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General Election 2017: The Politics of Nostalgia

8 Jun

The Labour Party – especially its leader, Jeremy Corbyn – has had a surprisingly good election campaign. Labour started 23 points down from the Conservatives; the latest polls put the Tory lead at anything from 12 to just 1 point – a historically unprecedented surge. Corbyn’s hunch that the more people saw of him and his policies, the more they would warm to Labour, was proven correct. Despite two years in which he had faced internal plots and sabotage, massive media hostility, a second leadership election, the EU referendum, and a snap election, Corbyn’s team had somehow managed to develop concrete, costed policies, that appear to have resonated strongly with some of the public. Because of the electoral system and other factors, the surge is may still not translate into Labour gains in parliament. Nonetheless, the Labour turnaround – coupled with UKIP’s ongoing collapse – clearly gives the lie to every defeatist Remainer who argued that Brexit would mean the immediate death of leftist politics in Britain.

The Labour surge partly reflects the dreadful campaign waged by Theresa May’s Conservative Party. May’s political strength before calling the election was exclusively based on the Conservatives’ unambiguous commitment to respect the result of the EU referendum. Conversely, Labour was in profound disarray, torn between a pro-EU metropolitan base and parliamentary party on the one hand, and northern and Welsh working-class Leave voters on the other, and led by a north London leadership with little apparent appeal in the traditional Labour heartlands. Because most British people are democrats, May’s position won support, with the so-called “48%” rapidly melting away. However, the Tories apparently mistook this as support for May and her agenda. In truth, May is a hollow, incompetent, technocrat with little vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future – and the election left her disastrously exposed. Despite calling a “Brexit election”, she had virtually nothing to say about it beyond slogans and platitudes, and the ground quickly shifted to matters of public spending and security, where she was far weaker. May’s comical avoidance of the public, awkward flailing under the slightest scrutiny, and frequent U-turns, made a mockery of her “strong and stable” mantra. She was not even able to hold her own base, threatening Tory-voting pensioners with a “dementia tax”, followed by a shrill retreat. Even if she is returned to office, as most commentators expect, she will be enduringly weakened and this cannot fail to influence the Brexit talks.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has drawn the largest crowds to political rallies seen in Britain since the 1950s, reflecting his desire to rebuild Labour into a social movement, not the zombified electoral machine it has become. While this ambition is very far from being realised, his campaign has been an important challenge to politics-as-usual in two respects.

First, he has made Labour the first major European political party to openly challenge austerity since the 2008 financial crisis, thereby tackling directly the paralysing mantra, promoted since the 1980s, that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). His pledges to open a £500bn investment bank, abolish tuition fees, revitalise public services and renationalise railways and the Royal Mail are premised on the slogan “it doesn’t have to be like this”. However backwards-looking his agenda may be – on which, more below – this is a welcome challenge to TINA. The idea that our social, economic and political system is set in stone, susceptible to only minor tweaks, has crippled progressive politics since the 1980s, and any revival must tackle it head on. For the Labour Party, it is a dramatic – albeit not deeply shared – abandonment of the “Third Way” centrism practised since 1988. Of course, the groundwork for thinking that voting can induce dramatic change was laid by the EU referendum. And, while Corbyn perhaps dare not say it openly, reflecting the party’s internal divisions, his proposals include policies that would be ruled out under EU state aid rules. In this sense, he is connecting – however faintly – with the democratic ideal of “taking back control”.

Secondly, Corbyn has openly challenged Britain’s approach to foreign and security policy, garnering public support for doing so. This is striking given that his main weakness was always assumed to be security, given his previous antiwar postures and engagement with groups like the IRA and Hamas. However, increasingly desperate attempts to use these associations to smear Corbyn, while perhaps resonating with elements of the Tory base, have largely fallen flat. Again, the experience of two decades of adventurist foreign policy seems to have persuaded many to conclude that Corbyn has perhaps got a point. His response to the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London – highlighting the “blowback” from Britain’s foreign interventions and craven relationship with states like Saudi Arabia, as well as austerity-driven cuts to the police – resonated strongly with the public. It spoke to their common sense after 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tory bluster that Corbyn was “blaming the victims” failed to cut through. Corbyn’s position is, again, unique among major party leaders in Europe and among Labour leaders since 1983.

In short, the British public is being offered a starker and more meaningful choice today than at any point in the last 30 years. This speaks to the wider revival of democracy, and political contestation, flowing from the EU referendum, which has – again contrary to Remainer defeatists’ expectations – actually shifted the centre-ground leftwards. Immediately after the referendum, the Tories scaled back their austerity targets and began appealing to the “just-about-managing”, and now they are running on a washed-up version of One Nation Toryism, plagiarised in part from Ed Milliband’s “Blue Labour”. However weakly, May has emphasised the “good the state can do”, talked up an “industrial strategy”, and pledged to promote equality. This may yet win round some working-class voters – especially those who had previously defected from Labour to UKIP – but on this terrain, Corbyn has the more convincing record.

