THE BRITISH ELECTION: DEMOCRACY WORKS!

Britain is in existential crisis. The union is in danger of breaking up. The country is exiting the European project of partnership. The duty of the government of the day in difficult times is to guide nation and people through. This government has instead tried to manipulate the crisis for party political gain and in defiance of its own population. That population has struck back to deny the government its reckless “mandate.” Democracy is a brutal affair. Governments that do not do the people’s work are supposed to be punished. It is democracy at work when they are.

It’s all about Brexit. The referendum settled the question of membership or not: Britain has decided to leave the European Union. But it settled nothing else, nothing about the terms of exit. All matters about Britain’s future relations to the EU are for Parliament to decide (as far as Britain is concerned).

The government, however, created a narrative according to which the referendum had also settled the terms of exit, a hard Brexit narrative. That narrative has no basis in the population which is divided down the middle on hard vs. soft Brexit. It then triggered an election in a scheme to get a majority in Parliament to allow itself to pursue its own Brexit without scrutiny. That was an attempted elective coup – and the electorate has rightly struck it down.

Before the snap election, the government had a majority in Parliament but not so much of a majority that it would not have to accommodate a range of opinions on how to take Brexit forward. That was a good political constellation for the nation in the circumstances. It was conducive to a compromise line on Brexit, corresponding to and respecting the deep divisions in the population on the matter, and to a cautious process under Parliamentary oversight. It was a godsend for a leader of stature to take the population as much as possible along in a difficult transition.

But that was not enough for this government. It turned on the people, lecturing them that it had the right to do Brexit on its own terms and that they had a duty to give it the “mandate” it demanded. Opposing views on the terms of Brexit were to be disqualified from influence.

It is a good day for democracy when the people punish a government that tries to subjugate them.

Of course, there are reasons why there is an existential crisis to manage in the first place, and those reasons are political. Britain was plunged into crisis by the unnecessary decision of then Prime Minister David Cameron to trigger the Brexit referendum (and before that the Scottish referendum). This was a gamble in which there was everything to lose and nothing to win, and a gigantic moral and political mistake. In triggering the snap election – another unnecessary election which I at the time described as “abusive” – Prime Minister Theresa May exasperated the crisis with another moral and political mistake.

Of course also, there are reasons why such grave mistakes could be made. Both the referendum and the snap election had to be ratified by Parliament. In both cases, the House of Commons did that in rapid knee-jerk fashion without putting any work into the decisions before it and their consequences, without giving itself any time for reflection and without anything like proper deliberation and debate.

So what we have here is a story of leadership failure under two prime ministers and of decision-making failure under a House of Commons that does not do its job. But also a story of the glory of democracy. When there are free and fair elections, in the end the people decide and cannot be taken for granted.

WHO CALLED BRITAIN’S SNAP ELECTION?

There will be Parliamentary elections on the 8th of June. Parliament was scheduled to sit until the next ordinary election in 2020 but the Prime Minister, Theresa May, decided to call a snap election while reflecting on the matter during some days of walking in the Welsh hills with her husband.

Only it was not the Prime Minister’s decision, but Parliament’s. Technically, the Prime Minister recommended to Parliament to call an election and Parliament so did, the House of Commons the very next day.

This provision came in with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 which removed the power to call snap elections from the Prime Minister. The intention of this Act is that Parliaments will sit five years, that everyone will know when the next election will be, and that Prime Ministers should not have the unfair advantage of being able to call an election whenever it suits his or her side. However, the Act also empowered Parliament to trigger an election before the end of the five years term, if there are exceptional circumstances and by a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons.

But although the snap election was technically called by Parliament, in reality it was the Prime Minister’s decision. It turned out that the Act had not practically moved that power to Parliament.

The 2017 election is unnecessary and has been triggered for obvious party-political and tactical reasons. It is exactly the kind of surprise election the 2011 Act was supposed to prevent. Why did Parliament go along with it? Even the opposition on its own had enough votes to deny the Prime Minister.

