Camden Council officially calls for ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit with Remain as an option
Councillors in shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer's constituency demand new referendum
13 November, 2018 — By Richard Osley
Labour councillors support motion
LABOUR councillors in shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer’s backyard have cut across party policy by officially calling for a ‘people’s vote’ referendum, with remaining in Europe on the ballot paper.
They supported a Liberal Democrat motion brought to Camden’s all-member meeting at the new Town Hall in Eversholt Street last night (Monday). Significantly, the wording – supported by all Labour councillors in the room – does not insert a demand for a general election as a priority preference ahead of a new national vote on Britain’s exit deal from the EU.
Not only did the chamber see the rarity of Labour and Lib Dem councillors, sworn rivals in Camden over the last years, vote together on a contested issue, but Conservative deputy leader Councillor Gio Spinella broke his party’s whip to also support the call. The rest of the Tories on the council abstained on the basis that the group believes Camden’s debates and motions should be on subjects which it has a direct influence over.
The result, however, was seen as a win for the Liberal Democrats, who have been trying to convince as many local authorities as possible to call for a ‘People’s Vote’ as a strategy aimed at persuading the national leaderships of the Conservative and Labour parties to change their stance.
Camden was a particular target for Lib Dems in north London due to it being the home council of Mr Starmer, who has been fronting Labour’s approach to Brexit on a national level.
Lib Dems ‘chanting’ outside the meeting
As reported on the New Journal‘s website, Labour members agreed late last week to support the Lib Dem motion with only a short tinkering of the text; the ruling group’s councillors want a plan in place for the event of a second referendum turning up another Leave result.
The support within the Labour team was majority but not unanimous, with private concerns raised that voting with the Lib Dems undermines Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. A handful of councillors left Monday’s meeting before the motion was debated.
Cllr Spinella’s vote was one of the big talking points of the evening, however, as he weighed up his options as a remainer.
“I’ve had reason to remind this council in the past my intimate ties to Europe, since then if anything the stakes have gone higher and higher because my partner is a non-British EU national,” he said. “So what this means is that, despite what some people may think, this affects my life at the most intimate and personal level. It is therefore difficult for me to stay silent.”
Cllr Gio Spinella giving his speech and, below, all the other Tories abstain
Cllr Spinella, who lost the leadership of the local group in the wake of the council elections in May, added: “I personally am torn between a belief that a verdict must be respected and a belief that minds can be changed. My group has taken a position in the past of not wanting to take a public vote on issues beyond the council’s remit. This is not beyond the remit of my household and must therefore make my own decision.”
The Liberal Democrat gains in the local election in May enabled the party to keep coming back with the motion supporting a ‘People’s Vote’ until it reached the top of the agenda last night.
Luisa Porritt, one of the party’s new councillors, moved the motion, telling the chamber: “Brexit casts a dark shadow over what should otherwise be an optimistic future, both for us and our European neighbours. Everyday we are learning more about the implications of leaving the European Union for our country, for our borough and crucially for our residents.”
Lib Dem councillor Luisa Porritt
She added: “Camden’s 24,000 residents and workers who are EU citizens continue to live with uncertainty as to what exactly their results will be should Brexit go ahead. During the local election campaigns, a Spanish couple who live around the corner from me said they were moving to Madrid because they no longer felt welcome in the UK. We owe it to them and others like them to call out the sham that is Brexit. We cannot roll over and accept it just because a vote happened two years ago following a campaign in which lies were told and cheating took place.”
Cllr Porritt said to Cllr Spinella that the motion was “not about changing the result, it’s about giving people a real choice this time between concrete options”.
Her colleague, Flick Rea, said the Remembrance services from the weekend should act a stark warning to what happens when countries cannot work together.
“This is incredible, that we as an integral part of the events of the last 100 years should voluntarily put ourselves on the sidelines at a great loss to all of us; to our jobs, to our friends, to our families, to employment, to security and above all to peace,” she said.
The sole Green councillor Sian Berry, also her party’s national co-leader, is also supportive – and warned against trying to chase down a new general election ahead of referendum on the final Brexit deal.
“In general elections, we do not have a voting system that makes everyone’s vote equal,” she said. “In fact so far from it that I don’t believe you can be serious about sorting out Brexit in this way. It touches on the wider issue: one of the good reasons why proportional representation is needed, in that people who have dispersed geographies but common interests cannot get their voices heard in general elections because they do not live in those marginal constituencies.”
Labour councillor Lazzaro Pietragnoli said the party was slightly amending the text because the Lib Dems were “naive and complacent” for thinking a new vote would lead to a Remain result this time, adding that the council needed to be tackling the issues that he felt had led to the nation voting to leave last time, listing: “Inequality, lack of opportunity, deprivation, poverty, social inequalities that led many people in this country to vote to leave the European Union.
In a dig at the Lib Dems, he said: “It’s easy to be in favour of a referendum if you have the safety net of a job with Facebook, but against one Nick Clegg who can move to the States, we have three million people here facing the consequences of what that deal could mean for them.”
His fellow Labour councillor Lorna Russell told the chamber: “I think it’s important that we do our part to ensure that Brexit does not lead to further inequality, insecurity and isolation in our country. Instead, I would like to see a Britain with the co-operative values of democracy, equality and solidarity at its heart, and therefore I’m supporting a People’s Vote with the option to remain as the only way I can see this option being put back on the table.”
Richard Olszewski, another Labour councillor in Fortune Green who has a EU flag flying from the top of his house in West Hampstead, said: “ believe that any form of Brexit, no matter who negotiates it will harm this country’s economy and therefore will have a big impact on Camden which in turn will have a big impact on the finances on this council which will have a big impact on the services we provide which will have a big impact on our communities.”
He too referenced past international conflicts, telling the room: “The falling out of nations that led to the forming of the EU came home to me very starkly a few weeks ago when I received from the Austrian ministry of interior my father’s SS card, admitting him to Mauthausen concentration camp where he was held prisoner from 1940 the final day of the war. That is an underlying motive for us having the EU, which primarily has been about blurring boundaries and burying hatchets. It has many other consequences but that underpins everything, and it underpins the cohesion of Europe and our economic prosperity.”
The final vote saw Labour councillors, Lib Dems, Cllr Berry and Cllr Spinella line up against six abstaining Conservatives.
A second motion brought by Labour councillors, which included the demand for a general election, was also passed but without the support of Cllr Spinella or the Lib Dems.
Conservative group leader Councillor Oliver Cooper
Tory group leader Oliver Cooper said his party would always abstain on motions that did not relate to council powers.
“Each of these meetings cost £15,000 to hold and it’s really important that we make sure we hold them [the council] to account,” he said. “ I’m sorry to hear for the eighth meeting in a row the Labour Party has presented motions that do not relate to the powers of this council.”
He added: “We are proud to have tabled a motion that does, and does raise standards: we want to raise animal welfare standards in this meeting. Those are things the council have control over and whilst things like the budget and Brexit are undoubtedly important and no one in the chamber no matter what rosette they wear at election time disagrees about that – they are not things we can control as a local authority.”
Over the weekend, Mr Corbyn said “we can’t stop Brexit” during an interview with a German magazine. Mr Starmer, meanwhile, appeared on Sky News and said the divorce “could be stopped” but remained committed to calling for a general election as a way of resolving the issue.
“The real question is what are the decisions we are going to face over the next few weeks and months,” he said. “Decision one is on the deal. Decision two is that if the deal goes down should there be a general election. And decision three is, if there is no general election all options must be on the table including the option of a public vote.”