From Peterborough to Peterloo: it's time for the Left to defend democracy

The Brexit Party’s project isn’t about real democracy. But their skewed narrative is gaining alarming traction, including amongst Tory leadership contenders.

Lynn Henderson
12 June 2019, 8.02am
Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson, Tory leadership candidates, and Nigel Farage of the Brexit Party

Over the weekend former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the possibility of sidelining parliament to force through Brexit should not be ruled out. In doing so he joined Ester McVey in backing the idea of ‘proroguing’ Parliament – shutting down the parliamentary session – and forcing through a disastrous no deal outcome in order to ‘deliver the will of the people’.

The irony of shutting down our elected Commons in the name of democracy is one not lost on many – and the idea was rejected by John Bercow and MPs from across Parliament but worryingly continues to maintain support amongst the small group of politicians who could be our next Prime Minister.

It’s the kind of populist rhetoric you’d perhaps expect more from an outsider party. When Nigel Farage launched the Brexit Party just four months ago, he declared they were ready to “defend democracy” from the political establishment and do everything they could to deliver Brexit. He has previous said he’d “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front line” to do so.

This framing of Brexit – as a fight to stop what the people voted for being stolen from them by the Westminster establishment –sat at the centre of the Brexit Party’s EU election campaign and the Peterborough by-election. And it’s now gained traction amongst the Conservative leadership.

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Despite Farage’s party falling short in Peterborough, the grim reality is that this message has resonated with large numbers of the population. The party has topped recent polls and, even despite our broken electoral system, is projected to be in line for over 100 seats in a General Election.

But the Brexit Party’s growing support goes beyond the Brexit deadlock – across the country much of the population feel like our democracy is not working for people like them. Decisions over their lives are taken too far from their communities, the politicians that represent them are too distant from their everyday concerns. In that space, darker things emerge.

Recent polling for the Electoral Reform Society found that just 4% of people feel properly represented by Westminster, and over two-thirds (67%) feel that they have no or very few opportunities to inform and influence decisions made by MPs.

When people feel this disassociated with their democratic representatives and political institutions they look for new ways to make their voices heard: whether lashing out at the traditional party system, not voting at all, or – as history has shown us – taking to the streets.

This August marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre when 60,000 working people gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to hear a speech by orator Henry Hunt. The assembled crowd were there to hear the case for parliamentary reform and together demand political representation.

Local magistrates from the city attempted to shut the gathering down resulting in an army of 60 cavalrymen charging at the crowd. The attack left 18 people dead and hundreds more injured.

The event was covered widely by the press – accounts of what had taken place were read across the country and as a result opinion shifted behind the protesters and their campaign for political reform.

Peterloo is seen today as a key moment in the history of the suffrage movement – the start of a long process that led to democratic reform that eventually gave the working class a political voice across the country.

But today Peterloo serves another purpose – it serves to remind us that democracy is not static, nor is it guaranteed. Democracy was fought and won by working people in the streets as much as politicians and reformers in Westminster.

Two hundred years later we cannot take the limited democracy we have for granted. It once again falls upon the shoulders of our movement to remake and reimagine it for the future.

When the left fail to do so, we cede the democratic cause to others – something that Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party colleagues have jumped on (it is telling that their first non-Brexit policy has been to suggest scrapping the House of Lords).

But their politics isn’t about real democracy, their Brexit project is not about taking back control for the working people whose voices they claim to represent – it’s about securing control.

We can’t just be against. The left and the Labour movement need to paint a picture of what a vibrant ‘democracy for the many’ looks like. We need to begin to identify new ways of extending democratic participation and engagement across our political institutions, and look at how we can build new ones that mean people across the country can shape their own futures instead of just relying on the same distant politicians to do it.

This August, to mark the anniversary, campaigners, trade unionists and politicians will unite to start setting out that vision for ‘real democracy’, at a conference in Manchester marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.

This is What Democracy Looks Like’, hosted by the Politics for the Many campaign, will bring campaigners together to argue the struggle for a better democracy must continue today. It’s imperative we don’t leave this to the hard right.

Lynn Henderson is the Former President of the Scottish TUC and works with the Politics for the Many Campaign.

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