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We must not disenfranchise half the population

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Geraint Talfan Davies

The UK’s winner-takes-all electoral system is about to disenfranchise half the population on the most important issue the country has faced in half a century.

If opinion polls are to be believed, this distorting prism will, in an unnecessary and unwanted General Election, turn a country evenly divided on the issue of our membership of the EU into a Parliamentary majority that could steamroller through any arrangement it desired regardless of the cost or consequences to us all.

Most likely pitted against the new government will be a weakened and divided Labour opposition that has a history of ambivalence on Europe, and where the be-grudgers have recently taken control against the wishes of the majority of its MPs, and virtually the whole of the party in Wales. At present, despite palpable discomfort with the Corbyn leadership, Keir Starmer is putting a brave face on it.

Labour will probably be joined on the opposition benches by a modest cohort of Liberal Democrats – a party that has a long, consistent and honourable record of support for the European ideal, has the clearest stance of any party on the issue, but which will be unable to stop the steamroller. Alongside them will be a loud SNP contingent – sincere in its Europeanism, but with other motives – and a small Plaid Cymru group of like mind, although with nothing to play for on the independence front.

Meanwhile, on the probably swollen Conservative Government benches, we will have to watch for signs of a subterranean battle between cowed realists and crazed fantasists who are both on the same wrong train to a destination that currently neither can name or know. Ulster Unionists will be fellow travelers.

The misrepresentations of last year’s referendum will be compounded by a government that will not hold back from misrepresenting the combined result of Labour’s weakness and the country’s weary fatalism as a vote of confidence in its own Brexit pig in a blue poke. This is at best an unedifying prospect for the whole country, and at worst potentially catastrophic.

Small wonder that the 48% who voted to Remain are now canvassing democratic ways of massaging our clumsy electoral system in order to create a Parliament that, at the very least, more accurately reflects the country’s divided views.

Electors need to know where their candidates – whether incumbents or challengers – stand, whether they were Remain or Leave, whether they will oppose the hard Brexit that is now most likely but for which the referendum offered no mandate, and whether Parliament or the country will have an opportunity to voice a further opinion on the matter. Wales for Europe will ensure that such information is available to all.

It will, no doubt, be more difficult to ascertain in what circumstances conscience will trump the instincts and the disciplines of party loyalty – an important matter in deciding how meaningful a Parliamentary vote on the outcome of negotiations will be.

The history of tactical voting is not encouraging, but these are unprecedented times. All around the democratic world the talk is of ‘insurgencies’ and the election of ‘outsiders’. Old party loyalties are dissolving, divisions of left and right are less meaningful. And on the issue of Europe, let’s not forget that the extreme left and the extreme right often join hands.

Voters are unlikely to be much helped by the party manifestos. There is talk that the Conservative manifesto will be much shorter than in 2015, and will make fewer specific pledges. This is not some brilliant tactical ploy but an obvious necessity when we are at last two years away from knowing the outcome of any negotiations with the other 27 member states.

Until then we will have no idea of the extent of the damage to be incurred by our decision to disengage from our biggest trading partner, nor of its full impact on our economy or the public finances. Election manifestos could easily become so much waste paper.

During last year’s referendum even leading Leavers had to acknowledge there would be damage. The only difference between the two sides was on just how much, and whether and on what timescale that damage could be repaired. Theresa May and Philip Hammond must be praying that in France on 7 May Emmanuel Macron bests Marine Le Pen.

Although Macron may insist on a tougher line in negotiations with the UK, a Marine Le Pen presidency could lead a huge crisis for the French economy, and an existential crisis for the Euro and the EU as a whole – all of which would hit our economy too, redoubling the problems facing whoever is our Chancellor, not to mention every household in the land.

Polls are not yet showing much change on the Brexit issue, although the latest put Remain and Leave on level pegging. British sang froid and a lazy fatalism are still dominant. But worries are increasing.

City firms are tossing up whether to go to Frankfurt or Paris. Two major EU agencies – the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency – are set to leave London. Farmers, especially in Wales, are starting to worry that there may be no comfy replacement for the rug they pulled from under their own feet. Consumers are starting to face up to what Brexit-induced inflation means. President Trump has suddenly discovered that the EU is more important to the US than the UK.

With fragility evident not just in the British economy but all around the world it defies belief that, even after a probable victory, Mrs May can lead this country through five full turbulent years – from 2017 to 2022 – without the people, rather than her, demanding that their voice he heard again.

Geraint Talfan Davies