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General Election 2017: Corbynmania in Perspective

28 Jun

A year ago, following the EU referendum, many commentators were convinced that the Brexit vote had ushered in a generation of Tory hegemony, and the left would be permanently confined to the margins. Earlier this month, the Labour Party sharply improved its electoral performance with its most left-wing leader ever, and its most radical manifesto since 1983. Hailed by adoring Glastonbury crowds, Jeremy Corbyn himself has gone from zero to hero in a matter of weeks. Most of those commentators seem to have forgotten their earlier predictions in their haste to celebrate a Corbyn “victory”. But their gushing enthusiasm is no more measured than their earlier gloom.

A proper reckoning with the election result needs to start from the position that the EU referendum was never a hard-right victory in the first place. It then needs to be remembered that Corbyn still lost the election. Labour won only 262 seats, on 40% of the vote, to the Tories’ 317 seats, on 42.3%. Despite her manifest weaknesses, Theresa May won more votes than any prime minister since 1992. Corbyn’s “victory” amounts to averting catastrophe and making the Labour Party look like a serious contender for power again. A sober analysis of how this was achieved tells a less heroic story than the myth now developing around Corbyn.

A combination of different factors, with strong regional variation, helped the Labour Party electorally. Moreover, underlying Corbyn’s electoral success are elements of a political approach from Labour that is depressingly familiar and unattractive.

How Corbyn survived

Crucially, the Conservatives ran a totally dismal campaign. Theresa May was exposed as a robotic technocrat, shrill and inconsistent. She failed to persuade anyone but Tory and former UKIP voters that the election was solely about Brexit and her leadership, allowing Corbyn to reframe the election as being about socio-economic issues, where the Tories are weak.

Conversely, Corbyn had an excellent campaign from the outset – partly, it seems, by accident. In retrospect he appears to have ridden a tidal wave of support, but this is rather misleading. Whereas the Tories took the fight into apparently vulnerable Labour seats, Corbyn waged a defensive campaign in the Labour heartlands. Many rightly speculated that his remarkably large rallies in such areas were largely intended to shore up his position in the face of an apparently inevitably post-election leadership challenge. Instead, these events, widely covered on TV and social media, seemed to inspire people that something different was in the air. The “ground war” had a similar defensive quality, with Labour HQ instructing activists to shore up incumbents, rather than going on the attack. It was only as the polls shifted that grassroots campaigners, on their own initiative, shifted to proactive campaigning in neighbouring marginals.

Corbyn’s team was able to quickly assemble a remarkably popular manifesto. Despite two years of relentless infighting and plots, party wonks had somehow managed to find time to work up and cost specific policies. This was a real game-changer. Many had previously been frustrated with Corbyn’s apparent inability to translate fine-sounding words into concrete proposals; the sudden production of a costed manifesto gave him a serious edge over the visionless, warmed-over One Nation Toryism offered by Theresa May, in an uncosted manifesto that contained an electorally-deadly “dementia tax”. The Corbyn team’s leak of the draft manifesto was also a masterstroke. It confirmed the policies as widely popular, bouncing the party’s general executive into approving it.

The popularity of Labour’s policies was expressed in the remarkable cross-class support the party attained. This also reflects in part Corbyn’s appeal to the populist mood, where he had the advantage of being a lifelong outsider – a position burnished by attacks over his previous positions and associations. By comparison, Theresa May looked every inch the elite technocrat that she is.

Labour won a plurality of votes among all workers, with only retirees backing the Tories. Much has been written since the election suggesting that Labour under Corbyn has essentially become a middle-class party. Although Labour’s support has certainly become more middle-class over recent decades, there is no sign of any big shift under Corbyn specifically. If we look at how people in particular social grades voted, compared with 2015, Labour and the Tories both gained more support across all categories, but Labour still did a little better with less well-off voters. (NB this data measures occupational grade, not social class.)

