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MELANIE ONN is far from unique among Labour MPs in that she campaigned to remain in the EU while, in stark contrast, her constituency decisively voted by a high number (71 per cent) to leave.
But, where she differs from many of her parliamentary colleagues, Onn is prepared to put her personal views aside to give voice to her constituents in the House of Commons.
I meet her in Portcullis House a day before she and a number of other Labour MPs were gearing up to vote on Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement.
The decision to back his Bill was a “difficult” but essential one to make, she says.
She did not vote in favour of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, adding that time is a more crucial factor now than it was during Theresa May’s premiership.
“We have gone beyond three years since the referendum,” she adds. “This is the last opportunity. I can’t see Boris Johnson bringing forward anything else. I would much rather see an orderly Brexit than nothing at all.”
She says she is aware that she could be accused of “enabling” the Tory government and rejects the idea that she is prepared to give a “blank cheque” for Johnson to weaken protections for workers, the environment and consumers.
Instead, she describes the Withdrawal Agreement Bill as an “opportunity” for a Labour government to shape British society, insisting that it does not “tie the hands” of any future Labour prime minister.
MPs were scheduled to vote on the Bill later on today but there were reports that Johnson could again stall his Bill.
In the afternoon ahead of the planned vote, Johnson said he would withdraw his deal and call for an election if MPs vote down the accelerated timetable which will decide whether Brexit happens on October 31.
A previous vote was abandoned on the first Commons sitting held on a Saturday in 37 years in an event Onn described as “anti-climactic.”
The frustration over delays and cancellations of votes is also felt by her Great Grimsby constituents, who send her a huge volume of emails ahead of votes scheduled for the Commons.
They are concerned that their views are being “disregarded” by MPs who they “felt were quite disconnected from their lives,” Onn adds, citing angry responses she gets on people’s doorsteps.
She feels it is “absolutely” her duty to listen to the people of Grimsby.
“I intend to vote for it purely in the name of giving a voice to my constituents, whether they are Labour voters or not. They gave a very firm and loud opinion,” she says.
“Six out of eight of my constituency’s council wards are in the top 10 per cent of national deprivation on every level. I think whether the EU has benefited those people. When I look at those statistics, I can understand why my community was so strongly in favour of Leave.”
I ask her what examples she could give of the EU negatively affecting ordinary people and how she believes Brexit could change Grimbarians’ lives — and those of people across Britain who voted to leave the trading bloc — for the better.
In echoing the rhetoric of late Labour MP Tony Benn, accountability of power featured strongly in her responses.
She replies: “Outside of the EU, there is a much more direct link between individuals and their MPs. People are more likely going to know who their MPs are and how to get in touch with them, especially through social media, than their MEPs.
“And if there is a political decision that they do not like, then it’s very clear who they can hold accountable for that.
“For the last 40 years every government has sought to blame the EU in one way or another for things not being able to happen.
“The sense of accountability and control is a strong one. In a world where things are changing very rapidly, people and communities feeling like they can exercise some level of control is really important to them.”
Onn cites restrictions on state aid and the rules on the tendering of public contracts as two examples of how EU regulations are affecting the lives of precarious workers and small business owners.
Onn describes how, for example, local government or hospital contracts have to be tendered out across the whole of the EU — a process that she says can “really drive down the cost for those big companies” while stacking the cards against locally run firms.
“If you’re the cleaner, if you’re the caterer at the receiving end of that, you’re on a minimum wage and you’re on a zero-hours contract and you don’t have any pension — you’re not going to feel well served by that.
“Voting to leave the EU in many respects was done on an emotional basis. People are looking around and thinking whether there was tangible benefit of being in the EU.
“For most people it was likely a close call over which way they were going to vote — but in some senses they voted to leave with the hope that things would be better.”
Onn also speaks of her discomfort over a “faction” of the Parliamentary Labour Party pushing the party away from its 2017 manifesto position of respecting the referendum result towards insisting on a second referendum.
Blyth Valley MP Ronnie Campbell received backlash last week for announcing that he would be one of the number of Labour MPs who would strongly consider backing Johnson’s withdrawal agreement.
He was reportedly urged by Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell to abstain from voting.
But Lavery backed him among the criticism, saying that critics should not ignore Campbell’s socialist convictions.
Onn also backs Campbell, saying: “Anyone who seeks to doubt his socialist credentials is turning the world on its head, to be honest, because there is absolutely no way that he’s anything but a committed socialist.
“He’s also been a lifelong believer that being part of the EU does not best serve this country and best serve his constituents.”
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