Month: June 2016

A Profoundly Undemocratic Decision

We are where we are but one thing should be clear. The referendum result was not achieved by democracy. The same stubborn 30+ percent of the population which has complained about immigration since the 1960s, is largely weighted towards the elderly, is comparatively uneducated and reads right-wing tabloid newspapers day in and day out achieved more votes in the referendum for the Leave campaign than anyone predicted.

Why isn’t that democracy in action? Firstly, there isn’t a majority and there wasn’t a majority for such a substantial change in our international relationships and economy. Over 60% of the population either supports our links with Europe, doesn’t know enough to suggest they should be changed or is happy to leave things to politicians and policymakers. The overwhelming message of the campaign was that many people couldn’t make a choice between two starkly different narratives supported by shaky evidence.

The Remain campaign was a failure not because of who joined in but because the agenda was set by the press barons and because government has not engaged with the issues of inadequate housing, refugees, economic migrants, overcrowded schools and the downward drive to a low-wage zero hours economy. Perhaps it was never going to be possible for Cameron and Osborne to face these issues, but the broadcast media swallowed the Daily Mail and Murdoch agendas and made things worse. They will argue that they were only discussing the issues on the street but they should have broadened the debate and they didn’t. The Parliamentary Labour Party was disunited and bickering so the opposition wasn’t consistent or sufficiently focused on the genuine issues. But, even if the campaign was better than that, it does not make the result more or less democratic.

Secondly, there’s an irony, if not an absurdity, in all of this. Much of the campaign has been about the sovereignty of the British Parliament and yet that sovereignty has been scuppered by this vote. Parliament does not have to be bound by any expression of opinion although it has to take notice of it and the weasel statements of the past few days show Parliamentary democracy in a poor light. The setup of the referendum is partly to blame for this with a 51% majority, a confused issue and the background where it served the interests of David Cameron to secure unity in his party and win the last election without thinking about the consequences. It was a political strategy which has come disastrously unstuck but a failure in the Conservative party to manage itself and its policies should not be sufficient to usurp the primacy of Parliament. Would people really be happy to see Parliament voting through a decision to engage with Article 50 when the majority of elected members of Parliament did not want to vote in that way? That would be profoundly undemocratic and morally reprehensible.

And, thirdly, we are on the brink of a democratic crisis with far wider ramifications. David Cameron has resigned and is likely to be replaced as leader of the Conservative party by Boris Johnson. He could also, de facto, become Prime Minister and organise the nation’s departure from the European Community but it is surely questionable whether there would be a public mandate for this. In terms of the checks and balances within our system, Parliament could vote against his policies but if there was any notion that this was somehow a done deed so that opponents should abstain that would reflect very badly on the integrity of our politicians and their accountability to us for good and sound government. The Parliamentary way for Boris Johnson to proceed would be to call a general election and then there could be policy arguments around all of the issues, members of Parliament would be elected and they could vote, or not vote, to leave the EU. At least, that would restore the sovereignty and democracy of Parliament.

Finally, there’s a wider background to this. The referendum has noted, and arguably created, some stark divides in our society. The arguments have not been green and pleasant and one of the duties of Parliament is to take a balanced view and bring society back together. It hasn’t been doing this well recently not only in terms of policy but also in terms of the apparent remoteness of the political system and this should be a wake-up call before extreme views get expressed in extreme ways. We do not need strong or authoritarian leadership but we do need democratic leadership and everyone should understand the difference. In all of this, and despite everything which has happened, our democracy will be in serious trouble if we fail to protect the primacy of our elected Parliament.

 

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How not to be a Catastrophist!

 

There’s no doubt that it is a bad day but it wasn’t difficult to see it coming. Every day of this campaign, and well before, five million newspapers rabidly opposed to immigration and the European project have been published every weekday. It has been a huge and uncontrolled leafleting campaign frequently bordering on lies and confusing news with ideology. Its major success has been to shift the agenda so that the campaign has all been about immigration, refugees, foreigners taking your jobs, and the EU taking your money.

You don’t need a degree in psephology to guess that the age weighted readerships of the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Express all voted for Brexit. The broadcasters haven’t challenged this agenda and, possibly, neither have many of the politicians involved. One of the most frustrating things about this whole campaign has been that we have been talking about the wrong things for most of it. The other is that the image of the UK projected by the Leave campaign has been bought hook, line and sinker by many people living in areas where there simply are no immigrants to be seen.

So, where are we now? First, this is a tiny majority and it is absurd that it should have such an impact on our national politics. When David Cameron set it up to serve his own interests and win the last election he didn’t think through the possibilities. He appears always to have thought it was a rather clever ploy to get rid of some irritating Conservative right-wingers and it has hopelessly backfired.  We shouldn’t be sorry to see him go and we should talk up the need to move slowly. I think his gradual departure is a dramatic device to allow Gove and Johnson to rip each other apart over the next three months.