AB C1 C2 DE
Labour 35 (+9) 41 (+12) 39 (+11) 46 (+12)
Conservative 44 (+4) 41 (+7) 44 (+12) 34 (+9)

Table 1: Proportion of voters within each social grade won by Labour and the Conservatives respectively

Nonetheless, what’s striking is obviously the rather weak association between class and voting behaviour – especially when compared to age. Corbyn managed to boost substantially the Labour vote among under-45s – not merely among the very young (see Fig. 1). Early boasts from the NUS president of a record 72% turnout among 18-24s turned out to be self-congratulatory and baseless nonsense, but turnout did return to early-1990s levels (see Fig. 2). This is crucial insofar as there is now a yawning generational gap in voting patterns (see Fig. 3). After a decade of disengagement under New Labour, the EU referendum seems to have kick-started politics again for the youngest generation.

Fig. 1: Turnout by age group

Fig. 2: Conservative-Labour gap by age

Also crucial was Labour’s stance on Brexit, where a triangulating fudge actually became an electoral asset. In pro-Leave constituencies, Corbyn’s insistence on respecting the EU referendum result was decisive. As Paul Mason, who campaigned in several pro-Leave areas, reports, this was needed merely to gain a hearing for Labour on the doorstep. This helped to pull back 20-30% of UKIP’s vote for Labour and held off the Tory advance in the North and Wales. Had Labour run on an anti-Brexit ticket, the Tory capture of Mansfield would have been replicated far more widely.

In some pro-Remain constituencies, however, particularly in the metropolitan areas, Labour candidates expressly pledged to oppose Brexit. This arguably helped attract votes from hardline Remainers and, coupled with substantial tactical voting, explains the significant swing from the Greens and LibDems to Labour. This is why Labour was able to hold constituencies like Bermondsey.

Finally, the terrorist attacks during the election campaign probably had some effect. The Manchester bombing had surprisingly little impact at first. As the person who facilitated the movement of Libyan radicals back and forth to the UK, Theresa May has escaped with staggeringly little accountability. However, nor were the Tories able to smear Corbyn as “weak on security”. Instead, Labour adroitly made an issue of police cuts, while the Tories had little to offer but irrelevant and draconian measures like internet regulation. There was virtually no real discussion of the causes of Islamist terrorism (reversing police cuts won’t solve the problem either), but Labour came out of these horrific events with a reinforced case against austerity.

The left has not yet closed the void

The electoral advance for the Labour Party is significant, but at this stage it would be unwise to put too much hope in it for a revival of mass politics.

In the first place, despite its vastly increased membership thanks to Corbyn, the Labour Party itself is still poorly suited as a vehicle for a new popular movement. Surprisingly little has been written on the Labour “ground war” but it does not seem that the party sought to harness its expanded membership as foot soldiers, and even the pro-Corbyn Momentum faction seemed to play a surprisingly weak role. This reflects the Labour party’s attenuated internal democracy, which has made it resistant to, reluctant to engage with, and even suspicious of, the groundswell generated by Corbyn.

The party machinery, and its parliamentary wing, stayed remarkably disciplined during the campaign, particularly given the previous two years of backbiting. Thanks to the result, Corbyn’s enemies are now forced to smile to his face. But they are still in position. Most party hacks, unelected and elected alike, remain opposed to even the mild social democratic programme that Corbyn stands for. Many campaigned by distancing themselves from him, to save their own skins. Their loyalty is paper thin; they are not true believers but rank opportunists who still believe, in their heart of hearts, in centrist, Blairite policies. It remains to be seen whether Corbyn has the political authority and will to restructure and democratize the party, as he often declares he wants to. His previous treatment of Momentum – cutting them off at the knees after an onslaught from his treacherous deputy, Tom Watson – suggests a reluctance to take the tough decisions needed.

More important, the party and its base remain deeply divided, socially and politically, most importantly over Brexit. The long-term decline of the trade union movement has resulted in Labour’s support being more evenly split between its traditional, deprived, working-class heartlands and the relatively prosperous, liberal, metropolitan middle classes. Its disarray over Brexit expresses this divide. The election did not bridge the divide with a coherent new compromise; it did not even paper over the cracks, because different parliamentary candidates were campaigning on completely different platforms. If Labour was suddenly thrust into power it would struggle to offer anything more coherent than the Tories on the major task facing the country, and rifts would rapidly re-emerge.

