The NEC and the Rulebook

I have argued before that it is arguable that the leader of the Labour party must obtain nominations of 20% of Labour MPs and MEPs (currently 50) in order to stand in any election if challenged. It cannot however be said that the contrary position is unarguable on the wording of the rules.

 

What is the role of Labour’s National Executive Committee?

 

The Rulebook

Clause VIII.3.m of the Labour rulebook states that part of the primary purpose of the NEC shall be:

 

to … give rulings … to ensure continued compliance with the party’s legal obligations….and to take action on the advice of the General Secretary to protect the party from actions by organisations or individuals who fail to comply with, or to co-operate with the party in meeting such legislative requirements.

 

As with so much else of the rulebook, this is infelicitously drafted. However, a natural reading of those words is that in case of dispute as to the meaning of the rules, it is for the NEC to decide on the correct interpretation. The purpose of this power is to keep disputes out of court.

 

Where parties have agreed that disputes are to be resolved by arbitration before any court action, and that such a ruling is binding on them, a court will respect this and not overturn any decision simply on the basis that it is not the one the court, if seized of the issue itself, would have come to.

 

So, given that the issue is a clearly arguable one, its resolution should turn upon the decision of the NEC.

 

 

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The Lawyers’ “Coup”

Legal action has been commenced to attempt to block any attempt to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, and thereby irrevocably start Brexit, without first obtaining Parliamentary approval.

 

My judgment as I have explained before is that this action is doomed to fail. Some serious lawyers disagree, whilst others do not. In practice, one legal smell test is whether, as a barrister, you would be prepared to stand up and argue a point that you personally consider to be wrong. Bad arguments sometimes win, especially if there are other good arguments (or the merits) on your side. On this occasion I consider the argument that an Act of Parliament is legally required to be so hopeless that I would not be prepared to stand up and make it. I don’t myself think the legal issue involved is complex, and so would urge interested lay people not to defer to authority but to think about the arguments for and against themselves (As however I post as an anonymous Mondrian symbol, I would say that wouldn’t I?)

 

That doesn’t resolve the practical question of whether it will be politically necessary to have a Parliamentary resolution. My guess is that it will, and it is completely certain that there will have to be a great deal of consequential legislation in many areas dealing with the domestic law consequences of Brexit. The practical significance of the absence of any legal requirement for legislation to carry out Brexit is that it means that it is unarguable that Scotland has any power to block the process.

 

Given what I consider to be the legal hopelessness of the action, the interests of those pursuing it would be furthered if it were not pursued. Better to leave the legal position uncertain, with apparently serious people favouring your view, than to have the issue resolved against you.

 

A further problem is that the action may be politically poorly judged. It can be, and is being, portrayed as lawyers (who are not popular) financed by the metropolitan elite trying to overturn a democratic decision. More fuel for the Ukip fire. The best tactic for the Remainer is energetic and passionate inaction, while the consequences of Brexit become apparent and the realisation that the desire of German manufacturers to sell cars to us won’t lead to our being able to cherry-pick the bits of the EU we like, sinks in.

 

But, however misjudged it may be, seeking declaratory relief before the High Court is not a ‘coup’. The claim that the people’s will trumps the law is the cry of the fascist. If someone wishes to bring this claim, let them, and lawyers are not to blame for that. In these days of apparent chaos and political conflict, hold on to the rules.

 

Article 50: Will it ever be invoked?

Article 50 is a one way street. Once it is invoked the Member State will leave, either once a withdrawal agreement is reached or after two years, whichever comes sooner. There is scope for this deadline to be extended, by unanimous agreement between Member States, but not on its face for the process to be stopped.

 

This means that as soon as a Member State invokes Article 50, its negotiating position for fixing the new terms of its relationship with the rest of the EU instantly worsens. In two years it will be out with no access to the European single market and trading on the same WTO terms as Yemen. It therefore made no sense for David Cameron to immediately invoke Article 50 after the referendum was lost, and nobody who had thought about it expected him to do so.

 

Mexican Standoff

This has created an impasse. It is not in the UK’s interests to invoke Art 50 before it has a deal, or at least the outline of one. It is also not in the interests of other Member States to negotiate until Article 50 has been invoked, and they have said they will not do so. So what now?

 

Legally, it is for the Member State to invoke Article 50. Nobody can legally force the UK to do so. One, possibly the only, way to in practice do so was to bounce the UK into invoking Article 50 by offering a deal subject to a time limit. “We’ll give you X, Y and Z, but this offer remains open for acceptance by invoking Article 50 only until 1 January.” By refusing to negotiate at all, other Member States have no practical means of applying pressure on the UK to start the process.

 

Outside is Worse

If you are, say, a French negotiator and another State seeks some kind of special deal, who are you more likely to give it to? A Member State of the European Union, or a non-Member State of the European Union?

 

If other Member States wish to see the club of the European Union continue, it is not in their collective interests to give a special deal on free movement to a member who is leaving. Put another way, although the deal Cameron secured struck some as being similar to the re-negotiation  achieved in 1975 by Wilson, that was as good a deal as seems likely to be achieved. A deal struck between parties trying to retain goodwill within the club is going to be better than one struck by the same parties when one has left and the goodwill is gone. There is not going to be a good deal on offer.

 

Inherent Contradiction

In a speech today, John McDonnell called for the UK to have continued access to the European Single Market and an end to Free Movement of Persons. This is incomprehensible. It is like asking for a four sided triangle. Part of what makes the single market a single market is free movement of persons. Without it, it is something else.

 

What did the referendum mean?

One of the central problems with a referendum is that it offers a binary choice, on this occasion In or Out. Within the ‘Out’ camp there were at least two strands. One group wished to regain UK sovereignty, but would wish to retain full access to European markets through the European Economic Area or some other arrangement. For this group, achieving that would mean keeping free movement of persons. The MEP Daniel Hannan would favour that option as it now seems would Boris Johnson MP. For others, regaining control over immigration, but at the cost of losing free access to the European market, was the goal. The Ukip MEP Nigel Farage favoured this option, as we now learn does Michael Gove MP.

 

Now, for most voters, the European Union is a low salience issue, and so it seems possible that for many, possibly a majority, of those who voted to leave, reduction of immigration was the most significant factor. They fell into the second camp. But the gap between Leave and Remain was small: 52%-48%. IF the UK is not to remain in the EU, there is almost certainly a majority both within Parliament and the population at large for an arrangement that keeps the UK within the single market (and thereby retains freedom of movement).

 

Push the Button?

If, as seems very possible, no deal can be reached on acceptable terms whereby the UK remains within the single market but leaves the European Union, what should any British government do? If they opt to leave anyway this would not be to give effect to what the majority of British voters (Remain Plus the Johnson Leavers) probably wanted. Indeed, as they were repeatedly told that a deal could be struck, this was not the basis upon which they voted.

 

Now there are very powerful reasons for respecting the referendum result. I also think there were good reasons why the referendum was held. Given where we are however, I now think there are good reasons for thinking that no acceptable deal will ever be struck, and no responsible government should invoke Article 50. If that is so, we will have a long period of uncertainty, at least until another election, but will not be leaving the EU. At least, not any time soon.