Nonetheless, there are many unanswered questions and weaknesses surrounding Corbyn’s campaign. The most striking aspect of Corbyn’s platform is its backward-looking, defensive character, premised heavily on the defence of the crumbling national-welfare state. Even the £500bn investment bank is premised on Keynesian pump-priming, not a vision of a future economy. There are serious structural challenges in contemporary capitalism that Corbynism does nothing to address, like the productivity crisis, the growing de facto labour surplus, and looming automation. Radical solutions, like universal basic income, shorter working weeks, and full automation, mooted in academia, are actually being trialled, in part, elsewhere in Europe. Corbyn’s vision for Brexit involves clinging onto EU regulations that stifle scientific experimentation, like genetic engineering. He and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, look at Uber and see only the problem of zero-hours contracts and poor pay – not the promise of a fully automated transport system, potentially under public, not private, control. In this sense, Corbyn’s platform is far more conservative than Labour manifestoes in the 1960s and 1970s, when leaders like Harold Wilson talked about embracing the “white heat of technology” to transform the economy and society. Corbyn is channelling the Spirit of ’45, in the words of Ken Loach’s nostalgic documentary, not 2017, let alone some future year.

This same conservatism applies to Labour’s attitude to Brexit, which is all about dampening its economic effects, rather than charting a clear path for political and economic renewal. Despite May’s evident weaknesses, she earns cheers when talking tough on Brexit, just as she is booed when discussing public spending. Corbyn’s position is the opposite. Asked about Brexit and immigration, his responses on “managed migration” are stilted concessions to concerns about the “white working class” and its “legitimate concerns” about migration. It is a reminder that the Labour party remains caught between contradictory social bases. Corbyn has been unable to articulate a vision that squares this circle in a truly progressive manner. He has capitulated to the idea of migration as a “problem” by opposing “gangs” of migrant workers being “brought in” to “undercut” British wages (largely discredited as a myth) and proposing structural funds to relieve “pressures” on public services caused by immigration. He has not challenged the basic notion of the economy as a zero-sum game that causes people to see immigrants as competitors, because national-welfarism is ultimately premised on this notion of creating benefits from which “outsiders” are excluded. He has not even explicitly tried to link anti-immigration sentiment to neoliberalism, to encourage people to see the economic system, and not their fellow workers, as the problem. Instead he has made vague appeals to British traditions of “decency” and “care”.

A final problem is Corbyn’s politics of security. He treats this issue like all the rest: pump in more resources. But arguably there is only a tenuous connection between police numbers and security from terrorism. Moreover, Corbyn has rightly made his name opposing the bloated security state. Lacking here, as on the right, is any credible analysis of, and systematic solution to, the root causes of – especially home-grown – terrorism. Corbyn’s blaming of foreign interventions leaving “ungoverned spaces” merely rehashes tired clichés and does not explain why people within governed spaces – our own societies – end up terrorising their fellow citizens. Moreover, the historical response to “ungoverned spaces” has been to seek to govern them, through interventions to build “state capacity”, which have more often than not gone very badly wrong. What looks like an anti-interventionist agenda could very easily turn into an interventionist foreign policy.

Thus, Corbyn does not resolve the problems of Labourism, even if his campaign represents an important challenge to the status quo and potentially creates important space for progressive alternatives. Although a Corbyn government would be more decent and humane than another Tory administration, it would lack a clear, forward-looking vision for a post-Brexit Britain capable of addressing our many social and political problems. However, so would any Tory administration. The campaign has exposed Theresa May’s inability to fill Brexit with political content, beyond macho rhetoric and even more backward-looking and delusional proposals, like an “Empire 2.0” trading system with the ex-colonies and the recreation of the seventeenth-century Board of Trade. In that sense, Labour and Conservatives are both trading on a politics of nostalgia; the poetry of the future remains to be written.

Lee Jones

Labour’s Brexit crisis is May’s opportunity

18 Apr

Cynics will read Theresa May’s U-turn in deciding to call an early general election merely as an opportunist move to exploit opposition weaknesses. The Labour Party is deeply divided and at its lowest ebb in the polls since 1983. UKIP has imploded, with four leaders in the past year and the defection of its only MP. The LibDems remain decimated after their 2015 rout. May sees an opportunity to inflict on Labour its worst defeat since the 1930s, and mop up UKIP voters, cementing Tory domination at Westminster. The government’s slim majority will be expanded, giving the executive far greater room for manoeuvre; it will be better able to face down calls for another Scottish independence referendum; and it will be empowered to push through its EU negotiations without risk of eventual defeat in the Commons, and strengthened against the Lords.

None of this is wrong – May’s own speech makes some of the motivation explicit – but is one-sided. It doesn’t account for why the opportunity she is seizing exists: why is the Labour Party in such dire straits? Why are the LibDems again so marginal? Why is UKIP imploding? A simple answer is: Brexit.

