“If Scotland had voted Yes in the independence referendum, and you’d told me we’d have to vote again, I’d have told you to fuck right off.”
That was my reaction when, the Monday after the European referendum, the idea of a People’s Vote was first put to me. I was in Parliament, chatting to Caroline Lucas and her staffer, my friend Matthew Butcher. While the country had been in shock they’d been strategising.
In two years’ time, they explained, the Tories would come back with a deal. It would be a deal which would prioritise the needs of bosses over workers, which would do nothing to address the concerns of many of those who had voted Leave, and which wouldn’t get the support of a majority of MPs. It would deliver a parliamentary stalemate.
At that point, they argued, the conundrum should be resolved in public. It should be up to the people who voted for Brexit to decide whether to accept the deal, not a backroom stitch-up.
The case had its internal logic. But for a long time, I stuck to my initial reaction. No matter how much I disliked Brexit, making people vote again before doing what they decided seemed a democratic travesty. People had voted Leave, and Leave we must. The democratic way to change our mind, if we do, would be to then rejoin, if they'd then have us. Had Scotland voted Yes to independence in 2014, and ended up staying in the UK, the democratic damage would have been deep and long-lasting.
1. A question of sovereignty
Image, Houses of Parliament
I did have one qualification, though. The openDemocracyUK section of this website was started in 2009 to “address the unfolding crisis in British democracy”. Its initiator, Anthony Barnett, who had stepped down from being Editor-in-Chief, had been the first director of Charter 88 back in 1988, which fought for Britain to have a democratic constitution. It may have been bad then but today the British political system is utterly broken. Mending it now requires a bottom-up convention, as I argue in my pamphlet “Trying to milk a vulture: if we want economic justice we need democratic revolution”.
Right after the Brexit vote, we should have held such a convention. In parallel to the negotiations with the EU, we should have had a process in which a jury of citizens drafted a new constitution, and put it or each element of it to public vote. Such a constitution would, I hope, shift the UK from the broken and elitist notion that the “crown in Parliament” is sovereign to grounding our democracy on the people's sovereignty. And the first stage of the creation of that constitution would be putting it, or key elements of it, to the people of the country.
If we had such a process, and if direct democracy was to become a more normal tool in the UK – as it is, for example, in Ireland – then allowing the public a say on something as big as the final deal with the EU would seem much more normal. The reason that Westminster is aflame right now is that there is no real agreement about where power ultimately lies – as Anthony Barnett and I explained back in 2017, the Gina Miller case was a contest between four sources of sovereignty: government, Parliament, people and courts.
For around a century, ever since the first Labour MPs were wined and dined and inducted into the establishment by the wiser of their Tory colleagues, the Labour Party has accepted the core myth at the heart of the British state: that Westminster is, and ought to be, where power lies, that sovereignty sits in Parliament and that the problem isn’t so much the way the country works, but who runs it.
The idea of “The despotism of the King in Parliament”, as Anthony Barnett has pointed out, dates to the high point of the British empire, when Westminster and Whitehall, propped up by the plunder of colonialism, could do as they pleased. Any truly emancipatory politics needs to be based on the principle of popular sovereignty, that power rises up from the people, and that it is, ultimately, for the people to decide.
Now, in the early days of 2019, we no longer have time for a pre-Brexit constitutional convention. And our despotic parliament is unable to come to a conclusion. It seems this is the moment to set a new precedent: that major decisions should be made by the peoples of the UK. Parliament, after all, has demonstrated that it is not up to the task. As things stand, a parliamentary resolution – led by either Labour or Tories – would likely be a backroom stitch-up.
Seen this way, a People’s Vote would be about accepting, finally, that Parliament has lost the sovereignty it bought with the plunder of empire. The fundamental legitimacy of the British state is broken. The government has been defeated by an historic margin, and yet limps on. In our new era – and until our power can be properly codified, it should be up to the people to choose where we go next.
