We are in the throes of a major crisis of political legitimacy. It’s been sparked by the Brexit vote, though its roots go much further back. The only hope of a good outcome is if we face that crisis for what it is (and right now, our politicians seem to have their heads elsewhere).
The Brexit campaigners opened this Pandora’s box with their slogan “take back control”, which in a calculated way aimed to re-direct widespread public disaffection with Westminster against Brussels. It always looked a cynically potent idea, and in England and Wales it worked. Now the hard questions obscured by the simplicity of that slogan are making themselves felt, the disaffection is likely to get worse. The promises made (yet again) can’t be fulfilled.
The democratic deficit
But we do need to look further back. Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of our first past the post voting system there has not been a parliament that’s truly representative of the popular vote for decades. For both Thatcher and Blair, falls in public support actually translated into increased majorities. Minority parties like the LibDems have been consistently under-represented. With a touch of irony, in the last election Labour was wiped out in Scotland, though the electorate was in reality much more evenly split between Labour and the SNP.
That’s ironic because Tony Blair had a golden opportunity to change things, but in the end played true to tribal form and decided to ignore the work he’d commissioned from Paddy Ashdown about alternative voting systems. This clinging to the possibility of undiluted power in government seems to be as hard wired into Labour as it is to the Conservatives. It’s a blindness that has led us directly to where we are now, with large swathes of the electorate feeling disenfranchised and ignored by the political mainstream.
Stir into this mix a disastrously conceived referendum. It’s now all too clear that Cameron never seriously considered the possibility that he might lose it, a reflection in itself of a detached arrogance widespread in the political class, an arrogance which believes you can tell any lie that suits you and you’ll fool enough of the people for enough of the time to get away from it. Ironic too that this cynicism, even more pronounced among his opponents, should have cost him the referendum and with it his political career.
I called this a crisis of legitimacy, and that’s because it’s been driven by hard questions about the legitimacy of the referendum result. Some politicians (Tory and Labour) as usual with their own agendas, are suggesting that “the people have spoken”, as if there were nothing else to say, as if it were absolutely clear what the “people” have actually said. But we deserve a more thoughtful response than this.
At the very least we have to ask whether a result that appears to have been secured by false promises can simply be accepted (particularly as there’s no constitutional reason to do so – if it’s more a moral obligation then you could argue more convincingly that politicians have a moral obligation to reject something that’s been secured by lies, has not been thought through, and looks so obviously damaging).
While we’re at it we might also be asking what really lay behind the result. There’s little doubt that it was in part an upsurge in xenophobia, deliberately stirred by the “take back control” slogan, though less commonly noted is the truth that this xenophobia is by no means confined to working class voters blaming the hardships imposed by austerity on immigration. The bulk of the leave vote came from the south outside London, from Conservative supporters who are for the most part far more Eurosceptic (and routinely xenophobic, sometimes straightforwardly racist) than their MPs.
There’s not much that can be done about these opinions (these people will think what they want to think). The Left on the other hand seem more comfortable suggesting that an electorally-significant proportion of its traditional voters have been misled, or that the Leave vote was really a howl of protest against a remote metropolitan elite (including the once-Blairite Labour leadership), and is best addressed by opposing the austerity agenda of the government (whatever’s left of it). Although I have some sympathy with this view it is at best a half-truth.
The scary world
Another likely truth, though its significance is harder to gauge, is that we’re hearing a howl of insecurity in a world where what seemed fundamental assumptions have been displaced or withered on the vine of their own irrelevance. There’s a spectrum of loss here, from things we’re really better off without, (gender stereotyping, sexism and sexual discrimination etc) to things that might be personally catastrophic (for instance the substantial disappearance of manual work outside the construction, catering and care sectors). The speed of technology-driven change in the last twenty years is unprecedented in human history. It’s not fanciful to suggest that part of the anti-EU protest vote reflected a nostalgic longing for a mythologised past where Britain had an empire and children spent their time with skipping ropes rather than mobile phones. I’d argue that this personal experience of change is probably more significant than abstract fears about globalisation.
For a whole load of reasons then people are feeling insecure, disenfranchised, and adrift in a society which seems to be organising itself against their interests. None of this has got much to do with the functioning of the EU in relation to the UK’s democracy, but the referendum vote probably had everything to do with the general promise of control (or regaining control).
This dissatisfaction certainly needs a political answer. Theresa May is recognising this in her early statements but I wouldn’t hold my breath for any substantial change from that direction.
Mandate my arse
In any case the referendum has highlighted a mismatch in expectations of empowerment and our usually incoherent expectations of democracy. Politicians themselves are to blame for this incoherence, when they bandy around loose concepts like “mandates” in order to justify what they want to do.