A leading force in this division would be the leftists currently celebrating Corbynmania but who spent the last year sneering at Brexit voters as knuckle-dragging racists. They have not suddenly changed their minds about this. They prefer a fairytale version of the general election as some kind of heroic, progressive fight-back against dark forces that never actually existed. Their support for the EU, and their derision for voters, expresses the long-term retreat of the political class away from the people and into the state, and this is yet to be reversed. Corbyn’s ability to engage with the public is admirable, but it is not widely shared. Comparing the reaction to the Grenfell Tower disaster with that towards the Brexit vote, indicates that leftist elites prefer the poor when they appear as vulnerable clients of the welfare state, rather than bolshie political actors in their own right.

Finally, despite Corbyn’s dumping of Blairite fiscal policy, both Corbyn’s manifesto and his campaign drew on New Labour techniques and themes. The party’s balancing act on Brexit and immigration was a careful piece of political triangulation, characteristic of the Blair era. During the campaign, Corbyn was quick to respond to the massacres in Manchester and London by calling for more police on the streets, a classic Blairite move to exploit fear and institutionalise insecurity. Blair may have gone, but the Labour Party both in its approach to police security and its wider approach to social security remains very much a party focused on the politics of safety rather than the politics of self-government.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

General Election 2017: Brexit’s Democratic Dividend

27 Jun

One irony of Britain’s general election result is that the Labour Party’s electoral advance demonstrates just how wrong the left has been about British politics since last year’s EU referendum.

Most of the British left was horrified by the Leave vote, seeing it as a permanent victory for UKIP, the Tory right and racism. Left-wing commentators claimed no longer to recognize their own country and openly compared the atmosphere to the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s. We pointed out at the time that this reaction was absurd and an excuse for the left’s failure to represent working class interests. The Eurosceptic right had not suggested anything on a par with the Nazis, and in any case it had nothing to offer politically. Sure enough the Tory right and UKIP promptly imploded after the referendum. A year later the general election has produced a weakened Conservative government, stripped of its majority, and a resurgent Labour Party under a left-wing leader. UKIP has all but disappeared electorally while a record 52 MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds have been elected, including an increase in the number of Muslim MPs from eight to 13. The new parliament also contains a new record of 45 out LGBT MPs. Not only is post-referendum Britain not anything remotely like Weimar Germany, but as we hoped the referendum vote has had some positive effects for democracy in Britain.

As we argued last summer, the referendum saw a significant protest vote against the political void that had opened up between the governing class and the population. This void stands where the political process of representing ordinary people’s interests used to be. It is a void that is embodied above all in the distant and unaccountable form of government that is the European Union.  The shock of the referendum result was that this political void could no longer be ignored, but instead had to be addressed.

When the two major parties returned to the ballot box this year, they had significantly realigned their priorities. With both formally backing Brexit, debate focused on other issues. And both parties looked to the past for inspiration. The Conservative manifesto stuck to their sound finances mantra but otherwise shifted their tone markedly by trying (ineffectually) to evoke the postwar one-nation Toryism. Corbyn’s Labour Party finally buried Blairite fiscal policy and returned to Old Labour’s higher taxes to finance higher spending on public services.

In this contest between antiquated political platforms, it turned out that the Labour Party was in the stronger position. The electorate once again showed that it could not be taken for granted politically. While Brexit remains popular and May got the most support, the electorate denied the prime minister her anticipated overall majority and instead strengthened Labour’s position.

Meanwhile in Scotland the electorate delivered a bloody nose to the dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) by significantly boosting the unionist parties. It transpires that many Scots voted to Remain not out of such fanatical attachment to the EU that they now crave a second independence referendum just to stay in it – but rather because they feared the UK’s breakup. The remarkable revival of Tory fortunes in Scotland reflects their solid unionist credentials and staunch anti-SNP position. Again contrary to predictions, the fallout of the referendum has therefore strengthened the Union with Scotland.

A proper accounting for the effects of last year’s Leave vote would, therefore, find no place for the triumph of the far right. Rather it would include the killing off of austerity as government policy, the strengthening of the Union and a strengthening of parliament’s influence.  In all these ways democracy has been boosted by last year’s Leave vote. The sharp increase in turnout in the recent general election, especially among a generation turned off politics by New Labour, speaks to the return of politics after a long winter of depoliticized technocracy. The electorate has shown it can no longer be taken for granted and the shaken political elite has been forced to try to reconnect with the voters.