UKIP’s situation is obvious. Its entire raison d’être has been to force a referendum on EU membership. Having succeeded, it is now defunct. Last year’s foolish predictions of a Farragist take over in the event of a Leave vote are exposed as nonsense. With its agenda snatched by the government and its big beasts, major donor and even councillors abandoning it, UKIP is rudderless and its vote share is flat-lining.

The misnamed Liberal Democrats have explicitly sided with “the 48 percent” – the defeated minority in the EU referendum. They have no intention of respecting the outcome of that vote and have done nothing but conspire – wholly ineffectually – to thwart it. As reality moves forward, the LibDems have less and less to say about it.

But the real disarray is Labour’s. At least the LibDems have a clear position on Brexit, one that is likely to gain them some Remainer votes. Labour’s position is demented. Put simply, it is because Labour has nothing coherent or meaningful to say on Brexit that May can win so big in June. However, Labour’s incoherence on Brexit represents something much deeper than Corbynite-Blairite divisions within the parliamentary party, on which many media and academic pundits focus. Labour’s Brexit problem is an expression of its fundamental and inexorable political and structural decline.

In its heyday, the Labour Party sought to further the interests of working people through state intervention in capitalist markets. The party was forced to abandon this distinctive Labourist political tradition by Thatcher’s decisive defeat of the wider labour movement in the 1980s. Labourism was replaced with the “Third Way” of New Labour, which accepted the market’s primacy but sought to combine it with social inclusion and social justice through a less ambitious yet more repressive deployment of state resources. New Labour abandoned the explicitly working-class component of the old Labour programme, triangulating rightward to seek votes among middle-class middle-Englanders, but it retained the party’s more fundamental orientation to the institutions of the British state as the agent of social change.

As the British state was transformed into a member state of the EU, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the Labour Party’s ideological attachments transformed with it.  The EU’s thin cosmopolitanism and its very limited protections of workers rights – so-called “social Europe” – provided one component of the party’s progressive-sounding, Third-Way cover story for its steady abandonment of the interests of its traditional, working-class voters. This story also appealed to the public-sector middle classes that had long supported the party’s high state spending and social programmes, upon which their own livelihoods depended. As their social base shifted and narrowed, then, Labour leaders and active supporters gradually joined a politico-bureaucratic elite that was increasingly cosmopolitan and transnationally networked. A party with strong Eurosceptic traditions was thereby converted into a pillar of the pro-EU consensus.

The party’s internal contradictions were initially moderated by modest, Third-Way social spending and privatised Keynesianism under Blair and Brown, but were dramatically unmasked by the global financial crisis and, especially, the EU referendum. Labour is now caught between two, increasingly incompatible social constituencies: a disaffected, mostly Northern working class, increasingly withdrawing from politics or shifting to UKIP in protest, battered by economic decline, concerned about immigration and increasingly Eurosceptic; and a metropolitan, mostly Southern middle-class, largely benefiting from economic liberalisation and more committed to the EU.

Faced with the EU referendum, a defining political moment, Labour sided with the existing institutions of the British state against the party’s traditional supporters, and with the EU against popular sovereignty. Whatever his own Eurosceptic, Bennite proclivities, Jeremy Corbyn could not align Labour with the Leave campaign without risking its metropolitan support base, and with them many urban seats. Sacrificing his own principles for party unity, he waged a weak and pragmatic Remain campaign.

Corbyn’s true colours showed after the referendum, when he insisted on respecting the result and invoking Article 50. But the party’s profound political crisis remains. Labour cannot mimic the LibDems without losing its residual working-class base, yet it cannot truly embrace Brexit for fear of alienating middle-class, urban voters. It therefore remains stuck in limbo. Its MPs voted to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and only then, having wasted any leverage it had, did the party it issue any conditions for its support in leaving the EU. At best, this makes Labour a bystander for the two years of Brexit negotiations and then a potential spoiler when the final deal is put before parliament. The can has merely been kicked down the road, presumably in the vain hope that – as Tony Blair and others wish – opinion will shift, making an eventual “no” vote more electorally viable.

Labour’s crisis is May’s opportunity. After all, Theresa May is hardly a political colossus. In many respects, she is incompetent, flailing around on core issues and reduced to pilfering policies from Corbyn’s own disastrous predecessor. What allows her to bestride the political stage is not any great political mind, nor any deep popular affection for her party, government, or policies. It is that, alone among the main UK-wide party leaders, and against her own personal sympathies as a cautious Remainer, she is willing to represent the will of the majority of voters as expressed in the EU referendum. This allows her to posture – entirely credibly – against the unelected Lords and the opposition parties as the only person who will act on the referendum’s verdict.