One answer is that the opposition caved in because it would otherwise look cowardly. That may be so but is not a sufficient explanation. The 2011 Act puts a duty on Parliament to consider if there are extraordinary circumstances to warrant an early election. The House of Commons, rubber-stamping the Prime Minister’s decision without delay, can hardly be said to have examined the circumstances carefully. It was simply ambushed. Remember that the House is not in control of its own agenda. It was for the government to decide that the House would deal with the issue the next day.

This is what should have happened: The Prime Minister recommends to Parliament that it triggers an early election. The House of Commons puts the matter to its relevant select committee for deliberation. That would, firstly, give the House a bit of time to collect itself and would enable debate on the matter in the press and in the country, at least a few days of time. Then, secondly, the committee would prepare a report on the proposal, putting it into its constitutional context and going over arguments for and against. The committee might make a recommendation to the House, or possibly majority and minority recommendations. Only then, and with the aid of careful deliberation in committee, would the House deal with the matter in plenum. The House would have escaped the ambush and it would be legitimate to turn the Prime Minister down if the deliberation had not turned up persuasive arguments for an extraordinary election. It might even be that the Prime Minister would not have called the snap election out of fear of being thwarted by Parliament.

Parliament might still have decided to grant the Prime Minister her wish, but it would not have been a foregone conclusion. And it is certain that without an institutionalised procedure of deliberation, Parliament could not have decided otherwise than it did.

Some general themes:

  1. It is not enough to technically empower Parliament in a certain matter. Parliament must follow up by instituting proper procedures to exercise its power with effect. Such procedures must be binding on Parliament itself so that they cannot be manipulated. The House of Commons should take control of its own agenda.
  2. The House of Commons does excellent work when given proper work to do. But in decision-making, it does not have adequate procedures and does not do the work it should.
  3. As things stand, Britain does not have a safe system of political decision-making.

THE POLITICS OF ANGER – WITH A FRENCH TWIST

In the French presidentials, the establishment candidates were dismissed in the first round. But here, for reasons difficult to explain, there had been a political realignment giving voters who wanted to reject the establishment a centrist alternative to go to. We have perhaps thought that the politics of anger must find its outlet on the extreme right or extreme left, but that may not necessarily be the case. France is showing the way – who would have thought?

There are two dimensions to the politics of anger. One goes to the substance of public policy. There is a failure to respond to the pressures of modern capitalism with a credible agenda of fairness and social justice. Economic progress trickles up but not down, resulting in a landscape of affluence on one side and public poverty and exclusion on the other side.

The other dimension goes to the way politics is made. Citizens are able to vote but otherwise feel, or many of them do, that they have no say in public affairs, that they are not involved and not invited to be involved.

For now, we have no good answer to the challenge of social justice. Following the economic crisis of the 1930s and World War II, advanced democracies invented welfare states that were effective as a civilising influence on industrial capitalism. Now we need a similar civilising influence on post-industrial capitalism, but that is yet to be forthcoming. In Britain, for example, where the Labour Party was the leading force in the welfare state revolution, that movement is now without ability to confront the fact of a very different capitalist order.

To the question of how politics is made, however, we probably do have an answer. The reason many citizens feel excluded from influence, is that they are excluded from influence. “Populism” is hardy a wave of irrational anger, but a reasoned reaction to the gulf of distance that separates “them” up there and “us” down here. The way to respond to “populism,” then, is not by blaming angry citizens for not understanding their own good but by rebuilding structures of policy-making for less distance.

Democracies with decentralised governance are more successful than centralised ones in terms of cohesion between political leaderships and citizenry. It is easy to understand why. When public policy is made in a balanced way between central and local decision-making, citizens have more opportunities for involvement, and for involvement in matters that are near and relevant to them. If you are on the losing side in national elections, for example, that is not the end of the line for you. There are still real and meaningful local arenas to be involved in.