I hope the result doesn’t allow the mean spirited people on the right of the Labour party to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. He has been out talking about worker rights and mutual security and the gripe is that he didn’t get involved in the right wing agenda. He took a principled stand and I respect that. I don’t think some ‘steps to curb immigration’ from Labour would have made the slightest difference against the media onslaught.

Also, we shouldn’t ignore that we have accidentally restarted the Scottish independence discussions. I think Scotland now has a mandate to stay in Europe and will be warmly welcomed by the EU and that means leaving the UK. I don’t see how anyone can argue against that if the first past the post argument applies to the rest of the UK.

Where does that leave us? Conservative grandees would like to see a smooth transition in the leadership and a strategy for withdrawal developed in the autumn which would make UKIP look pointless since it is a single issue party that has achieved its objective. They could ask people to tighten their belts a little more in the national interest and enjoy a honeymoon basking in the facade of independence before the difficult issues reared their ugly heads.

What might disrupt that? I’d like to see the SNP propose a vote of no confidence in the government. Labour would have to do a deal to support it and recognise the case for independence which would be hard but not impossible and the fractious Conservatives would have to be more united than they probably can ever be to defeat it. Then, we could have a General Election with a radical manifesto from Labour based on economic growth, housing and turning back the tide of austerity. Would it work? Who knows, but it might be worth a try!

 

Well that’s another fine mess you got me into…

There’s a lot of hot air around about the what and how of this referendum – what it might cost us to leave or stay in the EU and how many migrants might or might not flood the country but we seem to have forgotten the why.

That might be because nobody is telling us! So, let’s be clear, this referendum is taking place because some conservative MPs and party members have never accepted the decision to join the EU which was arrived at politically and democratically. This relatively small group has threatened to split the Conservative party on more than one occasion so the Cameron strategy shared by many in the middle of the party has been to promise a put up or shut up referendum. In return for that promise, which created an interim truce, an apparently united Conservative party kept its divisions under wraps and won the last election.

That promise was a mistake because, first of all, this should have been a political decision. We elect politicians to act in the national interest and in the clear understanding of their views and a parliamentary vote, which would have been won overwhelmingly by the remain camp, would have solved any possible national problem even if not the Conservative party one. It would even make more sense to have a general election now in the light of the understanding that the next Parliament would take that vote rather than to have a referendum on this issue.

That is not to say that a referendum is a bad thing as a genuine indicator of public opinion. I wouldn’t mind one on drug legalisation or the abolition of the monarchy which are social issues and there is a genuine social divide. It wouldn’t matter who won but it would get the nation talking politically and that can’t be bad. In contrast, this one simply allows people to realise that they have no idea.

Part of the reason for this is that should we remain or should we leave is a pointless question. We are in Europe geographically and the fact is that we are actually part of its politics. We’re not dithering on its borders and in time we will become a democratically governable and independent entity within the European structure. What’s wrong with that? We might even be there already.

We joined in the interests of peace, mutual trade and prosperity and to put Europe on a mutual par with the superpowers and, in general, that has worked in everyone’s interests. We also joined because we wanted to and we committed the nation to the collaborative endeavour.

This is worth saying because the subtext of the current debate is that the electorate have forgotten that and operate at a pretty low level. That disenfranchises a lot of people who think they are above this kind of catcalling. All this froth about the pound in your pocket and the immigrant floods is polemical and designed to distract people from the fact that we are already there and, really, there isn’t anything much to talk about. We live in Europe, full stop. We didn’t need a vote to stay when we weren’t thinking of going anywhere and that leaves a lot of people uninvolved.

Some people are trying to make that an issue for the Labour Party but remember that this is a Conservative party argument and always has been. It has been rewarding to see Labour and the unions constantly repeating the same message about what we currently get from being in Europe and shameful to see conservatives talking up race issues. If you think Labour hasn’t said enough or should have shared a platform with somebody it is worth remembering that the interventions have been there but aren’t newsworthy.

That’s another issue in this referendum. Large sections of the press are fundamentally anti-European so, while people differ about who can say what and is this leaflet or that leaflet distribution acceptable, the newspapers are pouring out a torrent of political rhetoric to millions of people. Even when you know the individual story is nonsense, the constant drip of bile affects people.

The defections of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove derailed the Cameron strategy in this campaign. If we vote to remain, this group is set on overthrowing him and moving the party further to the right whatever happens. And, if we vote to leave the future is catastrophic with the existing state underpinnings pulled away in the interests of greed, perceived self interest, flag waving and intolerance. As we vote to remain, or stay as I would prefer, we should be clear about who got us into this mess even as we encourage everyone to vote.