The election campaign will bear this out because, as we have previously argued, the last nine months have been wasted in pointless wrangling over whether to respect the vote, and who gets to pull the Article 50 lever, rather than on the terms of Brexit. UKIP has absolutely nothing to say. The LibDems will merely re-run a referendum campaign that they lost, appealing only to the most embittered Remainers. Labour faces a stark choice. If it cannot now develop a meaningful manifesto for Brexit, an articulated vision for post-EU Britain, rather than a laundry list of things they oppose plus Corbyn’s high-minded rhetoric, it is doomed. All the signs suggest that it cannot rise to the challenge. Labour MPs and mainstream pundits will blame Corbyn for the defeat; left-wingers will defend Corbyn and blame Blairite disloyalty. Both sides will deflect attention from the real rot at the party’s heart. Brexit has exposed the fact that Labour’s entire political tradition is bankrupt.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

Off with Henry VIII’s Head! The Need to Reclaim Brexit from the Executive

3 Apr

Nine months after the UK voted to leave the EU, the government has now invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, signalling Britain’s intention to depart and beginning two years of complex negotiations. TCM has supported Brexit as a necessary step for reviving Britain’s degraded representative democracy, and thereby popular control over politics, against the twin perils of technocracy and populism. We have never been under the illusion that Brexit would instantly achieve this goal, still less create some leftist paradise. Whether representative democracy is revived depends on how political forces act now. The Brexit process involves two major challenges to popular control: the Article 50 negotiation process itself, and the “Great Repeal Bill”, both of which risk centralising power in the hands of a narrow, technocratic elite.

First, the Article 50 process re-submits the UK to anti-democratic EU processes. Against those Brexiters who argued, in a populist manner, for the immediate triggering of Article 50 after the referendum, TCM warned that this was a technocratic trap. Article 50 was deliberately designed to make it difficult for member-states to leave. The cacophony of voices now warning that a deal cannot be done in two years merely illustrates the point: by imposing an unrealistically tight deadline, Article 50 clearly seeks to deter anyone from even daring to leave. More importantly, the negotiating process will convert the democratic moment of the EU referendum into a technocratic process. In keeping with an institution that has transformed public policymaking into nineteenth-century-style secret diplomacy, the negotiations must be conducted in private, with representatives of the Council and the Commission. We wanted as much democratic contestation over the terms of Brexit before UK officials entered this technocratic process to decide our future.

Remainers have squandered this collective opportunity to shape the process by indulging in pointless fantasies of parliamentary revolt against the electorate. The last nine months have not seen substantive debates over what form Brexit should take, but rather an anti-climactic struggle over who – the executive or parliament – has the right to pull the Article 50 lever. This legal battle was only waged in the hope that parliament would refuse to pull it; but parliament could not deliver. Parliament’s “victory” was empty because it was a gift of the courts. It was the government that retained the democratic mandate of the referendum, and parliament had nothing of substance to add. The government was forced to produce a White Paper, but this provided scant detail. The main commitments made were on leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but little else of substance has been discussed, and the bill was not seriously opposed in the Commons despite widespread disquiet about these terms. MPs finally seemed to realise that they could not oppose Brexit, but they completely failed to offer any vision for it.

Parliament therefore passed a pro-forma act, authorising the triggering of Article 50 but not imposing any significant conditions on the negotiations. The government merely pledged to report regularly to parliament – necessary, but hardly sufficient for popular control over the process – and to permit a final vote on the outcome – which, as we have argued, does not create real democratic choice. Most bizarrely, it was only after the bill was passed that the sclerotic Labour Party issued a list of “conditions” that the final deal must meet to gain their support in 2019. Remainers taunt Theresa May for having no plan for Brexit, but in reality it was they who had nothing substantive to offer, and therefore – feebly and irresponsibly – released the executive into Article 50 talks with the freedom to negotiate whatever it likes.

Parliament’s inability or unwillingness to take any real ownership of the process bodes very badly for the so-called “Great Repeal Bill”. The government plans to leave the EU by first domesticating the entire body of EU laws (the acquis communitaire), which parliament can then amend or repeal. This would be an appropriate restoration of parliamentary sovereignty. However, the executive is seeking a so-called “Henry VIII clause”, which would allow ministers to issue “secondary legislation” (edicts) that would amend this primary legislation. This is justified partly in technical terms: there is a lot of law to enact (over 170,000 pages), and much of it needs tweaking for the UK context.

The threat to representative democracy is obvious enough from the sinister “Henry VIII” label. Allowing ministers to dictate primary legislation is incredibly dangerous and amounts to a massive “Whitehall power grab”. Parliamentary sovereignty would be restored with one hand, then stolen away with the other.

This is clearly unacceptable, but it also underscores a key reason for leaving the EU. It is precisely because law-making has been transferred from parliament to internationally-networked executive agencies that this problem exists. For decades, laws and regulations have been initiated by the unaccountable European Commission, then adapted and finalized via secret negotiations between national ministers and European Parliament representatives in so-called “trilogues”, far removed from either public scrutiny or political debate (see here, pp.37-41, for more details). The vast acquis that now governs our lives – and must now be either retained or discarded – has been made primarily through the secretive exercise of executive power, not through our elected representatives. The proposed “Henry VIII” clause seeks to perpetuate this misallocation of authority by allowing UK ministers to decide which laws will stand or fall, or how they should be adapted to the UK. Nonsensically, it posits excessive executive power as the solution to a problem caused, in large part, by excessive executive power facilitated by EU structures.