The age of deference is over and citizens expect to be taken seriously and to be involved in public matters. The more governance is centralised, the more citizens have no other way of “participating” than by airing anger in demonstrations, protests, manifestations and the like. Hence we get the paradox that many young people in particular are involved and ready to spend time marching, but cannot bother to vote.

Much of the answer to the how-politics-is-made dimension in the politics of anger, I am suggesting, lies in local government, local democracy and a setting of real local authority and responsibility. In trying to understand matters such as democratic culture, it is generally advisable to assume that people are as they are and good enough and to look to how they are treated. If citizens have arenas of meaningful involvement, we can expect social peace. If all that is available to them is to respond to removed and centralised governance, there is no involvement within reach and no other “participation” than in the venting of anger.

An optimistic reading of the French situation, one week ahead of the final round of the presidentials, is that the new centrist force is responding to both challenges of populism, both the substance of policy and the way policy is made. That is perhaps a very optimistic reading, but there is at least some hope for a non-extremist alternative to the politics of anger. Looking out from Britain, it is good to have a straw of hope to cling on to. Here, too, we face elections, but so far the campaign gives no promise of any innovation, neither in the substance of policy nor in the way policy is made. In the country in which the politics of anger made itself felt with such force that the constitution is in turmoil, it is as if there is nothing to be learned form that experience.

BRITAIN’S ABUSIVE ELECTION

Another election in Britain now is unnecessary and damaging. The Prime Minister says the country needs strong leadership in the Brexit negotiations. But what we need is not stronger leadership but better leadership.

The government has had all the mandate it needs and all the parliamentary majority it needs. But the Prime Minister does not want to work in collaboration with Parliament. She wants to govern without a Parliament she has to pay attention to. That, however, is the kind of strong leadership that invariable leads a government astray. We know that in this country. It is the way of political decision making that leads to, for example, invasion of Iraq.

A reasonably balanced hand between government and Parliament is to the country’s advantage. It makes for deliberate compromise governing, which is the spirit of democracy. In the case of Brexit, the population is divided down the middle. There will be Brexit but it should be on terms that heed both sides of popular opinion. With a setting in which the government had to pay attention to a, at least somewhat, assertive Parliament, we could have had a practical Brexit.

The government has invented a straw man called “the will of the people.” The people have spoken in a referendum and its “will” is a hard Brexit. But that is an abuse of public opinion. There is no such “will of the people,” the population is divided. The referendum was not about the terms of Brexit. The government has hijacked the referendum for a design of its own making. It is setting itself up to impose an ideological Brexit on the country.

It will be able to do that. But it will be the kind of mistake that is typical of its vision of strong leadership. The country will remain divided. We will get a costly Brexit. Britain will cause further damage to European friends.

Parliament had to decide the snap election with two thirds majority. It should have said “no” to an unnecessary election and told the government to get on with its business. Instead, the House of Commons voted to make itself irrelevant, like turkeys voting for Christmas.

It happens while this is going on that I am reading Machiavelli. A constant in his writing is about the risk to rulers that they make mistakes and cause detriment to both the people and themselves. That risk is particularly high when rulers have unrestrained power. But another constant is this: there is a price to be paid for the abuse of power. The strong leader may get his way today, but history will take revenge and deny him a good reputation. Mrs. May might look over her shoulder to the reputations of her predecessors who also wanted strong leadership: Mr. Cameron, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blair.

 

PARTICIPATION II: THE IMPORTANCE OF VOTING

In the dramatic events of 2016, Brexit and the Trump victory, one lesson must be clear: the importance of voting. In both events, if more voters had turned out to vote the results would almost certainly have been different.

It may not sound exciting or innovating, but those of us who care for democracy should take care always to uphold the sanctity of the vote. Back to basics: Vote! Do not diminish the vote by over-theorising about alternative forms of participation.