2. How legitimate was the referendum?
Arron Banks with former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Ben Birchall/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Six months after the referendum, my colleagues and I started digging into the dark money that funded the Leave campaigns. We uncovered a £435,000 donation to the Democratic Unionist Party from who-knows-where, via a Scottish Tory who, we revealed, set up a company in 2013 with a former head of Saudi intelligence, the father of the Saudi ambassador to the UK. At the same time, Carole Cadwalladr at The Observer started uncovering other Leave campaign shenanigans.
Throughout, I have felt that the level of rule-breaking required to annul a result should be high. I imagined how I’d have felt if this had been the Scottish independence referendum, in which I supported the Yes campaign. If, after a Yes vote, it had transpired that some people I probably didn’t know in the official campaign office – or worse, some other random pro-independence group – had broken the law, that wouldn’t annul my decision to vote Yes. A ballot paper isn’t the property of whoever tries to influence its use, it is the sacred possession of she who casts it.
On the other hand, there has to be a punishment for rule-breaking. The laws of our democracy are constructed to stop the mega-rich from buying power. They are an attempt to ensure a degree of equity in an unequal world. And as we’ve uncovered ever more law-breaking, it’s been hard not to reach the conclusion that the threshold must have been reached. If an MP cheats, they can be sacked by an election court. But the referendum cannot be annulled by judge and jury because, in a tyically British, ad hoc way, it wasn’t a legally binding process. (This is why the whole process should be framed by a constitution: legally the referendum was 'advisory' and it is parliament that has taken the decision.)
By my sums, Arron Banks appears to have given around £15 million to the various Leave campaigns. So when the Electoral Commission say they have reason to believe – as a result of our investigations – that the money didn’t really come from him, we should take that very seriously. Vote Leave broke spending limits by claiming a large chunk of their payments to AggregateIQ was in the name of 21-year-old fashion student Darren Grimes.
When I raise these matters, people often respond by claiming that the Remain campaign spent much more than the Leave campaign, because of that God-awful booklet the government produced. The figures people use are invariably wrong, as they only count spending during the final 10 weeks of the campaign, when most of Arron Banks’s millions seem to have been spent before that, meaning we have no idea how roughly £11m were spent in the full course of the campaign. But their argument doesn’t change the point: the referendum in 2016 was run appallingly badly. The laws governing it hadn’t caught up with the internet age. Mercenary propaganda firms were allowed to use weapons of information warfare, and the government was allowed to use its budget to patronise the country en masse.
The idea that this vote – marred by large-scale law-breaking – represents an unshakable mandate which cannot be challenged by a future referendum, is democratically dangerous. The laws of our democracy exist to level the playing field between those with vast wealth and the rest of us. If it’s possible to break them without consequence, the rules become meaningless.
3. It’s not democracy that divides us
Perhaps the most pernicious lie that the neoliberalism ever told is that democracy is divisive.
For the last two years, we have heard repeatedly that the referendum campaign tore us apart as a country. Over those two years, I spent a reasonable amount of time travelling around the UK. And what I found horrified me.
Go to Kent or Surrey, or Newcastle, or Sunderland, and you find an England that has been ripped apart by fences, walls and security cameras. A generation of soaring inequality has torn the people of the country from each other, dividing neighbourhoods into ghettos and gated communities. As power has been centralised at Westminster and privatised to faceless executives, we’ve become less and less skilled in making decisions together, and so we’ve been told that we are incapable of making decisions, that democracy is too divisive, that we can’t be trusted.
Of course, the last referendum did provide an outlet for mercenary propaganda firms and public-school bigots to promote racism, and it showed us how bad England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have stories of their own) has become at democracy. This came to a head in the horrific murder of the MP Jo Cox and in the gruesome rise of hate crime after the vote.
But this division didn’t just appear from nowhere, and racism won’t be resolved by leaving power in the hands of our structurally racist national institutions.
Too often, I see friends on the left accept the implicit line that ordinary people can’t be trusted with power, that it is democracy that has divided us, and so a second referendum would tear us apart. In reality, it’s the lack of democracy – the market – which has wrenched our communities asunder. It’s benefits sanctions and corporate tax cuts. It’s our racist and sexist media. And the way to mend it is not to capitulate to Boris and his army of bigots. It’s to learn to take decisions together, as equals.
