Brexit means…progressive alliances, or ‘corporate absolutism’?

The ‘Leave’ vote, however manipulated by the media, was not just a rejection of Brussels technocracy but of the political status quo at Westminster. It’s time to rewrite the constitutional and political rules from scratch.

Gavin Barker
21 September 2017
judges queens speech.jpg

Image: Awaiting the Queen's Speech, UK Parliament, Creative Commons license.

The snap election in June tested to the limit the resolve by a progressive alliance of centre left parties to work together to defeat the Conservatives. The damage done to the Green Party’s electoral prospects resulted from a simplistic mistranslation of the progressive alliance as a tactical voting exercise; one that played to the benefit of Labour without reciprocal gains for the Greens.

As a Labour supporter, I pushed hard for a local progressive alliance in Cornwall, and I share the dismay felt by many local Greens. In Cornwall, they stood down in three constituencies in the hope that local Labour would follow their example. They did not. What we got was the official line that ‘it is not Labour policy to pursue a progressive alliance’.

Yet I remain hopeful. The political bargaining over marginal constituencies to remove the Tories may bear fruit next time round.  Meanwhile there are other possibilities that progressives can explore, which side-step tribal politics; specifically, to turn instead to a ‘45-degree politics’ that involve centre-left parties looking outwards not upwards. To develop strong lateral networks with campaign and community groups as a counterbalance to the vertical structures of party control. But to what end?   

Currently in Cornwall and elsewhere, the focus has been on electoral reform and this is starting to gather a head of steam. While we did not break the Tory stranglehold in Cornwall, we have raised a much stronger awareness about our broken and outdated election system and the need to replace it with Proportional Representation.

Yet electoral reform cannot be considered in isolation from wider constitutional reform. It is not just a dysfunctional election system that needs to be replaced but the obscure workings of an antiquated and over-centralised parliamentary system with its royal prerogatives, ‘reserve powers’, over-powerful executive and unelected Lords.  The much-lauded flexibility of our unwritten constitution also offers too many loopholes for a self-serving political class.  Our democracy is being gamed and we need to re-write the rules from scratch.

Brexit serves as a ‘constitutional moment’ to do so. The ‘Leave’ vote was not just a rejection of a remote and unaccountable Brussels technocracy but of the political status quo at Westminster. English nationalism combined with simmering regional resentments at the economic and political marginalisation of many.  While the media focus is on the economic consequences of Brexit, the political implications are no less far reaching. As Anthony Barnett has pointed out, Brexit delivered a body blow to Parliamentary sovereignty, the cornerstone of our ‘unwritten’ constitution. The ‘will of the people’ overturned the will of Parliament, the majority of whose members in both the Commons and Lords voted to remain. The British public - however misled and lied to by a cynical right-wing media - voted to leave the EU. Only a second referendum can reverse that decision. This is not about who is ‘right’, but whose will must be respected.

Brexit opened a door that cannot be closed:  the notion of a ‘popular sovereignty’ as opposed to a discredited parliamentary sovereignty. A new settlement between people and government is needed and it is this larger picture that centre-left progressives must grasp. Proportional representation cannot be seen in isolation, but as part of a series of changes that brings about a constitutional revolution.

We need a written codified constitution that enshrines popular sovereignty.  At its heart must be a governing set of legislative principles that guide the work of parliament and which parliament must abide by, beyond its legislative reach to alter. These principles must circumscribe the power of Parliament while maximising devolution of power to the regions and nations that make up the UK, allowing new forms of participatory democracy and a shared economy to flourish. 

Kick-starting the process of constitutional change will require a different approach to complement the citizens conventions normally advocated by democrats. Whilst useful, in themselves they lack the hard-edged momentum for change. The whole notion of constitutional reform may seem remote to a broader public more concerned about our NHS, cuts to education, low pay, environmental pollution, and the housing crisis.

Progressives must make and win the argument that these crises cannot ultimately be resolved without reference to principles of economic, social and environmental justice; and that these in turn cannot be separate from the legislative principles that direct the work of Parliament.  

The strategic aim of a progressive alliance must be to make these links explicit. The best way to do that is in the form of a People’s Charter; a short, clear document that sets out the legislative principles which form the core of a new codified constitution. 

It is here that the 45 degrees politics comes in. Citizens convention(s), holding debates around drafts of the charters, could kick-start a mass movement that knits together the multitude of community and campaign groups agitating for change, drawing in the wider public into a sustained, informed conversation about the rules by which they wish to be governed. It would be a cross-party alliance that need not have initial buy-in from centre left party leadership, at least not in its early stages.  For this to work NGO and campaigning organisations must see their interests reflected in the charter.

The proposal of a People’s Charter draws on the historical roots of English radicalism that is likely to resonate with both left and right - especially by those in search of a politics of identity.  The 19th Century Chartists set out six main aims which  mobilised millions precisely because their People’s Charter welded together diverse communities. In multicultural 21st century Britain, a Chartist movement would need to counterbalance an authentic Englishness with a recognition of social plurality. Social, ethnic and faith based interests  must be incorporated if it is to prove a unifying force. Similar approaches to a mass movement based politics have also been articulated by Srnicek and Williams in their book Inventing The Future as well as by the left wing barrister Michael Mansfield.

Any citizens convention must also adopt a radically different starting point for constitutional design to the one adopted in western constitutional models. 

Western constitutional development began as a response to the suffocating power of despotic kingship, best summed up  in Louis XIV boastful address to the French parliament ‘L’Etat, c’est moi’, ‘the state, it is I :  I myself am the nation’. From Magna Carta onwards, through the English Civil War, the war of American independence and onto the French Revolution, the course and direction of constitutionalism was framed by the need to restrain and roll back the state in the form of monarchical absolutism, and replace it with individual rights, representative democracy and the rule of law.

The state was - and is still - seen as a potential threat to individual freedom and wellbeing.

But today’s challenges are different.  It is not the state but non-state actors that now pose the greatest threats to individual and collective wellbeing.

It is ‘corporate absolutism’ that constitution-building must now tackle - the promotion of a neoliberal ideology of unrestrained free market access into every corner of our lives. Its grip on state and supra-state institutions and power hinders the state from mobilising the economic, social and public resources needed to address today’s systemic challenges, from climate change to yawning inequality, from automation to the financial crises of 1997 (in Asia) and 2008 (in the UK).

We need to rescue the state from the grip of corporate power - to make it our friend, not our enemy. Any new constitution building must therefore move beyond a binary fixation on individual rights versus state power. It must widen its remit to secure essential natural and public resources on which we will all depend, permanently removing from the market clean air, water and energy, our health services and transport and communications infrastructure. It must be a robust ‘anti-oligarchical constitution’ as suggested by Dr Stuart White. It must define a government’s first duty as the welfare of its citizens. Above all, it must re-conceptualise the state as rooted in a new environmental reality imposed by climate change. It must do all this even as it recognises the limits to national sovereignty imposed by the global nature of these challenges, guided by legislative principles that promote a pragmatic, internationalist perspective of inter-state co-operation.

Gavin Barker is a founding member of the Progressive Alliance for Cornwall and supports Cornish aspirations for greater autonomy and its own legislative assembly. To know more about the Charter initiative, click here to leave a message

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