A meltdown. An embarrassment. A humiliation. Just some of the kinder things which have been said about the elections to the European Parliament which, unless Parliament passes Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, will go ahead on May 23.
At Change UK — The Independent Group, the new party of former Labour and Conservative MPs which started life just a few weeks ago, we have a different view. We welcome these elections as a chance for the British people to send an unequivocal message to the political establishment: we want the final say on Brexit and we want to remain in the European Union.
We should be clear about why it is that these elections now seem likely to happen. It is not because, as the more Right-wing Brexiteers claim, Parliament has “betrayed” the voters or refused to respect the referendum result. It’s because Leave campaigners’ impossible promises have been found out. Brexit as they sold it to the British people simply cannot be delivered. After three years of trying to square an impossible circle we have reached an impasse. When that point is reached, the only democratic solution is to put the question back to the people.
Our MPs have been arguing this case for many months. My Change UK colleague Anna Soubry and I were founding members of the People’s Vote campaign. When, as a group of 11, we came together in February, we did so for many different reasons. But we did so united behind a set of values. One of them is a profound belief in the UK’s place in Europe: in the idea of our being seated around the table with our friends and allies, working together to meet the challenges we all face.
It’s a belief we know has found its voice in the enormous pro-European movement that has come together over the past three years. It’s the voice of the six million who signed the petition to revoke Article 50; of the million who marched to Parliament Square in support of a People’s Vote. And it’s the voice of the 3,700 people who, when we called for people to put themselves forward to stand for our new party in the European elections, got in touch to say that they wanted to step up.
What was clear from those applications is how Change UK is becoming a natural home for people from all political traditions. Our MEP candidates, announced today, include former London Labour MEP Carole Tongue; former Labour minister Jon Owen Jones; former Conservative Cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell; former Conservative MP Neil Carmichael and former Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis.
But our slate includes many from outside politics too : including ex-BBC journalist Gavin Esler and the leading human rights and public law barrister, Jessica Simor QC, who was part of the legal team that successfully forced the Government to seek Parliament’s permission to invoke Article 50. The campaign for a People’s Vote has always cut across those who are members of political parties or not. Now Change UK is becoming that Remain alliance.
It’s a responsibility we take very seriously. We are at a historic turning point. There are two paths open to us: either we pull up the drawbridge, walk away from our friends and partners, and sink further into a politics of division, or we put an end to this bitterness and embrace the openness and diversity which is the UK at its best. That’s why these elections are so important.
We know there are others standing in this election who feel the same way and that there are those who think pro-Remain parties should co-operate and give one another a clear run. But there are two things that stand in the way of such a formal agreement. The first is to do with electoral law: the deadline for parties to let the Electoral Commission know if they were standing as an alliance passed some weeks ago — when Change UK wasn’t registered as a party.
"It’s going to be a tough election. We know the threat. Nigel Farage is back and he is clear about what he wants"
The second is about politics in general — and is a reminder of why we left our former parties in the first place. Our politics is broken. Our main parties are divided and are failing to provide the leadership our country needs. The Conservative Party is increasingly controlled by the Eurosceptic Right and Labour by the hard-Left. We left behind the outdated, toxic culture of these parties because we wanted to provide an alternative. We felt we owed the British people a fresh choice. So what kind of service would we be doing to those who feel politically homeless if in this crucially important election we refused even to get on the pitch?
We have already been working with the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens in Parliament since our formation. But in this election we want to give you the chance to vote for a party with one, unambiguous message: we support a People’s Vote, we will campaign for Remain in every part of the UK, and we will fight for a reformed EU.
We will publish a manifesto during the campaign but our priorities are clear. We will campaign in the EU for better jobs in the emerging industries of the 21st century and incentivise business to support skills and training.
We will safeguard our NHS — with Europe giving us access to the best medicines and a world-class workforce. We will demand collective action to tackle climate change. We will defend our shared values against those who would threaten them, from within Europe’s borders and beyond. And we want you to have a final say.
It’s going to be a tough election. We know the threat. Nigel Farage is back and he is clear about what he wants. In his own words, “in terms of policy, there’s no difference” between his Brexit Party and Ukip — the same politics which blew a dog whistle on immigration and lied about the NHS during the referendum.
Today we have launched a campaign that will give you the chance to cast your vote for a positive alternative. If you signed the petition, went on the march, or have been waiting for the opportunity to send our broken political parties a message, now is the time. On May 23 a vote for our candidates will be your chance to say that it’s time for change.
- Chuka Umunna is spokesman for Change UK — The Independent Group