Peter Ramsay

General Election 2017: The Brexit Election That Wasn’t

27 Jun

In the next three posts, Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay reflect on the British general election result and what it tells us about the persisting popularity of Brexit, the effect of the EU referendum on British democracy and the prospects for Corbyn’s Labour Party.


 

When Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election for 7 June, it was meant to be “the Brexit election”. Claiming that she faced resistance on Brexit from other political parties wishing to thwart the people’s will, she demanded a fresh mandate – i.e. a vastly expanded majority – to push through the Article 50 talks. In the event, the election campaign barely touched on Brexit. Neither side had a detailed or compelling vision for the Article 50 talks. This was disastrous for May. Unable to make Brexit the detailed focus of the election, she allowed Corbyn to reframe it as being about issues where the Tories were weakest, like public spending.

The sheer lack of discussion about Brexit makes it absurd to try, as some commentators have, to present the result as “the revenge of the Remainers”. The available data also disprove this claim (the following draws on the first post-election poll by Lord Ashcroft).

Data on which party Leave and Remain voters supported in the 2015 and 2017 elections do not suggest any Remainer “revenge”. In 2017, the main shift was in Leave voters from UKIP to the Tories. Labour, however, picked up both some Leave voters – from both UKIP and the Tories – and some Remain voters, from both the Tories and LibDems. Crucially, this was only possible because Corbyn has rightly insisted on respecting the referendum result and ran on a pro-Brexit manifesto. Without this, the Tory raids on Leave-voting Labour constituencies might well have succeeded. The LibDems’ collapse also showed there was simply no mileage in a “Remoaner” strategy.

Voted Leave Voted Remain
Party supported GE 2015 GE 2017 Change GE 2015 GE 2017 Change
Con 42% 59% +17 28% 24% -4
Lab 19% 25% +6 38% 50% +12
LibDem 14% 4% -10 13% 14% +1
UKIP 23% 6% -18 1% 0% -1

Table 1: How Leave and Remain voters voted in 2015 and 2017 elections

We can also look at this the other way around: how supporters of each party voted in the EU referendum. This shows that, while Tory voters have become much more pro-Brexit, reflecting the UKIP influx, attitudes among Labour voters have remained remarkably consistent (the pattern is identical if we look at the degree of enthusiasm about Brexit).

Proportion of party supporters voting Leave Proportion of party supporters voting Remain
GE 2015 GE 2017 Change GE 2015 GE 2017 Change
Con 58 68 +10 41 73 -11
Lab 31 31 0 67 30 -3
LibDem 25 19 -6 73 64 +5

Table 2: Proportion of party supporters in 2015 and 2017 who voted Leave and Remain

Similarly, in determining voter choices, Brexit was strikingly marginal for a so-called “Brexit election”. Although it was the top issue overall, this disguises a stark divide between Labour and Tory voters. Put simply, only Tory supporters believed May’s claim that the election was about the Brexit talks and “strong and stable leadership”. Everyone else was more concerned about public services. People were not simply polarised into Leave/Remain camps. This is arguably because, as polls show, the vast majority of voters have already accepted, reluctantly or otherwise, that Brexit will happen. In this election, many were apparently looking beyond the immediate Article 50 negotiations and asking what sort of country they wanted to live in after Brexit. Many found Corbyn’s vision more compelling.

Top Issue Total Con Lab
Brexit 28 48 8
NHS 17 3 33
Economy 8 11 6
PM 8 13 4
Immigration 6 9 3
Cuts 5 0 11
Terrorism 5 7 3
Poverty 4 0 7
Education 3 0 6

Table 3: Top issues for party voters

The same picture emerges if we look at voters’ top three issues.