The failure of parliament to influence the Brexit process so far, and the risk that it will be further sidelined, speaks to the degradation of representative democracy that was both expressed in, and accelerated by, the EU’s formation. As TCM’s Chris Bickerton has argued, as part of a general crisis of political representation, European governments retreated from their citizens into secret negotiations with one another behind closed doors, creating structures that further undermined democracy. European states thereby became “member-states”. As Britain leaves the EU, it casts off the legal form of member statehood, but the rotten content still remains: a political class disconnected from the masses, a parliament unused to exercising popular sovereignty, and an executive and bureaucracy accustomed to unaccountable rule.

The rot is most obvious in the party that ostensibly “leads” the official opposition. Jeremy Corbyn, betraying his own Eurosceptic principles, lost the opportunity to lead a progressive Brexit campaign. Labour, fatally alienated from the working classes it claims to represent, could not lead Remain to victory. Corbyn’s residual democratic principles, plus straightforward electoral calculus, meant Labour lacked the spine to oppose the referendum result; yet it now has absolutely nothing meaningful to offer on Brexit. Its total disarray, its inability to lead – borne of its decades-long alienation from ordinary citizens – is what allows a political pygmy like Theresa May to dominate the political scene, and the polls. She at least seems to grasp that there is a solid block of opinion requiring representation and leadership, and is seeking – however objectionably – to provide it.

The next few months will be decisive in determining whether there is anyone in the UK willing to recognize and then tackle this rot directly. Parliament needs to recover its function in representing social constituencies, take charge of the Great Repeal Bill, and exercise meaningful oversight over the executive’s conduct of the Article 50 talks. If the Remainer opposition merely persists in sneering from the sidelines, hoping to thwart Brexit two years hence, it will squander any chance of influence and, more importantly, the enormous opportunity for democratic renewal that Brexit has created.

Lee Jones

Give them British citizenship!

4 Mar

The British government is not treating EU citizens resident in the UK as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU. On the contrary, it is the EU that is treating those citizens, and British citizens resident in Europe, in this way. Theresa May has already sought a deal allowing EU citizens resident in the UK to remain here following Brexit, if EU governments will do the same for British citizens in their countries. EU leaders have refused to make any agreement until Article 50 has been invoked and its secretive negotiation process has begun.

The UK government should respond to this with a very public message that it is committed to the rights of those who live here. It should unilaterally declare that EU citizens have a right to remain in the UK after Brexit, and urge European governments to reciprocate. Indeed the British government should go further. It should make a point of inviting those EU citizens to become British citizens, and reduce the significant barriers to them doing so that exist at the moment.

The Prime Minister is not wrong to insist that she must put the interests of British citizens first. And EU governments may refuse to reciprocate. In Greece those governments have demonstrated that their attitude to European citizens can be almost as vicious as their treatment of African and Asian migrants. But the significant costs that might be caused by EU intransigence on the rights of British citizens abroad will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits to all British citizens.  We would be citizens of a state that has the confidence both to insist on its accountability to its own people (its democratic political sovereignty) and its openness to others (its internationalism). Such a state would earn worldwide respect from many millions of ambitious, talented and public-spirited individuals who are crying out for a break with the stale politics of the past. That would be an asset beyond price.

Opinion poll evidence suggests that there is overwhelming popular support in Britain for allowing EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit. A huge opportunity exists here for Theresa May really to lead the world. There is, of course, no evidence that she has either the political imagination or courage to take the opportunity – her long tenure as Home Secretary suggests the opposite. Only those committed to an internationalist politics of sovereignty are likely to be willing.

Peter Ramsay

 

 

 

 

 

Too much of a good thing: arguments against a second referendum

6 Dec

The demand for a second referendum on the terms of Brexit seems to be gathering force. The recent by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats’ in the hitherto Tory safe seat of Richmond was widely seen as a mini-referendum on Brexit. Former Tory Prime Minister John Major has waded into the debate, with his claims that while the popular verdict on the EU should be respected, a second referendum is nonetheless justified. Even Simon Jenkins, one of the few major commentators that managed to retain his composure in the aftermath of the June referendum, has given qualified support to the idea of a second referendum. In light of the continued prevarication over Brexit, it is worth revisiting some of our broad arguments regarding referendums and representative democracy. The Brexit effect continues to reverberate through British politics: those who sneered at referendums as rabble-rousing now earnestly make the case for a second referendum – thereby risking institutionalising the referendum as a mode of governance in Brexit Britain.

