Without opposition democracy is dead. If voters views are not represented they have every right to give up on democracy and turn elsewhere for representation. The failure of Jeremy Corbyn to understand and articulate this crucial law of representative democracy is part of the explanation of its poor showing in the polls – as well as a revolt by grassroots members, many of whom backed his leadership, over his approach to Brexit.

A majority may win a vote and expect that its decision is respected. But no one in a democracy expects all those who did not vote for the majority position to roll over and turn their back on their beliefs. 

We know that 63% of the UK electorate did not vote to amputate Britain from Europe or start a process of humiliating Europeans who have lived here for decades, given birth to British children and are now told they have no right to residence by faceless Home Office bureaucrats wallowing in the mood of Trump-like anti Europeanism.       

May has her majority as, for the time being, anti-Brexit Tory MPs opt for loyalty not their beliefs. That in the early stage of her premiership is understandable. But it does not explain Labour’s failure to be an opposition.       

We know that the nation’s future – the young – voted In and the nation’s past – the old – voted Out.

We know that many opinion polls show people not keen on Brexit if it means job losses, more expensive shopping and travel, or not being able freely to retire to the sun in southern Europe. All recent polls of Labour voters show a majority against Brexit. 

So now it might be expected that the main opposition would seek to reflect and represent that half of the nation opposed to isolating Britain from Europe and not convinced an offer of trade in chickens washed in chlorine or big US pharma taking over the NHS is a sunny future. But Labour is absent from the field. 

Of course, there were many in Labour constituencies who reverted to the voting patterns in the time of Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher when many white working class voters deserted Labour as anti-immigrant populism was whipped up. However, a party should not abandon its principles just because it fails to win every vote.        

Corbyn is looking over his shoulder at by-elections in Copeland and Stoke. But these constituencies would be much more likely to stay with Labour if there was a sense of the party being a real opposition.       

The by-elections will be won or lost on the NHS, on prices going up, on May crawling to Trump, a sense for Muslim and minority voters that UKIP is now openly full of hate for all in Britain who are not white anti-Europeans.       

At this stage of parliament trying to impose a  three-line whip on Labour MPs to vote against values, beliefs, principles and self-respect is counter-productive. Corbyn should allow a free or conscience vote before it is too late.

by Denis MacShane | 30.01.2017

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and a Labour MP for 18 years.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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