For instance, only activists bother to read election manifestos. No one really votes on the basis of a whole manifesto. Key points or pledges will be pulled out and may feature in the election campaign, and may or may not be decisive, but decisions are often guided by more emotional responses. I don’t believe many people really voted for “more austerity” in the last UK election, but they did make a general (albeit misdirected) judgement about economic competence.
And yet politicians will routinely claim they have a mandate for every word in that manifesto, if it suits their current purposes. Happily in reality things are a little more complicated. Any proposed legislation will be scrutinised by cross-party committees. Good MPs will defy party lines when they believe significant minority interests are being trampled over. This is a vital part of a functioning democracy, because the alternative would be a kind of totalitarianism of technical majorities.
In a vital sense then democracy is not about following the “will of the people” (because that’s nearly always an elusive quantity). It’s about being broadly accountable to the people on whose behalf you govern. Elections tend to be based on retrospection: with reason people don’t set much store by politicians’ promises, so the future only becomes relevant when we’re unhappy with the immediate past.
Whose subsidiarity is it anyway?
It matters that we insist on this complexity at every level. So when Jeremy Corbyn says he has the support of the mass of party members that’s indisputable (it’s much more clear cut than the referendum result). But he’s being disingenuous if he’s suggesting that it’s all that matters. What’s more, suggesting that MPs themselves should only follow the will of members (let alone their constituency activists) is to ignore the necessary (and desirable) realities of democratic practice: MPs have a primary responsibility to their constituents, not to their local party.
I’m not suggesting that party members’ opinion doesn’t matter (which is why common fairness demands that Corbyn should be on any ballot for a new leader, a contest I imagine he’d win comfortably), but that other group opinion matters too, and in some cases might matter more.
A democratic result can too easily depend on how or where you draw boundaries. In front of the Brexiters is the uncomfortable reality that Scotland did not vote to leave (nor did Northern Ireland). The further irony here is that Brexit campaign was on the face of it about the surrender of national sovereignty, the fact that the UK’s interests could be sidelined by a majority vote in the councils of the EU.
In reality subsidiarity is supposed to be one of the guiding principles of the EU. It means that decisions should be left as far as possible with the authority closest to the people who will be affected by those decisions. It means for instance that the EU would not attempt to rule on road pricing in London, or for that matter constitutional relations between Scotland and England.
And yet here is a majority UK vote which would sideline the clearly articulated wishes and interests of the Scottish people, a people who are by any definition a sovereign nation. Why does this not matter to those who want to claim some kind of binding democratic legitimacy for the referendum vote? Of course if the bill which enabled the referendum had been properly thought through it would have attended to these possibilities, and defined tightly the thresholds and conditions in which a vote for such huge constitutional change could be treated as legitimate and binding. In the absence of such pre-approved definition the declaration of legitimacy becomes arbitrary, and just another political tool.
Our new prime minister says she intends to fight for Scotland’s continuing presence in the Union, while pushing Brexit forward, as if this could all be settled by an act of her will. This is what’s technically called wishful thinking, (rather like the suggestion that we can leave the EU, limit freedom of movement and still be part of the single market, technically known as a lie). Labour has hardly said anything at all (apart from the false suggestion that we have to accept the referendum and move on) but I guess it’s got other problems on its mind.
We can’t go on like this
But these stresses will not go away. In the last few days there have been cross-party proposals from the Lords for a new federal constitution in the UK, explicitly to head off the possibility of disintegration. There has been talk of a new centrist political grouping aligning MPs from across the spectrum who could make a continuing case for remaining in the EU.
But it’s no longer just about the EU. We have to become much more explicit about what we mean when we speak of our democracy, and the sources of legitimacy for the actions taken in its name. The Tories will not address this, because in the end the status quo serves them too well.
People mostly don’t get too excited about the nuances of voting systems, but they are feeling disenfranchised all the same. That’s why it’s the responsibility of politicians themselves to deal with the real causes and effects. I’m with Jeremy Corbyn (and Theresa May) when he argues that we need to change track on austerity, but to address the bitter divisions that have opened across the UK any vision of the future needs to be wrapped around concrete proposals to reinvigorate and make relevant our democracy.
That means at the very least changing our voting system. It probably means abolishing the House of Lords and attending to the distribution of power through the nations and regions of the UK. It’s going to take cross-party collaboration among the UK’s progressive groupings. These can’t be afterthoughts, any more than the looming environmental crisis can be an afterthought, though if you listen to current mainstream political discourse there’s no sign of it being treated as anything else.
Perhaps then (and only then) might we be in a position to have a sensible conversation with the rest of the EU about balancing the undoubted benefits of free trade in a single market with the need to maintain proper political accountability and legitimacy at every level.