It is not difficult to discern arguments for having a second referendum, not least the fact that the precedent has now been established. The terms on which Britain leaves the European Union (EU) are clearly important for the country – in terms of movement of peoples, border control, long-term trade opportunities and patterns of economic growth. If the question of membership of the EU merited consulting the public, why should the terms on which we leave the EU not merit a similar level of democratic legitimation and public engagement? It is also worth noting that debates on a second referendum cut across the ongoing tussle in the Supreme Court over managing Brexit, such as the timing and modalities of invoking Article 50. After all, regardless of when Prime Minister May triggers Article 50 and whether or not she does it with a parliamentary vote, she could still call a referendum on the outcome of negotiations with Brussels at the end of the two-year negotiating period that would follow the invocation of Article 50. In light of all this, it is worth recalling what the best arguments for holding the Brexit referendum were in the first place, and considering how they stack up against the arguments for a second referendum.

On TCM we have sought to make the political case for representative democracy – against the inter-twined threats of technocratic subversion on the one hand, and the phony politicisation of populism on the other. Despite the fact that referendums justly have a reputation as the tool of direct democracy and populist authoritarianism, and whatever David Cameron’s personal motivations for calling the referendum, I supported a referendum on Brexit. More than this, I reckoned it to be the single most important political question put before the British electorate over the last three decades. There were several reasons for holding this view.

First, approaching the referendum entailed reckoning with the parlous state of representative democracy in Britain itself. That is to say: declining rates of public engagement and political participation whether measured by compression of the ideological spectrum, declining interest in politics, collapsing membership of political parties and the long term decline in voting in general elections. With the structures of representative democracy having been so rotted through prior to the referendum, it is reasonable to supplement the process of political decision-making with direct public engagement.

Important as such factors are, these were nonetheless secondary considerations. More important was the fact that it was the nature of democracy itself that was at issue in the referendum. Should legislation be crafted and debated by elected representatives, or channelled via the executive’s prerogative over foreign policy into Brussels, to then be funnelled back to national capitals and then be rubber-stamped by national parliaments? This hollowing out of the democratic process that took place under the aegis of the EU was the strongest reason to ensure that the electorate was given a voice over membership of the Union itself. Irrespective of the outcome, the referendum energised democracy. With the Brexit vote, the possibility of restoring representative liberal democracy at the nation-state level exists. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, political elites have been put on notice by the referendum as to the fact that they can be held to account, even through the limited formal representative structures offered by the British state. Evading popular accountability has become more politically difficult since the referendum.

Yet there are also good reasons to be wary of repeat referendums. A direct national vote on the character of national democracy is a different kind of political decision than a direct national vote on the outcome of negotiations overseen by elected representatives: the latter clearly slides into plebiscitarianism. Instead of escalating plebiscitiarian rule, British political parties should take advantage of their post-Brexit boost in membership and public political engagement to rebuild democratic contestation at the national level. Doubtless opportunistic Remainers will rally behind the call for a second referendum of whatever complexion, in the hope of throwing anything they can in the way of Brexit. Yet Remainers’ criticisms of the political degradation resulting from Brexit risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for which they will be complicit: if plebiscitarianism is embedded in the functioning of the British state, then a democratic shot in the arm may end up becoming a debilitating drug.

Philip Cunliffe

The Myth of Bregret

7 Nov

One of the reasons invoked to support calls for a second EU referendum is that the vote would inevitably go the other way, because people have changed their minds. In the polite version, this is because they will have new information on hand about the real costs of Brexit, such as the decline in sterling. In the less polite version, this is because the people were stupid enough to be fooled by a pack of lies from the Leave campaign. In reality, this regret over Brexit – ‘Bregret’ – is more imagined than real.

This myth has been circulating since 24 June. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Remainer media outlets scrambled to find individual Brexit voters who were shocked or upset by the outcome, saying they had only wanted to lodge a protest vote. Despite the fact that only a handful of people were willing to say this on camera, Remainers sought to present them as widely representative. Similarly, stories circulated that many people were Googling ‘what is the EU?’ in the days after the vote, despite the fact that only 1,000 people did so.

A couple of weeks ago, the myth was given more oxygen – and apparent scientific confirmation – with the gleeful circulation of this graphic and article from The Economist, which purported to show extensive Bregret.

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The data here come from the British Electoral Survey (BES), which polled voters in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. BES’s own commentary on its findings do not support the idea of significant Bregret, however. BES notes that 6% of Leave voters regretted their vote, which rose to 8% among those least convinced, before the vote, that Leave would win. However, BES says, ‘the narrative of surprised and regretful Leave voters has some truth but only for a small minority of voters’. Leavers were, on average, far more convinced they would win than Remainers. Moreover, ‘the level of regret is consistent with what we saw at the [2015] general election.’

