Brexit stream of consciousness: the inner turmoil of a Remain voting MP from a Leave constituency

Posted On: 
15th February 2019

We expect politicians to make decisions of great magnitude without complaint. But we would do well to acknowledge the task at hand for many MPs across the House, writes Sebastian Whale

Melanie Onn is a minister in the shadow housing team
Credit: 
Louise Haywood-Schiefer

“I suspect that people would anticipate, given we’ve talked about March being the date that we leave, that to renege on that would be something very difficult to get their head around.”

I first sensed that Melanie Onn would not support pushing back Article 50 when I visited her in Grimsby over the summer. I was in north east Lincolnshire for a feature on whether the local fishing industry was in line for a post-Brexit renaissance.

The constituency voted overwhelmingly (70%) for Leave at the referendum, and Onn sensed Grimbarians would not stomach postponing the exit date. “I think that they would smell a rat, yes.”

On 29 January, Onn was one of 10 Labour MPs to abstain on the Cooper amendment, which would have seen Article 50 delayed to allow more time to prevent a no deal Brexit. Fellow frontbenchers Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin also abstained, along with Judith Cummins, Yvonne Fovargue, Mike Kane, Emma Lewell-Buck, Jim McMahon, Ruth Smeeth and John Spellar.

For a time in the mid-20th century, Grimsby was the world’s largest fishing port. It served hundreds of trawlers returning from the North Sea. Its decline, for some, has become emblematic for what Britain has lost and stands to gain from life outside the European Union.

Onn, who became an MP in 2015, voted and campaigned for Remain. The experience was chastening, and the frontbencher knew she was fighting a losing battle. “I didn’t convince as many people as I ought to have done,” she said introspectively over a coffee last August.

But it became clear from my time in Grimsby that many businesses harbour concerns about no deal Brexit. The fish processing industry, which arose out of the ashes of the port’s former glory, is heavily reliant on the supply of fish from Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands (the sector imports 90% of the fish and seafood it processes). Hold-ups in the supply chain could, naturally, have a material effect on products. I was told that one major provider could be forced to stop supplying fresh fish to supermarkets if margins are pushed too high.

Onn, too, was deeply conflicted. While she understood that her constituents would not want to see the March 29 deadline pushed back, she feared the consequence of leaving the EU empty-handed. Businesses told her the impact on the local economy "could be immense". “For people in Grimsby, if the economy tanks, that means there is less money to spend on all of the public services that have already been squeezed over the last few years," she told me.

I caught up with Onn this week for an interview on homelessness for The House, as part of a wider issue focussing on Britain’s rough sleeping crisis. The week before we met, Onn received abuse from pro-EU campaigners (one called for her to be “gunned down) following her votes in the Commons. It was her first encounter with the Remainer ultras – she had been more accustomed to receiving “challenging communications” from a “Leave perspective”.

Onn, despite being a Labour frontbencher, is one MP being courted by the Government ahead of a second meaningful vote. She has held meetings with ministers regarding securing further safeguards on workers’ rights.

That’s not to say Onn has been won over. The anguish she was suffering last summer has only become more acute. I asked her how she was getting on.

“Awful,” she replied. “I defy anybody to say that going through this process is fun and something that they’re delighted to relish the challenge in. It is really difficult to think about long-term best interests – or even short-term best interests – for people who are absolutely adamant that they have got a course of action that they want me to follow.”

I sat quietly while Onn outlined the ruminations going through her head.

“It constantly makes me think about well, what is my role as an MP? Am I part of the Labour party and so I always vote with the Labour party? Am I here as a parliamentarian to represent my constituency only? If that’s the case, why am I in the party?

“If I’m leaning towards voting with the Government on an issue – not necessarily Brexit – what does that mean in terms of how that representative or delegate role plays out in the long-term? So, yes, a lot goes around in my head on a regular basis. It’s really hard trying to think what the best thing is to do.”

Making decisions of great magnitude is how MPs earn their keep. We expect them to carry out the task without complaint or falter.

But with many variables at hand and the consequences so far reaching, we should not downplay the unprecedented decision facing all elected representatives. Like others, Onn is trying to ascertain what the best course of action is for her constituents, while simultaneously seeking to represent their views and that of her party. Often, these contrasting positions do not overlap.

MPs like Onn know that no decision they make will please everyone. In the current climate, any course of action will likely incur vitriol and abuse.

How MPs vote on Brexit will follow them around for the rest of their parliamentary careers; at various points looking ill-advised or prescient. We would do well to acknowledge the challenge at hand.

The full interview with Melanie Onn will be out on Monday 18 February.