Thursday 2 February 2017

Brexit and Democracy

Taking a sneaky from things Stoke-related, it's time to cast an eye over last night's Commons vote giving the government permission to trigger Article 50. Annoyingly, it is not the Tories who find themselves poisoned and split over Europe, like the Lexiters promised. It's Labour. As the government won by 494 to 114, 47 Labour MPs joined the SNP and Ken Clarke in voting against.

Like John McDonnell, I have some sympathy for the rebels' position. Some MPs hail from constituencies in which majorities voted for Remain, other believe leaving the EU is a catastrophic act of self-harm. These for me are all valid reasons to oppose Brexit, but to my mind are trumped by another consideration: democracy.

Representative democracy at the best of times is inefficient and imperfect, especially so in capitalist societies where economic and political power are more or less separated. The former, formally, is subordinate to the will of the latter and has to submit to its laws, regulations, and other interventions. In practice, it's the other way round. For most of the last 30 years, as learned folks across the political spectrum told us class didn't matter any more, inequality increased, production gains accrued to the owners of capital as productivity was decoupled from wages, and ever more ingenious ways were devised by successive governments to transfer tax monies into private coffers via the marketisation of public services. And coincident with this, educational institutions and popular culture have tried churning out obedient subjects that would meekly accept all this.

It's a rare situation to find economics assuming a subordinate role in government policy, but this is one of them. Theresa May's Wrexit trajectory will be profoundly damaging to the British economy, and it's our people who will pay the price. But ultimately, politics has asserted itself. Brexit is a massive pile of shit, as a lately prominent comrade of mine put it, but it must happen. The referendum wasn't sold as a "consultative" exercise, it was clearly and unambiguously a plebiscite on Britain's continued membership of the European Union. Prat about with the turn outs, pull out pie charts proving a majority of people didn't vote to leave, it doesn't matter. A democratic vote was had and the wrong side won, but we have to take the consequences. Because if we don't, the political fall out would have been far more damaging to our people and our movement than a reversion to WTO trading rules post-Brexit.

What I would euphemistically describe as unhelpful is how the party, or rather those who rebelled last night, completely conceded this ground to the right. Democracy isn't a free floating idea, it is bound up with interests and it's in the interests of the people our party represents to extend it beyond the realm of formal politics. We have to make politics substantive, and this means economic democracy. By refusing to support the Brexit process, this ground has been ceded to the right. Our rebels have presented the Tories a crock of political gold with a gift tag that reads "unified to deliver the referendum outcome". At this crucial moment in British political history, the Tories have captured the mantle of champions of democracy without so much as a tussle. And that is profoundly damaging to our future political prospects.


Phil said...

Labour certainly has lost its grip of the language of democracy, but so - I'm afraid - have you, if this post is anything to go by. You're talking the same language as Farage - redefining 'democracy' to mean 'the referendum result and let the government interpret it how they want'. Representative democracy means that MPs deliberate collectively and hold the executive to account, in the light of what's best for the country and their mandate from their voters. Whipping a Yes vote last night freed the Tories from scrutiny, short-circuited any chance of collective deliberation and bound MPs to ignore the best interests of the country and their own mandate. It was a shameful episode, politically light-minded and tactically inept - the first thing Corbyn's done that has made me consider leaving the party.

And good luck with the by-election, now we've conceded that Labour agrees with Paul Nuttall on the one policy that his party cares about.

Dave Cohen said...

Hmm yes. I don't like to whinge on about the past but Labour had a year or so to grab the agenda and they flunked it every time. Best remain speech pre vote was Corbyn's "I'm no fan of EU but leaving now is worst option." But he only said it once then buggered off. Then all summer our MPs were working flat out. Smith could have spent every day attacking May's shambolic handling of Brexit, but attacked Corbyn instead (bolstering the leader). Corbyn could have spent every day campaigning for a fair Brexit, instead he sat back and enjoyed his three month victory parade. However you define democracy, no one comes out of this well. Perhaps now, as McDonnell said today, we can finally start battling for a Brexit that the majority can support, and that can actually work.

Anonymous said...

"The referendum wasn't sold as a "consultative" exercise, it was clearly and unambiguously a plebiscite on Britain's continued membership of the European Union ... A democratic vote was had and the wrong side won, but we have to take the consequences."