Ranked 1st Ranked 2nd Ranked 3rd
Con Lab Con Lab Con Lab
Trusted motives 8 (-3) 25 (+1) 10 (-3) 26 (+1) 15 (-1) 16 (+1)
Exiting EU 31 (+9) 3 (-3) 26 (+3) 6 (-2) 17 (-) 10 (-1)
Preferred policies 4 (-4) 26 (+5) 7 (-2) 23 (+1) 10 (-) 16 (-)
Better PM 25 (+4) 9 (-1) 26 (+4) 12 (-) 21 (-1) 15 (+1)
Always voted this way 10 (-1) 13 (-4) 3 (-) 5 (+5) 4 (-) 7 (-2)
Economic management 16 (-10) 8 (-) 22 (+1) 14 (-) 26 (+3) 17 (-)
Tactical 4 (-) 9 (+1) 2 (-1) 4 (-) 2 (-) 5 (-1)
Local candidate 4 (-1) 7 (-) 3 (-1) 6 (-) 3 (-1) 6 (-)

Table 4: Top issues for party voters in 2017 (change since 2015)

The fact that the “Brexit election” wasn’t actually about Brexit has two, somewhat contradictory, consequences. First, it resists efforts to paint the result as saying anything decisive about the issue. Some Brexiteers have tried to claim that, with 83% of voters opting for formally pro-Leave parties, there is now a strong mandate for Brexit. Contrariwise, some Remainers have argued the result shows no support for a “hard Brexit”, necessitating a “softer” option, while Remoaners have again rekindled their fantasies about negating the referendum result. All of this is nonsense. A poll taken on the anniversary of the Brexit vote shows the country stubbornly split, 52/48 in favour of Leave – a division that has persisted throughout the last year, despite endless recriminations and scaremongering. People’s views have not really changed; the election was not polarised around the Leave/Remain divide; and the vote tells us surprisingly little about people’s detailed thoughts on Brexit.

Source: YouGov, April 2017

The second consequence is that, lamentably, the country has still not yet had a serious debate about the shape that Brexit should take. As TCM said last year, the referendum debate was atrocious, with the Leave campaign failing to articulate either a sensible analysis of the EU or a coherent vision of post-Brexit Britain. The Eurosceptic view of the EU as a superstate dominating Britain was always factually wrong. As we have explained, the EU is rather a means by which all member-state governments (the UK’s included) rule their own populations while avoiding political accountability to them. Just as their understanding of EU was a fantasy, so the Eurosceptics’ nostalgic solution of a return to British democratic institutions missed the point. Much of the Leave vote was motivated by the general political accountability gap (of which the EU is one key aspect), and it was therefore as much a vote against the Westminster as it was against Brussels. Eurosceptic nostalgia for the pre-Maastricht order (or, more ridiculously, for the Commonwealth and the Empire) has only limited popular appeal.

Accordingly, while the electorate opted for Brexit, what that actually meant in practice had yet to be defined. Against populist calls for the swift invocation of Article 50, we wanted to see more debate to determine a collective agenda. However, rather than engaging their constituents and debating the future, MPs and others wasted the following year in panic, recrimination, internal leadership struggles, and futile efforts to stymie the result using the courts. When Theresa May eventually invoked Article 50, then, it was on terms defined by her alone and, as we warned, it merely led the British government into a bureaucratic negotiation process that is stacked against it (and, it turns out, wholly reversible in any case). This also created a risk of further bolstering of executive power with May’s “Henry VIII” approach to the Great Repeal Bill, and her bid for executive supremacy through an overwhelming electoral majority.

In declining to give Theresa May the overwhelming majority she sought the electorate has once again flexed its muscles. May is left with a hobbled minority government, barely able to negotiate a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, let alone the EU. In the longer term, this could turn out to be a good result for the restoration of representative democracy and parliamentary sovereignty. Much depends on whether a parliament that is still disproportionately pro-EU in its sympathies can manage a credible political debate over Brexit, one that takes the settled view of the electorate seriously. So far it has signally failed to step up to the task.

Yet Theresa May – or whoever replaces her – will struggle to get any of the seven EU-related bills through parliament over the next two years. The government will have to abandon its previous approach to Brexit and submit to meaningful parliamentary debate and scrutiny. Already, schemes have been mooted for cross-party discussions or even some sort of corporatist steering group. But these proposals are positive only insofar as they do not seek to remove Brexit from the sphere of democratic contestation. The country’s future should not be hived off into a small cabal of political and economic elites, insulated from public debate, where the influence of Remainers will be disproportionately high.