Other sources confirm that voters remain pretty firm in their choices. YouGov focus groups conducted in August found no change among Leavers or Remainers and, remarkably, no desire among Remainers for a second referendum, even from those who signed a petition calling for one (so clearly Brexiters are not alone in saying one thing and wanting another). YouGov polls through August and September also found the 52/48 split remaining consistent. John Curtice, the UK’s premier polling expert, concludes that claims of ‘buyers’ remorse’ are merely ‘wishful thinking’ by Remainers. “Very few minds have been changed – there are very few signs of regret.”

That the myth nonetheless circulates tells us a lot about both Remainers and Leavers. It shows that many Remainers still believe that the only reason that voters could have been so foolish as to vote to leave the EU is a lack of information, caused by lies or distortion, which are now being corrected as the predicted post-Brexit ‘disaster’ unfolds (even though, actually, it doesn’t). Leave voters could not, on this view, have voted for principled reasons, or on the basis of careful consideration; just a bit of additional information would be enough to change their position. That voters have actually stuck to their guns suggests quite the opposite.

The High Court Undermines Parliamentary Sovereignty

6 Nov

On 3 November, the High Court of England and Wales ruled that parliament, not the government, has the power to invoke Article 50 and trigger the UK’s departure from the European Union. This has generated glee from Remainers, and a bitter and sometimes ugly backlash from Brexiters. While the ruling is unlikely to lead to Brexit being thwarted, it is certainly a blow to democracy, one that illustrates the deep crisis of political representation that afflicts the UK.

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The ruling: undermining parliamentary sovereignty

Much Brexiter outrage focuses on the fact that three unelected judges are seen to be thwarting the democratic will of 17.4 million voters. Indeed, the Remainers who brought this case were not motivated by democratic impulses. They know that three-quarters of current Members of Parliament (MPs) are Remainers. By shifting control over Article 50 to parliament, their hope is that MPs will block Brexit, by overturning the referendum result of 23 June or, failing that, by kicking Brexit into the long grass.

The central question in the case was who has the right to repeal the legal rights and duties associated with EU membership that will necessarily follow from invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. In the UK’s constitution the conduct of foreign relations, particularly the (un)making of treaties, is a matter for the ‘Crown’, whose ‘prerogative’ is exercised by the executive branch; hence, the government argued that it had the right to invoke Article 50. Remainers argued that the EU treaties are special because EU laws enacted under those treaties directly affect the rights and obligations of British citizens. Since the civil wars of the seventeenth century, only parliament has had the constitutional authority to repeal laws or make new law. Invoking Article 50 would lead to withdrawal from the EU and this will effectively repeal a wide range of laws giving British citizens various rights and obligations. Therefore, the Remainers argued, only the (the overwhelmingly Remainer) parliament has the constitutional authority to set that process in motion.

The judges sided with parliament – which may appear to be a victory for democracy. But considered in its political context, the judges’ legal argument actually subverts the democratic content of parliamentary sovereignty.

To begin with, what Remainers are ultimately in favour of is not the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty over the powers of the executive but remaining within the EU, and remaining within the EU necessitates parliament relinquishing a considerable part of its power to make law to the executive. The European Communities Act 1972 automatically enacts EU law as UK law, without requiring parliament to pass any further statutes each time EU law changes. UK ministers contribute to making EU law through their activity in the European institutions. The power that ministers are exercising when they make those EU laws is nothing other than the Crown’s prerogative to conduct international relations. The result is that Remainers who loudly claim to be upholding the sovereignty of parliament against Theresa May’s reliance on the prerogative are the same people who want parliament to continue to surrender a significant part of its law-making powers to the Crown in the form of EU law-making.

If the prime minister did use prerogative powers to implement Article 50, this would not involve the Crown taking powers away from parliament. Parliament asked the British people in the referendum whether we wanted to retain the rights associated with EU membership, and a majority voted not to. If the government invokes Article 50, it would simply be implementing a democratic decision called for by parliament itself. Moreover the government has pledged to maintain all of the legal rights and duties in domestic law that arise from EU law, allowing parliament to retain, repeal or amend them after Brexit.

Parliamentary sovereignty is threatened far more by the legal ruling than it is by Theresa May. The judges’ insistence that parliament’s sovereignty requires parliament to make the decision on Article 50 pretends that the decision has not already been made by the people that parliament is supposed to represent. The judges’ ruling therefore opposes parliamentary sovereignty to popular sovereignty. The political authority of parliament ultimately derives solely from the extent to which it represents the people. By encouraging and empowering our political representatives to set themselves against the majority decision, the ruling has the effect of undermining the true sovereignty of parliament in the name of upholding it.

The crisis of representation

The ruling underscores the deep crisis of political representation in Britain. Theresa May’s reluctance to hand the authority over Article 50 to parliament is not simply because she thinks ‘revealing our hand’ is a bad negotiating tactic. It is because she cannot trust the predominantly Remainer MPs to accept the referendum result, and can foresee disaster should they refuse to do so. A large majority of the public backed May on this, suggesting that they, too, do not trust MPs to represent them. The same sentiment is conveyed by the shrill Leaver reaction to the court’s judgement.