Oh do please cut the waffle! You don't appear to know how our constitution operates. It is a representative *parliamentary* democracy in which until 1975 referenda never featured. And if you think that referenda trump parliaments then why was there a clause that clearly stated 'advisory'? If it wasn't advisory only - so not deterministic - that clause should never have been left in. Oh, that nice Mr Cameron said it was deterministic! Well that's all the argument you need.

Tubby Isaacs said...

The White Paper hadn't even been published when the vote was taken. How on earth can anyone whip in support of it?

It was published today- and guess what? it is laughably bad, basically May's speech with a couple of graphs in it.

You think that Torfaen is going to explode because the Labour MP for Cambridge went Remain with his constituents? Why can't they get their heads round that?

This vote was one of the few occasions when media spotlight and public interest was there. As the Act now goes through, the feeling will be "why is it taking so long?" Nobody is going to care about amendments. The same "you lost, let's get on with it" logic will apply.

Corbyn was until just now going to get redlines done and vote against if not agreed. He did some in November, could have had them agreed, and repeated till everyone knew some of them. He changed tack as a result of a presentation someone gave him.


Speedy said...

but to my mind are trumped by another consideration: democracy.

Complete BALLS (and I don't mean Ed). Are you serious? A referendum should never have been called - considering this is a parliamentary democracy - and when it was, it was won by lie after lie to an ill-informed public by opportunist politicians and a partisan press and a seriously deluded Labour Party.

I agree Brexit must happen for the reasons you outline, but giving the government a free hand to Wrexit - to decide, for example, it is all about immigration and not the economy, so we must also exit the single market, and, given the public was so misled, refusing to give a further vote on the terms, that's only the democracy of the sixth form debating society.

Think about what you're saying - well, the public voted on this course, so as the captain of good ship Brexit I will steer it into the iceberg because to sink with all hands on board (except the rich who will grab the lifeboats) is better than actually trying to do something about it... A more moderate leader could easily have massaged the course to calmer waters, albeit them the EEA... I actually found myself missing Cameron the other day, he should have remained to clear up the mess he had created. And of course the Mail and Telegraph will complain - you don't think leaving the EU will stop them do you?

Ben Philliskirk said...

What if a referendum had produced a majority for capital punishment, or banning abortion, or introducing an immigration ban?

You can't get away from the fact that holding a referendum in the first place, and especially one with far from straightforward consequences (not really a yes or no question), effectively conflicts with the operation of the current liberal democratic institutions of this country. In effect, Cameron created a constitutional crisis in the hope of short-term political gain.

If you are an MP you represent a constituency. Democracy and common sense suggest that if that constituency strongly voted to remain then you fight for that in parliament.

Your argument for 'democracy' based on the immediate term electoral interests of the Labour Party is one of the main factors that has got the party into such a mess in the first place.

Ed said...

Good post, Phil, and I'm afraid some of the responses just provide more evidence of the self-denial and irrational thinking on this issue that has been so much on display over the past two weeks, not just from liberals but also people on the left. Who actually believes that the 'it was only advisory' argument is going to fly if parliament decides to block Brexit altogether (which it won't, of course, regardless of what Labour did or does)? And who honestly believes that Phil's thinking on this is the same as Paul Nuttall's? That kind of silly overheated rhetoric gets is absolutely nowhere and unfortunately it's been all too common over the last while from people who should know better

Boffy said...

According to latest polls and surveys, more than 60% of people in the US support Trump's Muslim Ban, so should the Democrats roll over and support it too, in order to respect the democratic will of the people?

Plebiscites are the tool of all dictators and bonapartists. Hitler, Stalin and mao used them extensively. So, had Hitler organised a vote on gassing the Jews, and won a majority, should socialists have confined themselves to simply putting amendments on which type of gas, and what method its delivery was most effective or humane?

Paul Nuttall has proposed a referendum on a return of the death penalty. We all know that would pass, so should we then limit ourselves to amendments on whether people should be hung drawn and quartered, burnt at the stake, guillotines, or killed by lethal injection?