4. Labour tactics and strategy
Image: by Colin, CC4.0
Much opposition to a People’s Vote comes from those who see it as an attempt to undermine or attack Jeremy Corbyn. And, of course, in a sense they are right: there is a group of continuity Blairites whose political careers suddenly ran out of runway when Corbyn was elected, and hope the European cause will helicopter them back to relevance. Often, these people have spent their time attacking the left of the Labour party, and in doing so, have managed to alienate the core group of people they needed to win over to secure a People’s Vote.
Worse, many of the advocates of a second referendum seem to think it would be a mechanism to return to 2012, as though austerity, the financial crisis, climate change and species loss weren’t already disasters then, as though history isn’t chronological, and now isn’t a consequence of then. And lots of Remainers labour under the smug misapprehension that Europe is a continent, with a genuinely progressive identity, when in reality it’s just a racist peninsula at the end of Asia, inhabited by wilting imperial states: a pompous subcontinent melting in an identity crisis.
That said, those who hope to see Theresa May booted out of Downing Street by someone who will stand up to the unconstrained power of British capital shouldn’t just accept the strategic decisions of the current Labour leader, but engage openly in debate. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote “Marxism must abhor nothing so much as the possibility that it becomes congealed in its current form. It is at its best when butting heads in self-criticism, and in historical thunder and lightning, it retains its strength.” Or, to put it another way, criticism of Corbyn’s strategy on Brexit doesn’t necessarily imply a desire to stop a left Labour government.
Corbyn has had two major tactical successes with regard to Brexit. In 2017, he managed to shift the debate away from Europe and onto many of the other reasons people wanted to kick the establishment: privatisation, inequality and austerity. In recent months, he’s managed to ensure Labour doesn’t get the blame for the current mess.
The risk, however, is that Corbynism was built on the idea that politics is about more than tactical manoeuvres. It was a refreshing reaction against focus-group politics. It’s hard not to feel, when it comes to Brexit, that the Labour leadership is setting its policy based on whatever triangulation will allow it to win the next election, and on leaving the Tories to destroy themselves, assuming that the default alternative will be the opposition.
The reality is that the default alternative to Tories in English politics is different Tories. As Corbyn showed in 2017, Labour will do well when it is seen to make a coherent and powerful argument, from principle, about the important issues of the day. Its leaders could duck Brexit in 2017: it’s not clear the same strategy will work next time.
5. A general election?
MPs elected in 2017 - Wikipedia
Instead of using this constitutional crisis to call for radical constitutional change (including a People’s Vote), Labour activists are focussed on demanding a general election. And again, in a sense, they are right. For the prime minister to lose by the biggest margin in modern history and then not stand down is astounding.
On the other hand, the argument is predicated on a myth: it is a simple fact of parliamentary arithmetic that the Tories plus the Northern Irish DUP have a majority. Tory MPs are not going to vote to bring down a Tory government. And the DUP – a far-right Loyalist party – is not going to vote for a general election which could usher in a radical left republican government in Northern Ireland. The DUP had its best ever general election in 2017. They hold every seat they can hope to, and have more power over the government than they have ever dreamed of. The idea they are going to pull the plug on that is delusional.
In principle, Labour (and the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and Greens) were right to call a vote of no confidence. But it was never going to pass, and, barring a string of convenient by-elections, that won’t change. It is not a plausible alternative to opposing Brexit by demanding real democracy.
6. Lexit mistakes
The chamber of the European Parliament. Image, Wikimedia commons.
Another key element of opposition to a People’s Vote within the left comes from signed-up Lexiters. And I have some sympathy with them: the EU enforces austerity internally, and brutal trade deals and violent borders externally.
But, for me, Lexiters make five consistent mistakes.
