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David Cameron and Sadiq Khan are united by their desire to overrule British democracy

David Green, 31 May 2016

The appearance of David Cameron and Sadiq Khan on the same platform has been portrayed as a triumph for cross-party consensus. But what brings David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan together is the desire to use the EU to overrule the democratic majority of the British people.

Labour remainers say that the EU prevents Tory majorities from holding a bonfire of workplace rights, which means that Mr Corbyn values the EU because it can overrule the preferences of the party representing the democratic majority.

Tory remainers are no better. They like the fact that the EU’s state-aid rules prevent Labour governments from providing support for industries and jobs. In the early days of the Single Market they pushed for rules that reflected market fundamentalism. The free movement of goods, services, capital and labour are not so much ‘four freedoms’ as four doctrines of laissez-faire economics. EU officials are constantly telling us that these doctrines are non-negotiable, which means that they are beyond the control of the people themselves. If harm results – and few deny that the uncontrolled movement of people has had some harmful consequences – nothing can be done. To make a policy non-negotiable is to put problem-solving beyond democratic debate.

Laissez-faire Tories have found state-aid rules useful when faced with demands for state support of industries like steel. They welcome the fact that they can blame inaction on the EU: ‘Sorry our hands are tied’. But they got the rules written in the first place so that they could hide behind them. It was the clear intention of Sajid Javid to let the steel works at Port Talbot close. He had already let Redcar close only a few weeks earlier. Port Talbot was, in effect, rescued by the looming EU referendum.

Even Paul Mason, who has declared in the Guardian that he wants to leave the EU and restore democratic self-government, has said that he may not vote to leave on 23 June because it would allow the Tories to wipe out workplace rights, with maternity pay and paternity leave envisaged as the first to be chucked into the flames. It would be better to stay in the EU a bit longer, he thought, so that the EU can block the Tories. He should remind himself of Tony Benn’s argument. Back in November 1991 he speculated  to the House of Commons about the kind of letter he would have to write to his constituents if the Maastricht treaty were approved: ‘My dear constituents, in future you will be governed by people whom you do not elect and cannot remove. I am sorry about it. They may give you better crèches and shorter working hours but you cannot remove them.’

Is there an approach that could bring together Labour voters who value democratic self-government and Tories who put democracy above market fundamentalism? The simplest thing would be for Tory leavers to pledge that there will be no reform of workplace rights. Labour voters would then have no need to look to the EU to override the majority, instead they could vote according to their democratic conscience.

Many Tories have already said they have no intention of eliminating workplace rights, but there are also many leave campaigners who want to see massive deregulation. They could declare a truce: all workplace regulations stay. There are plenty of other regulations that could usefully go without reducing rights at work.

Tony Benn captured the fundamental issue: can the people get rid of the government; or can the EU government overrule democracy? That is what 23 June is really about.

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