Even Ken Clarke understand the basis idea of bourgeois democracy that minorities having lost a vote continue to argue their case, and try to overturn existing decisions. The idea that just because you have lost a vote at an instant in time, you have to roll over and play dead is the stuff of totalitarianism.

Anonymous said...

Ed is right, and most of the rest of you are wrong.

The consequences of ignoring the referendum result WOULD be worse than even the worst hard Brexit (and, of course, that could be very bad indeed)

Just accept this.

David Timoney said...

Had the vote been along party lines - i.e. all MPs obeyed their whip - then the government would have won. Had the vote sought to accurately represent constituency opinion, then the government would still have won, presumably on a 52/48 split.

Had Labour whipped its MPs to vote against, whether as a matter of principle or tactics, then the government would also still have won, notwithstanding Ken Clarke's rebellion and even assuming that Stuart, Hoey et al followed the Labour whip.

The only circumstances under which the government could have lost would have been a free vote, assuming that MPs were consistent with their preferences as expressed before last June. Such an outcome would have been a reassertion of parliamentary democracy, but one that would also have been a clear rejection of the referendum (i.e. confirmation that not only was it advisory but that the advice wasn't decisive).

The moment that May said "Brexit means Brexit", the pass was sold. The Tories have undermined parliamentary sovereignty for the sake of preserving executive power: first in Cameron's decision to allow a referendum and then in the vote this week.

Leave won the referendum for two main reasons: most Tories opted to leave, offsetting the majority of Labour and minor party voters who opted to remain; and the leave campaign mobilised a reactionary element that does not usually vote - i.e. they got the bulk of the increased turnout. It was the latter that was decisive (as it would be in a referendum on hanging).

One lesson to draw from this is that the Tories remain the party of power for whom conscience is a luxury, while Labour remains the party of dissent for whom a plurality of opinion is inevitable. Criticising Corbyn for this is as otiose as criticising May for being unprincipled.

pete c said...

So. Put bluntly.
A badly informed and vindictive 25% of the population carries the day, that allows a well organised clique to set in motion an effective coup that widespread opinion agrees will be a profoundly damaging pile of shite.

All of a sudden, we have to abide by 'the will of the people' - not that there is much precedent for such a position being taken seriously in the past.

No other option, it seems, than that of manning the barricades then. But I can't see much likelihood of that.

John Rogan said...

If the House of Commons votes for a law, after much debate, it is then sent to the House of Lords. Here, it can be amended and even voted down and sent back to the H of C for reconsideration. Democratic? On the face of it, no, as the Lords is a remnant of feudalism which, rationally, should be abolished and replaced. However, the idea of a Second Chamber, a place where votes taken in the House of Commons can be scrutinised and amended is no bad thing. At the moment, all we have is the Lords and, sometimes, they make the right decisions.

With the EU Referendum, it seems, there is to be to way to "think again". "Brexit means Brexit" and it is entirely up to the Govt to decide what that is. Labour may try to amend but will, ultimately, go along with the Govt.

It is, however, my contention that democracy means people have the right to change their minds. Especially, when we see what exactly Brexit will mean. How that can be done is not clear yet but, unfortunately, Labour have given a blank cheque to the Tories to proceed with Brexit come what may. Their "amendments" for a Soft Brexit are just a bit pointless as, ultimately, it is EU27 who will let us know what Brexit means and it will be a Hard Brexit, ultimately.

Boffy said...

There is absolutely no evidence that Labour ignoring the Brexit vote would be worse than the worst form of Brexit. The EU is low down on voters list of concerns, and they will not thank a Labour Party that meekly goes along with an action that will decimate their living standards, jobs, workers rights, environmental safeguards and so on for possibly generations to come.

Quite the contrary, by standing out against the Tories, and advocating opposition to Brexit, Labour will be best placed, when all of those bad things for workers materialise, in the next few years.

Those of us that have stuck by a principled position of arguing against anything that damages workers interests will be able to make that argument with a clear conscience. All those who have sidled up to Theresa May and Nigel Farage for short term electoral considerations - which as I've said before do not even exist, because and even tactically it makes no sense - will not.