Ultimately, the referendum was a protest vote that succeeded, but a protest vote in itself does not produce new political ideas. Without new political ideas it will be tough for Britain really to break free of the interests that currently dominate our political life or of the institutions that serve those interests

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

 

 

 

 

 

Why Have People “Had Enough of Experts”?

2 Jan

One of the defining moments of the EU referendum campaign was Michael Gove’s remark – directed at all the professional economists predicting a Brexit vote would produce economic disaster – that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. This is now seen to have initiated a terrible era of “post-truth” politics. For the experts themselves – many of them, my fellow academics – this is deeply disturbing, signalling the inexorable rise of irrational, fact-free political debate. But what people have had enough of is not experts or expertise, per se; rather, it is the automatic, assumed authority that experts wield over non-experts.

The rise of “experts” to positions of authority in public life is intimately connected with the decline in popular political participation over the last few decades. Society has always needed technical experts to provide advice and implement policies, but increasingly “experts” have taken a central place in decision-making itself. A burgeoning array of issues have been removed from the domain of democratic contestation and handed over to unelected technical experts to decide. In many jurisdictions, legal changes have locked in this turn to “evidence-based policymaking”. The obvious example is the rise of independent central banks. Populated by professional economists, these now control monetary policy – once a matter of intense political contestation between forces favouring inflation control (typically, capital) and those favouring full employment at the expense of some inflation (typically, organised labour). More generally, the rise of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (“quangos”), judicialised bodies, and various commissions and inquiries since the 1980s marks the depoliticisation of many areas of public policy, and the growing authority of technocrats – people whose power derives not from their popular support but their technical expertise. These technocrats have also started coordinating their work across borders, forming transnational governance networks even more remote from popular democratic control. The European Union is only the most obvious example.

There has always been a strong class basis to this shift. Relocating decision-making from representative bodies to technocratic agencies reduces popular control over policymaking while endowing skilled professionals with unprecedented authority. As David Runciman recently argued, increasing evidence of political division between highly- and poorly-educated citizens reflects this divide, with the authority-wielding professions increasingly confined to an ever-narrowing social elite. The shared social background and values of technocrats and those they often seek to regulate – and the increasingly obvious “revolving door” between them – also helps bias governance outcomes in favour of the already wealthy and powerful, rather than serving the public interest. In short, there is nothing neutral about the political rise of experts, despite its frequent presentation as such. Part of the backlash against the attack on “experts” is this class seeking to defend its own power and authority. It also reflects a Remainer fantasy that if only the public were more educated, Remain would have won – as if more mind-numbing courses on the institutional structures on the European Union could somehow magically erase all of society’s social, political and economic contradictions and conflicts.

However, this reaction is overblown: it is not the case that ordinary people have lost all faith in experts, nor have they irrationally embraced “post-truth” politics. What they are revolting against is the automatic, assumed authority of experts. Due to the long decline of political contestation, many experts have become far too accustomed to being listened to with extreme deference; they expect their expertise to translate automatically into authority. It is this assumed authority that rankles with the non-expert: the presumption that, simply because someone has a PhD in a given area, no one else is permitted to voice an opinion. The expert does not even have to explain themselves: the mere invocation of their qualifications should apparently suffice to quell all dissent.

Examples of this abound, but one recent case is the widely-reported Twitter spat between UKIP funder Aaron Banks and historian Mary Beard over whether the Roman Empire was “destroyed by immigration”. Beard slapped him down: “you all need to do a bit more reading… Facts guys! … you guys don’t know Roman history… this might be a subject on which to listen to experts!” Banks defended his view, and was quickly vilified for trying to “mansplain” Rome to the noted female classicist. But his most notable comment was: “Where’s all your counter arguments & facts then?” Notably, Beard supplied none – she just dismissed him as ignorant and asserted her expertise. As the Huffington Post aptly summarised, his crime was failure to “defer to a respected historian’s perspective”.

