There go the people. I must follow them.

Written By: Andrew Rosthorn
Published: December 12, 2016 Last modified: December 15, 2016

The French politician Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin [1807-1874] appears never to have made the remark that made him famous:

‘There go the people, I must follow them, for I am their leader.’

It was a sharp journalist, Eugène de Mirecourt, who attributed the weak and cynical words ‘Il faut bien que je les suive, puisque que je suis leur chef’ to the unfortunate Ledru-Rollin.’

The left wing lawyer who had extended the vote to all Frenchmen in January 1848 fled from Paris to England in June of that revolutionary year.

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Ledru-Rollin escaped the defeat of a workers’ rising by squeezing through a window at the Conservatoire and endured twenty years in exile in London.

He managed to take his seat again in the National Assembly in Paris for a few months in 1874 but he never lived down the lie.

Six months after the lies, fantasies and ultimate mystery of the ludicrous UK EU referendum and just six days after the total defeat of a Brexiteer in the Richmond Park by-election, the Labour Party’s Andy Burnham MP could offer shell-shocked fellow MPs last Wednesday nothing braver than:

The status quo – full free movement – was defeated at the ballot box and therefore not an option.

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Despite Manchester voting remain, Andy Burnham Labour’s candidate to be the new Mayor of Greater Manchester told Sky News that the people of Greater Manchester had

clearly voted for a change in the current freedom of movement rules.

That is the starting point it seems to me in this debate. The single market can’t be our starting point because that, in the end, is not what people voted on.

We need a system that affords greater control. That allows us to bring people to work here and contribute to our economy and society, but also deals with the negative effects of full free movement.

Ken Clarke MP, the one true blue Tory opponent of Brexit, said in a follow-up interview that Burnham was ‘sounding a bit like a paler version of Nigel Farage.’

Lord Spencer Livermore, a former chief strategy adviser to the chancellor of the exchequer in the Blair years, told the Guardian that Labour politicians should not indulge in ‘extreme’ pronouncements and ‘the dangerous fantasy’ that Britain is besieged by immigrants.

After Labour’s irrelevant intervention in two by-elections in two weeks, there was nothing braver on offer from Labour last weekend than Diane Abbott’s declaration that the survival of the British economy is more important than any immigration figures.

Labour’s shadow home secretary spelled it out in a realistic BBC interview with Nick Robinson:

If we lose access to the single market, let alone the customs union, it would be a huge blow to the British economy.

It would be wrong to put the economy anything other than first. The truth is you cannot have access to the single market without a measure of freedom of movement.

We will make the case on what’s right for the British economy. What else would you expect us to do?

Well, that is exactly what most of us, when you include the 16 and 17 year olds and the other millions excluded from voting in the referendum, had expected MPs to be doing after the appalling discovery that the referendum had delivered an inconclusive answer to a crude binary question.

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, had immediately pointed out that at least 450 of the 650 MPs who were then expected to be required to decide the outcome of the referendum were on record as wanting the UK to remain in the European Union, to stay in the customs union and to stay in the single market that had been a special British creation.

Was it the unmentionable fear of losing their seats, either by de-selection in 2017 or by personal electoral defeat in 2010, that possessed so many of these 450 MPs to keep repeating a mantra that the result of that advisory referendum must be respected?

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Sir Julian Priestley, former secretary-general of the European Parliament, put it this way:

Respect the referendum result? Hell no. Why do we have to ‘respect’ it? Because we’ve been told to by the Murdochs, the Dacres, the Barclay brothers and the gruesome Brexit ministerial crew?

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Christian Wolmar, the Labour candidate who lost his deposit in the Richmond Park by-election, was just as blunt about the referendum in a comment this week to Labour List:

We all accept that the referendum process was fundamentally flawed, both in terms of the question that was asked and the way the campaign was conducted. We should not therefore be paralysed by its result. Constitutionally, the referendum is not binding and just because the Remainers lost does not mean we should not continue the fight. Let’s say there had been a referendum to abolish the NHS and the answer was yes: would we simply acquiesce and say the people have spoken? I think not.

With political cynicism to match the legend of Ledru-Rollin, the prospective Mayor of Greater Manchester thinks he knows which way his people are heading. He will therefore follow them. After all, he is their leader.