Dilemma for democracy

referendumIt was pointed out to me over Christmas that I only posted once on this blog in 2018. And like that one, this post was also triggered by reflections on current debates on the left: this time the fraught discussions about what MPs should do to avoid the trap set by Teresa May of having to choose between a no-deal Brexit and the disastrous dog’s dinner of a Brexit deal that she has negotiated. I would love to be writing about something else, but this is what feels most urgent.

Withdraw Article 50, engineer another general election, hold another referendum. I am surely not alone among my friends and contemporaries in being happy to embrace any or all of these options if it would get us out of this horrible, horrible mess. But what has been occupying my thoughts has not been the advantages of one over another, but rather the deeper questions which this whole debacle has raised. In particular, the very delicate issues it touches on relating to democracy. which can be awkward for socialists to air in public.  And in the depths of this do-not-probe-too-deeply-or-stamp-too-hard quagmire sits the political mechanism of the referendum.

The referendum is often hailed as the ultimate expression of democracy, though many question its compatibility with parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy of course has many faults, but it is does incorporate two important principles that are negated by a referendum. First, the results are always reversible. You elect your MP for a limited period and can then change your mind if you don’t like what she or he has been doing and elect somebody else after the term is up. Second, it recognises that the public does not have perfect information or prescience about unexpected new developments. Although you take account of what policies your parliamentary candidate stands for, you vote for a person, not a policy, on the basis that, once elected, the MP will make informed decisions on complex issues based on a combination of her or his political views, the latest information and expert advice.

A referendum does not just force a choice between crude binary options; its result is also deemed irreversible, however ill-informed the basis on which people made that one-off binary choice. Once the people have spoken, goes the rhetoric, what they have said should stand for all time.  And because the logic underpinning the holding of a referendum is fundamentally populist, any criticism or second thoughts about it must be regarded not only as anti-democratic but also elitist. And what socialist wants to go around sporting those two labels?

It is perhaps no accident that Switzerland, the country that makes most use of referenda was just about the last in the world to give women the vote, or that in Germany, with its first-hand experience of the horrors that crude populism can lead to, the referendum is viewed with great suspicion.

We have all known for a long time that a lot of public opinion, shaped as it is by right-wing media scaremongering and misinformation, is profoundly reactionary. It is no secret that at any time in the second half of the 20th century if there had been a popular vote on it the British people would have wanted to bring back capital punishment, for example. However there was a quiet consensus at the time (which some populists might consider elitist) that they should not be given the chance to do so. And – at least in the Labour party – that there was a responsibility to try to educate the general public in the interests of encouraging more humane values.  Parliament was often ahead of public opinion on many  issues such as the legalisation of homosexuality, the prevention of violence against children and religious tolerance.

Had Cameron, in his desire to throw a bone to the rabid right of the Tory Party, organised a referendum not on Brexit but on bringing back hanging, and had the public voted for it, I wonder, would we still hear Labour MPs saying ‘the people have spoken’ and investigating ways to bring it back in a nice, moderate form?

The same could be said for any number of other issues, including race and immigration. Any referendum runs the risk of establishing such (uninformed) views as ‘the views of the people’ and casting them in concrete for all time. The parliamentary system,  despite its many defects, does at least allow for mutual education and, as already noted, presupposes that informed politicians will modify their views in the light of new information in the knowledge that if their constituents really don’t like the decisions they make then they always have the choice to vote them out next time round.

The nettle that has to be grasped by the Labour party is this: at what point should socialists come out and insist that we stand for certain values which the majority may well not yet hold but we nevertheless think are important enough to keep campaigining for? In other words, at what point do we prioritise leading over following? Faced with an unpalatable opinion poll result, should we just kow tow to dominant opinion and change the manifesto to accommodate it? Or make a principled case for the other view, and campaign to change peoples’ minds?

Avoiding grasping this nettle has led to a great deal of fudging over the last two and a half years, not helped by nasty in-fighting within as well as between parties. The horrible mess we are in seems to me to be a direct outcome of this. It is going to be extraordinarily difficult for parliamentary democracy to survive.

What should the strategy be? I am no wiser than when I started writing this blog. Two wrongs don’t make a right and, having written what I have about referenda it would seem profoundly illogical to say let’s have another one. But if this is the only way to avoid a nasty Brexit then I would personally go for it as the least bad option. If you are stuck in a stinking bog, sinking by the minute, you grab any rope that is thrown to you.

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