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But why should anyone defer to experts? There are many reasons to think they should not. Most obviously, experts are very often wrong – sometimes disastrously so. Winston Churchill’s “personal technocrat”, Dr Frederick Lindemann, advised the British government that the 1943 Bengal famine was due to overpopulation, counselling against sending relief. Six to seven million Bengalis starved to death. In the 1960s and 1970s, educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt told the government that black children were genetically less intelligent than whites, holding back the shift to non-selective schooling. In the 1990s, government scientist Dr Robert Lacey warned that, by 1997, a third of the British population would have contracted Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease from eating beef contaminated with “mad cow disease”. The much-touted rise of “evidence-based policymaking” in the 1990s – reflecting the growing depoliticisation of public life – produced swathes of “quack policy”, justifying burgeoning state interference in private decision-making in the name of “public health” or “happiness”. Policies on passive smoking, alcohol pricing, sugar taxation and so on have all been adopted following scientist-backed campaigning – despite the fact that the evidence base is often extremely weak and the policies have often failed. As an IEA review comments,  “evidence-based policymaking” has often been less about scientific rigour than a “mechanism for academic elites to impose their own values on society as a whole, showing contempt for the wishes of the public.”

This clearly extends to research around the EU referendum, where expert authorities have projected their value judgements as truth. The International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, and virtually every professional economist, made bleak predictions about the immediate economic impact of a Brexit vote, which have already been proven badly mistaken. Likewise, a study by Imran Awan of Birmingham City University and Irene Zempi of Nottingham Trent University, released by the charity Hope Not Hate, was found to have vastly exaggerated the positive reaction to the shooting of Labour MP Jo Cox during the referendum campaign. TCM has exposed similar exaggerations or distortions around Brexit by the Electoral Reform Society and #PostRefRacism, both of which had academic input. Other “research” is just openly spiteful, like the UEA academic who discovered a correlation between Leave voting and obesity (not-very-sub-text: Leave voters are stupid and fat).

Unsurprisingly, then, experts are not immune from value judgements that can powerfully shape their pronouncements. Moreover, even when they strive for objectivity, their knowledge is only ever partial. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, everything but the most basic facts is contested, because there are always many ways to interpret data. All real “experts” know this; indeed, many academics (especially those influenced by post-structuralism) have been preaching for decades that there is no such thing as objective truth – only a set of competing “truth-claims”. But many nonetheless splutter with outrage when a non-expert dares to challenge their particular truth-claim.

This is arguably the nub of the issue: the growing political inequality between the “experts” and the masses. Some clearly believe that experts do not even need to justify or explain their perspective to the less-educated; the gap between their credentials should short-circuit the need for any discussion. But in a democracy, citizens are equal. Credentials do not entitle one to a greater say or, as some now openly fantasise about, more heavily weighted votes; and nor should they. Ironically, many “experts” involved in educating students would agree that a good citizen needs to think critically, to not accept received wisdom unquestioningly, and to exercise discriminating judgement. A citizen who fails to do this is evading their responsibility, simply casting their vote on the say-so of authorities, rather than on the basis of their own reason. An expert who denies a fellow citizen the possibility of discussion and debate, and thus proper understanding of issues, therefore corrodes democracy itself.

What non-experts are rightly reasserting, then, after a long period of tightening technocracy, is their equality as political subjects. Experts still have a political role to play – but as citizens informing and participating in debate, not as automatic authorities to whom mere mortals should automatically defer.

Lee Jones

Europe and the Rise of the Plebiscitarian State

8 Dec

The defeat of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reforms have been widely taken as yet another referendum defeat for the European Union (EU), threatening to destabilise the Italian banking system, and through it, the Eurozone itself. One wag on Twitter observed it was time to ‘have a fucking referendum on whether to ban over-confident male prime ministers from holding referendums.’ Here we have a succinct and common view from the pro-EU left of referendums in today’s Europe. Referenda are seen as brash, bold, dicey endeavours, to be expected from immature, testosterone-fuelled male politicians that risk stoking populist insurrection and ballot box revolts, in pointed contrast to the cautious matriarchal management of say, Angela Merkel. Referenda are seen as the tool of irresponsible populists and demagogues: US president-elect Donald Trump courted ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage and memorably promised a ‘Brexit-plus-plus-plus’ for his election victory, seeking to turn the US presidential elections into a referendum on the ‘Washington elite’.

