a simple fact - the £350 million. What facts did Remain lie about? The Leave campaign said Turkey was about to join the EU. No one who knew anything about it thought Turkey was about to join. Simple, straight lies, straight out of the Trump playbook.

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  12. Simon, can you explain why the Lords seem not to be resisting? The Conservative lords are in a minority and the other lords don't appear to have much to lose from at least delaying the trigger till September, which would be a better time to start negotiating, given upcoming European elections. Perhaps they fear a general election.

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  13. Voting against article 50 most certainly will ruin careers.

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  14. You listen to much to the British press and politicians who are totally out of touch with the British people who mostly want a Hard Brexit. The press can keep inventing stories designed to scare people into believing we want a soft exit but it is all lies and twisted words. Dont trust British Press they no longer represent the British people or our interests.

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