If I were a shop steward, and my members voted for action to get the management to sack all black workers or to bar them from employment (and things similar to this happened in the 1960's, in the car industry and elsewhere) I would step down as shop steward rather than implement such a decision, democratically derived or otherwise. I would have some difficulty even abiding by the strike decision - as happened for socialists during the reactionary Ulster Workers Strike, for example. I would, however, abide by the strike decision, whilst continuing to argue for it to be rescinded, and trying to explain to workers that their fire was being aimed at the wrong target.

In the same way, I would stand down as a Labour Councillor rather than impose cuts or other attacks on workers, whether or not the decision to impose such cuts had been taken by a democratic decision of the Labour Group of the Council. Oh yes, in fact, I did just that back in 1983.

MikeB said...

Ben Philliskirk sorely tests your argument, Phil. Because Cameron chose a method that is incompatible with the way parliamentary democracy works, we were left with a situation where it is entirely possible to argue in a principled way for either position over the Article 50 vote.

To condemn MPs who voted one way or the other is divisive. And instead of a whipped vote, Labour should have learned one of the key lessons of the current populist wave (which includes the election of Corbyn, btw) - which is that people will support leaders who appear to speak openly and from personal conviction, even if they disagree with the argument they put forward.

On the other point you make, it is true that the national economy will suffer from Brexit. But international capital won't. In fact, despite himself, Cameron has done his class interest a power of good, opening up still more of the UK economy to penetration by asset strippers and privatisers.

davidjc said...

Boffy and others are right in general about plebiscites, but we are in a situation where there has been one. Among other negative consequences, its result poses an existential threat to the Labour Party and would do so whoever was leader with whatever line on Brexit. Brexit is only one part of the international nationalist turn and none of it is fertile ground for social democracy. Worse than that, in a nationalist world, there may be real material benefits in being the most self seeking, short termist nation around; there are winners in zero sum games. Could anyone say with confidence that the EU will grow faster than the USA, that one will be forever more progressive than the other?
I don't see the gain for Labour in taking sides in that looming great game battle, especially as to do so would infuriate further a third or two thirds of the party. It's messy, but the current kind of agree to disagree approach fits the moment. Short term pain for long term gain.

Anonymous said...

A "constituency split" would not have been 52-48 per cent for Brexit but approaching 2 to 1.

The "remain" vote was disproportionately concentrated in a few areas (basically large cities and much of Scotland)

Phil said...

who honestly believes that Phil's thinking on this is the same as Paul Nuttall's?

I think our host has bought into the idea that the referendum was the democratic expression of the will of the people and should be honoured as such, with MPs voluntarily stepping back and letting the government do the working-out. (I'm sure he doesn't agree with Paul Nuttall about anything else.) I also think this is an utterly poisonous idea and should be fought at every opportunity, precisely in the name of democracy. Plebiscites have a bad name for a reason.

Ed said...

No, plebiscites have a bad name because they were often held under dictatorships, in a climate of terror and censorship when the regime wouldn't allow its opponents to campaign for a No vote. But you could say the same thing about elections. Referendums are neither good nor bad in themselves. I think it was a bad idea to call this referendum in the first place, and the campaign was unedifying and riddled with stupidity. I don't think the Brexit vote is some kind of sacred bond. But just trying to overturn it in parliament would make things even worse. If there was a groundswell of opinion against Brexit, a clear shift in opinion since the vote, a clear Remain majority in the polls, it might be different, but there isn't.

Boffy said...


The referendum only poses an existential threat to Labour because it has made a dog's brexit out of it. If Labour had stuck to a principled position of saying Brexit is against the interests of workers,a nd so we are opposed to it, and will do all in our power to prevent it, so as to defend workers rights it could pose no such threat.

On the contrary, whatever short term electoral pain - and for the reasons I've described I think that is hugely overstated, particularly compared to the damage that a confused and vacillating position and division will inflict - it might suffer, it would gain even more in the medium term - which may be only a slightly longer short term - as the disastrous effects of Brexit begin to be felt, as people realise they are not going to get £365m a week for the NHS, that jobs are going, prices rising, wages falling, Britain has to go cap in hand to dictators like Erdogan and idiots like Trump, and that even things like reductions in immigration don't happen, because the economy would collapse without it.

Its precisely because Brexit is part of a growing nationalist movement that labour had to resist it. How much more difficult will it be now to ally with Hamon in France, and other left social democrats?