Yet if referenda are the battering rams of the populist-barbarians-at-the-gates, they have become remarkably common features of the European political order over the last thirty-odd years. To name but a few, we have had the Dutch (2005, 2016), Irish (2001, 2002), French (2005), Scottish (2015), Greek (2015), Danish (1993, 2015), British (2011, 2016) and Hungarian (2016) referenda, with the possibility of more Dutch, French and Italian referenda to follow over the next few years. Why have the member states of the notoriously technocratic EU so frequently resorted to asking for direct popular mandates?

The growing frequency of referenda since the turn of the century reflects the EU’s deepening and broadening since the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, European integration processes have intensified the use of referendums in those states that require direct votes under the terms of national constitutions (France, Ireland, and Denmark). The establishment of monetary union also required referenda in Denmark (2000) and Sweden (2003). On the other hand, expansion eastwards and southwards also required direct popular votes in the candidate countries. Thus the EU enlargement of 2004 saw no less than nine referenda in the aspirant member states. European reliance on referenda was further extended by the EU when it notoriously demanded repeat referenda in Ireland (2001, 2002) until the desired outcome was secured with respect to the Treaty of Nice. Remainers in the UK, still hoping to thwart Brexit, are now demanding another referendum, this time on the terms of Brexit. In short, long before Farage, Cameron, Renzi or Orban became leading political figures, the referendum had been entrenched as an archetypal tool of European governance across the continent, all under the benign guidance of Brussels. Whatever criticisms we may we wish to offer of referenda as a tool of government – and there are many – such arguments need to be directed against the EU and its supporters at least as much as against any anti-EU populist seeking to undermine the foundations of the status quo.

To be sure, not all of these referenda directly concerned any given country’s relationship with the EU. The Scottish referendum for instance, concerned whether or not Scotland would remain part of the UK. Yet even here, the EU was woven through the fabric of Scottish politics and embedded in the choice Scottish voters had to make. The EU has accelerated the process of regionalisation and decentralisation seen in European states since the 1970s, thereby systematically reducing the political risks of independence. This development has been keenly exploited by the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP), which packaged the prospect of self-determination in the protective layers offered by ‘independence … in Europe’. How likely an independent Scotland would be able to secure fast-track membership of the EU also doubtless figured in voter’s calculations as to the risks and benefits of breaking away from London.

Given all this, it seems safe to say that referenda have become a structural feature of the European political order, a characteristic of the transformation of Europe’s decayed nation-states into the member-states of the European Union. According to Chris Bickerton’s theory, the EU has blossomed in the detritus left by the decay of representative democracy at the national level. As the organic links connecting states and societies have crumbled away leaving a ‘void’ between governments and the governed, the member-states of the EU have had resort to other means in order to secure some measure of popular legitimacy. That the EU should be so reliant on a tool as characteristically authoritarian as the plebiscite should come as no surprise; the EU is after allthe form of government that has arisen as representative democracy has declined.

Referenda allow political elites to strip-mine popular legitimacy with tightly controlled questions that they devise themselves, while offering the voters limited options and avoiding the flux of ongoing contestation between and within political parties. As one-off political choices, referenda offer rich symbolic rewards: the EU could claim a popular mandate in the chain of referenda that heralded its expansion eastwards in 2004. This was despite the fact that the process of accession typically strengthened executives at the expensive of legislatures and required parliaments to swallow thousands of pages of community law – the notorious acquis – all at once, making a mockery of the very meaning of passing legislation.

The plebiscitarian state emerging in Europe represents the further decay of the EU member-state, and is the logical conclusion of the degradation of democracy. Nor should it come as any surprise that the populists have succeeded in turning the technocrats’ favoured instrument of popular legitimation against them: populism and technocracy feed off each other, consuming representative party politics. A Remainer alliance is now forming in Britain, rallying around the call for a second referendum. Led by the Liberal Democrats but extending to the SNP, rebel Tories and Labour MPs, they seek not to overturn Brexit but rather indirectly to thwart it. If they succeed, they will accomplish what the populists have not, which is to complete Britain’s transformation into a plebscitarian state: Britain will thus retain the plebiscitarian political structure of the typical member-state even as we formally break from the EU.

Philip Cunliffe

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