This is not a ‘constitutional crisis’, as some are saying; it is a crisis of political representation, expressing the disconnection of the political elite from the electorate. Parliament has been exposed as highly unrepresentative: 74% of them – and every political party bar UKIP and the Ulster Unionist parties – backed Remain, versus just 48% of the voters. Many MPs have openly expressed a desire to frustrate the outcome. This creates a situation where it is the executive branch that more accurately represents popular sentiment by pledging that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

This is hugely problematic precisely because, as TCM has repeatedly argued, open debate and participatory democratic processes are now vital to determine what Brexit actually means in practice. The majority of people favoured leaving the EU, thereby authorising the government to change the law accordingly, including by repealing rights associated with EU membership. Nevertheless, the exact nature of Brexit was never defined during the campaign; no one can seriously argue Leave voters endorsed any particular option.

From the democratic point of view, it would be good to have as wide a political debate on this question as possible. The Brexit negotiations are not a matter for secret diplomacy, still less are they a poker game. The terms of Britain’s departure concerns us all. If Brexit is going to restore representative democracy, and strengthen parliamentary sovereignty, then the process should begin with collective political debate on defining what Brexit means. This involves representing the interests of both Leavers and Remainers. The referendum produced a clear result, but 16 million people still voted to Remain. They must accept that they lost on the fundamental question of EU membership, but are fully entitled to have their concerns and interests reflected in discussions on the nature of Britain’s departure.

However, the crisis of representation is such that, although parliament should be making decisions on the form of Brexit, it is unrepresentative with respect to Brexit itself, and therefore ought not to be given a veto over Britain’s departure from the EU – which is what giving MPs a final say over Article 50 does.

The real threat to parliamentary sovereignty arises from legislators’ continuing willingness to hold Brexit hostage, which is only encouraged by the High Court’s judgement. If MPs really respected the true basis of parliamentary sovereignty – the will of the electorate – they would stop blackmailing the electorate. They would unambiguously commit themselves to respecting the referendum result and leave invoking Article 50 to the executive. They would confine themselves to debating how best to implement the judgement of those who give them their authority. As long as they refuse to do this, too many electors will not trust them to be involved and the government can correctly stake a greater claim to true representativeness and to the political authority to keep the negotiations secretive.

Will the judgement foil Brexit?

Despite Leaver anxiety, the simmering mutual antipathy between the Leave majority in the electorate and the Remain majority in parliament will probably keep the UK on course to leave the EU. Work to model the EU referendum results at constituency level shows that 421 out of 574 English and Welsh constituencies probably voted Leave, and 270 definitely did, while only 152 constituencies probably voted Remain, while only 76 definitely did so. If MPs defy the referendum result, they would face an enormous backlash and many could lose their seats.

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Theresa May understands this – which is why she has doubled down on Brexit, reiterating her intention to invoke Article 50 by March. Many Remainer MPs too are hearing the electoral message, and now say that parliament’s role is to scrutinise the government’s negotiating position and ensure that Britain pursues an approach that protects British interests – from their perspective, staying in the single market. Following the ruling the Labour Party leadership has reiterated that Labour will not block Article 50, but will just ‘fight for a Brexit that works for Britain’. True, some MPs are still clinging to the idea of a second referendum on the final deal, but for reasons we have outlined previously, that is both politically unacceptable and impractical, making it very unlikely to fly in the Commons. The betrayal of the referendum result is therefore technically enabled by the High Court’s judgement, but remains politically unlikely.

If it does happen, the consequences will be unpredictable. One possibility is that Leave voters will rebel against their turncoat MPs, forcing their deselection or defecting to other parties – possibly reviving the disintegrating shambles that is now UKIP. While this revival would be a regrettable result of Remainer intransigence, it would at least have the positive outcome of disciplining the people’s representatives, showing them that they cannot continually defy the voters’ will. That might actually strengthen representative democracy. However, another possibility is that parliament’s frustration of the referendum result deepens popular cynicism towards the electoral system and the elitist Remainer parties populating it. The electorate will then increasingly look for solutions that attack and circumvent this system, making them prey to extremist populist appeals.

Although Remain MPs appear to be seeing sense, the possibility that parliament might frustrate the majority decision in the referendum is still a greater threat to democracy than giving the executive wide discretion to interpret the result, undesirable as that is.

The Supreme Court may yet dig parliament out of the mess it has got itself into by finding a way to reverse the High Court ruling when the government appeals in December, though it would be unwise to set too much store by the judges’ democratic instincts. The highly personalised attacks on the High Court judges in the Brexit-supporting media are no doubt intended to intimidate the Supreme Court. If the court does not overturn the ruling, a general election may be the only solution. Whatever the final result of the legal proceedings, parliament is at a crossroads. MPs can choose to undermine democracy further by continuing to delay or frustrate the implementation of the majority’s decision. Or they can participate in the renewal of democracy by giving up their claim to have a right to do so.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

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