First, they forget that most of the EU rules they complain about were put there by British governments. Were Corbyn elected, then there is good reason to believe that his government could reverse many of the pro-market measures written into EU laws at the moment. The EU is in crisis, it will not survive in its current form; the question is how it is changed.
Second, at the height of the anti-globalisation movement, one of the key questions was how to globalise democracy. As George Monbiot argued in The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, “everything has been globalised except our consent”. As my brother, Gilbert Ramsay wrote before the referendum, the EU is the first, flawed, experiment with globalising democracy. Leaving it means keeping Britain within a whole web of international institutions which have no direct accountability to the peoples they supposedly represent – the UN, NATO, World Bank, IMF and WTO – but jettisoning the one place where international relations are held to account by a directly elected parliament.
Third, too often, particularly on the English left, we see people arguing that the EU is inherently neoliberal, without asking any serious questions about the British state, which they seek to empower. This is, simply, nationalist exceptionalism, deluding itself that the most neoliberal county in Europe is somehow less neoliberal than Europe’s institutions.
Fourth, Brexit means more border controls. It means border posts in Ireland, with all the implications that follow. It means limiting the movement of working class Romanians as we suck wealth from their economy and it means limiting the movement of people in the UK. The rich have always had the freedom to move. The EU gave working class people that right across a continent. Brexit takes that away.
And, finally, Lexiters often fail to take full account of the genuine risk of what some call a hard Brexit, and I call a Puerto Rico model.
What our investigations have consistently shown is that a large portion of the right sees Brexit as an opportunity to shift Britain out of the European-regulated space and into the American (de-)regulated space – as Daniel Hannan MP, founder of the European Research Group has argued, to turn Britain into an “offshore, low tax haven”.
One of the reasons that Brexiters were split on Theresa May’s deal is that the more intelligent of them – the likes of Liam Fox – understand that it is a temporary measure, buying him the time to arrange the sorts of trade deal that he wants: deals which would seek to transform the UK into a new Puerto Rico: a taker of American rules, but without votes in American elections, a new haven for the American mega-rich, and services workhouse for the rest of us.
The Tories have a majority until 2022 if they can make it that far, and there likely won’t be much chance for Parliament to block Fox’s trade deals before then, if he can turn them round in time. His department has already finished the public consultation stage on a number of deals, including one with the US and one on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While the timelines for these things can be slow, Fox’s aim is clear: act fast, and dodge accountability.
A left Labour government elected in this context would find its agenda tied up in the international courts (under a similar arrangement, Canada was forced to pay American businesses major compensation because they placed a moratorium on fracking).
There is a theoretical Brexit model, which we could call Cuba, under which a left government separates itself as much as possible from the architecture of international capitalism. But as things stand, the Puerto Rico model is much more likely.
Whatever the possibilities of a theoretical Brexit under a theoretical Labour government, the real Brexit now is a disaster capitalist project being delivered by a right-wing Tory government led by the racist van prime minister. The choice is simple, collaborate, or resist.
(And, as my colleague Laurie Macfarlane outlines, the third option ‘Norway plus’, does nothing to address the concerns of Lexiters, leaving the UK subject to EU rules.)
7. Class and betrayal
Jacob Rees Mogg. Image, Cantab12
Much of the Lexit argument is bound up with the idea that Brexit was primarily delivered by working-class voters. And, of course, there is some truth to this: I spent the week before the referendum in Doncaster, which overwhelmingly backed Brexit. There are significant numbers who voted Leave because, as one man put it to me, “Nothing round here has changed for 40 years. This wasn’t necessarily the change I wanted, but I’ll try anything.”
But this narrative isn’t nearly as neat as the media often implies: many of the poorest parts of the UK, such as the Wests of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain, as did the vast majority of working-class people of colour. At the same time, wealthy areas like Wiltshire backed the Leave vote. Academics who studied the class breakdown of the Brexit vote found “the Leave vote to be associated with middle class identification and the more neutral ‘no class’ identification. But we find no evidence of a link with working class identification.”
It’s important to draw a distinction between the tabloid image of the working class – male, white, middle-aged, post-industrial, racist – and the actual working class as it exists in the real world. The latter isn’t nearly as Brexity as we’re always told.