There will be no benefit for a relatively small economy like Britain in a dog eat dog competition, and the US is likely to suffer to given its reliance on a globalised economy. A large economy like the EU, that stays relatively open, deepens its cohesion, and builds up the links with China etc. that the US withdraws from will benefit greatly.

Again I don't think workers will thank us for failing to take sides in what represents their longer term interests in that regard. We have to "fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, (they) also represent and take care of the future of that movement."

John Rogan said...

The Labour Leadership (left and right) could, of course, have abstained in the Article 50 vote. They could have declared that it was the Govt's responsibility to show that leaving the EU would be of benefit to the British people. If this could be proven to be correct, then Labour would vote in favour, if not, then Labour would vote against.

An option to Remain would be part of this process stating that people have the right to change their mind on the basis of new facts (e.g. having to rely on President Trump for a good alternative trade deal).

All the while, Labour would have put the responsibility totally on the Tories to prove their case.

Instead, Labour are now seen as firmly wedded to Brexit no matter the consequences.

Anonymous said...

Ed is right, again.

Your surname isn't Miliband, is it? ;-)

Boffy said...

Plebiscites are also never a democratic means of making decisions, because they are too blunt an instrument. No one really knows what people were voting for in the referendum, whatever the Brexiteers say. Evidence from some doorsteps during the campaign was that some people simply voted "against Cameron".

It was never going to be a sensible campaign - and the same is true about things such as Presidential, Gubernatorial, Mayoral etc. elections, which descend into purely contests based upon personalities - because in modern societies such campaigns are dominated by the mainstream mass media, which is only interested in getting ratings from sensationalised stories about the leading figures in the referendum, about the spats between former colleagues and so on, and not on a rational coverage of the issues.

Everyone believes that Jeremy Corbyn played no role effectively in the campaign, and that has become a meme. But, in fact, as some Labour opponents of Corbyn during the campaign admitted, he had one of the highest work rates, doing large numbers of rallies and meetings up and down the country. The reason no one knows this, is because the mainstream media were too busy covering the spats between leading Tories, and because they had no interest in covering Corbyn's message that we are in favour of Remaining in Europe not because of its wonderful capitalist nature, but because it provides us with the best opportunity of solidarity with EU workers to fight for something better!

The referendum was not an exercise in democratic politics, it was just a different version of Big Brother, or Get Me Out of this Talented Pottery Throwdown to Strictly Come Baking.

If you take out some financial product you have to be given a few weeks cooling off period so that you have time to realise you mad a mistake, and withdraw. Given the massive impact of Brexit, shouldn't people have at least the same right?

I'd suggest that it would be better to have a General Election at the end of the negotiations with each party standing on a programme accordingly. If the Brexiteers still have a majority that will be shown in the MP's returned to Parliament, and will reflect the degree to which voters demand Brexit or not above all else.

I suspect that MP's standing on a platform of remain would still form a huge majority of any future such parliament. They would be very wary of the experience of Zac Goldsmith, and restoration of Liberals who stood even in Leave constituencies on a clear platform of opposing Brexit.

Alex Ross said...

Agree with those who oppose plebiscites on principle. Aside from their rather dubious history (Mussolini...Hitler) they don't encourage deliberative thinking - which ought to be the bedrock of democracy.

For example, I was in California about 15 yrs ago, and, suffering from insomnia, was watching the results of some local referendums on TV. On the expansion of healthcare, people voted YES and on increasing taxes people voted NO. A democratic process has to force people into deliberating the conflicts between those sorts of positions - which a single issue referendum cannot do.

Agree, that politically speaking, now the results are in, it would be untenable for Labour to appear to dismiss public option. However, they should have opposed the referendum from the beginning, campaigned more convincingly for remain and should still (if Corbyn gets his act together) make sure that Brexit is on the least-worst terms for the left.

Anyway - I'm interested to see how this pans out...the right have been talking about how we can now engage with markets in China, India and South Africa (also, New Zealand...but don't think we need anymore sheep??). It's likely that these countries are going to ask for relaxations of restrictions on freedom of movement in exchange for trade deals. And I don't think UKIP types are going to like that.