At the same time, our research has consistently shown that those who led the Brexit movement – those who funded and steered it – are connected to the emerging global oligarch class, who wish to use it to asset strip the country. The Farage base is southern, pink-gin-drinking, blazer-wearing, bourgeois empire nostalgists, and the notion that Brexit is a working-class backlash against the establishment is heavily over-emphasised.
8. Fascism and fiction
Far right grievances are built on fiction. Image, Vote Leave Facebook advert, DCMS Select Committee.
One fear about a People’s Vote – a fear that I certainly hold and have often expressed – is that it would create a significant grievance for the far right. And it is true that the far right would shout about it. We shouldn’t entirely discount that. But one of the key lessons I learned when I travelled round central Europe and Northern Italy in November is that the grievances of the media-driven far right of the modern era don’t have much to do with reality.
In Hungary, concern is about Muslim refugees, when there are almost no Muslim refugees. In the Alpine towns of Northern Italy, it’s about black people. There are almost no black people. The rise of fascism is driven by the growing power of a global oligarch class, and their control of the dominant media of the day. It is driven by the elitist institutions of white masculinity, and its propaganda is post-modern, built on fictions and falsehoods. The way to defeat them is through democratic organising, not retreating to elite institutions.
9. It is winnable
Caroline Lucas, speaking at People's Vote March. Image, YouTube.
If there was a snap People’s Vote today, I suspect the result would be Remain. The anti-establishment vote, which turned out in large numbers to give a kicking to the prime minister of the day, David Cameron, would, it seems to me, be less likely to show up to vote for a government policy. On the other hand, enthusiastic opposition to Brexit has grown significantly since June 2016, and we could expect much higher turnout in London, Scotland and especially Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Wales, which voted narrowly for Leave seems to have shifted decisively for Remain. Similarly, the demographics are on Remain’s side: more Brexiters have died and more Remainers become old enough to vote. All of this should be enough to swing the small margin of victory in 2016.
However, one thing could change that. If a People’s Vote looks like an establishment stitch-up, an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, then there seems a good chance people would show up in huge numbers to tell the establishment where to go. And many representatives of the campaign for a second vote seem complacent about, if not determined to ensure, that that’s the impression people get. As Paul Hilder argued at the recent Convention on a second referendum, securing a Remain result – and doing so convincingly – will require winning over alienated working-class voters, young people enthusiastic about Corbyn, the organised left and trade unionists, and Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists.
The campaign as set up at the moment, run from Millbank Tower, in London, just down the road from Parliament, appears a lot like Hillary Clinton’s US presidential campaign in 2016: the perfect machine to lose the vote.
However, Caroline Lucas (who sets out an anti-status-quo argument), the SNP and other figures from outwith the old regime are taking on an increasingly prominent role in the campaign, and the referendum will only happen if Labour supports it, giving some hope that Remain might hold onto its lead.
10. A chance to do it right
Polling station, by "Descrier", descrier.co.uk, CC2.0.
A People’s Vote would provide a chance for genuinely democratic dialogue, which means offering people the various meaningful options they may want, probably in the form of a preferendum (ranking in order of preference). The process should be everything that the 2016 vote wasn’t, ideally starting with a citizens’ assembly to craft the options that should be offered. Rather than the millions spent on its awful booklet, the government should give the Electoral Commission cash to seriously police the laws of our democracy, and should lift the maximum fine from £20,000 to, at least, £500,000 (as is available to the Information Commissioner). And it should be the start of a process of radical democratic renewal, not a chance to put democracy back in its box.
In 2013, the SNP unveiled a 650-page document, “Scotland’s Future”, outlining what it meant by independence. Whilst other groups proposed more radical versions, everyone accepted that, if it was a Yes vote, the white paper would be the baseline for what the Scottish government would have tried to negotiate. Voters in the European referendum had no such document. There was no agreement about what Brexit means. Parliament cannot agree what it means. And so it must default to the people to decide.