With low voter turnout, as traditionally in America, it can be enough for a relatively small constituency in the population to mobilise to carry the vote. This, by all accounts, is what happened in enough states to hand the victory to the Republican candidate. In Britain, the young are predominantly in favour of the European Union. If more of them had voted, the tightly balanced referendum would probably have swung the other way.

There is a tendency now in many democracies for more citizens to not vote. That, paradoxically, includes many of the young who are intensely engaged in social and political issues. It doesn’t matter, they say, it’s all the same. WELL, we now know that it isn’t all the same and that it does matter. Many of the young prefer other forms of participation, in single-issue campaigning, manifestations and the like. That’s well and good but is not an alternative to voting. The vote is the core instrument of democracy and electoral democracy does not work unless enough voters go to the polls. If you don’t vote, you must take what you get and it is too late to complain and protest afterwards.

There is a tendency in some corners of political thinking to hold up participation and activism as an alternative to voting. In a recent roundtable I was in at an American university, one of my co-participants made the case that American democracy remains vibrant thanks to many citizens being engaged and making themselves heard, for example in demonstrations. Of course, citizens should keep up the pressure on their representatives between elections. But if they turn their backs on democracy by not voting, they cannot compensate with other forms of activism later.

The political competition is over power. Democracy is a way of allocating power peacefully and holding its exercise under control. If you don’t vote, you let others decide who will hold power over you. If you don’t vote, you do not represent a threat to those who hold power that you can take it away from them at the next election. When the vote is over, the power game is decided and can then not be undone by after-the-fact protestations.

In America, on the day after President Trump’s inauguration, millions participated in demonstrations across the country around issues of women’s rights and dignity. This was probably the largest day of organised protest is American history with about one in every 100 Americans participating, with brilliant timing, in a glorious day for a righteous cause. However, the man the protests were directed against had the day before taken hold of the reins of power and there was then nothing anyone could do about it. It is right to make one’s voice heard. It is gratifying to see it done on a grand scale for a worthy cause. It is satisfying to participate and to be there with all the others. But the sad truth, once the power game is decided, is that protestations, even on a massive scale, unless kept up relentlessly for a long duration, is of little consequence. In the vote, if we use it, we the people have power. In demonstrations, we are the powerless.

DEMOCRACY WITHOUT OPPOSITION – WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

British parliamentary democracy now runs without opposition. The centre-left, the main population constituency, is without representation. This is the time to bite the bullet and form a new political party. An opposition could be in place in time for the next election.

The Brexit upheaval has shifted the political landscape. The Conservative Party is in power with no threat to its dominance. The Labour Party is disintegrating and no longer has the force of a possible alternative government. The Scottish nationalists are trouble, but do not represent an opposition. An electoral democracy does not function without a credible opposition.

There are two possible routes to the reconstitution of an opposition. One is to form a coalition of opposing parties that could speak with collective strength in Parliament and collaborate at the next election to maximise the number of joint MPs. That would have to be between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, possibly joined by the Greens. Plans are circulating in Westminster for some kind of coalition but are not finding takers in the relevant parties and their leaderships.

The other possibility is more radical and based on a more radical analysis of the Labour Party’s predicament. It is assumed that the Labour Party is not in a temporary difficulty because of bad leadership but in irreparable decline because its time in history is up. It served the country magnificently with the great reforms after the Second World War, but has since run out of both mission and base in the transition to global capitalism and the withering of the working class. To the question of what the Labour Party is now for, no one has an answer, least of all the Party’s own leadership. This came on dramatic display in the referendum campaign, to which Labour had hardly any contribution to make. In this analysis, the Labour Party will never again represent a credible alternative government.

Since an opposition is needed, it must be recreated. The time is right for the formation of a new party of the centre-left. This should bypass both Labour and the LibDems, both spent forces without ability to renewal, and start from scratch.

A new party should have a platform of three pillars. First, social justice. The Brexit vote (as with the Trump vote in America and populism in Europe) came out of justified anger against the destructions to the social fabric from the extremes of inequality and neglect resulting from globalisation, automation and economic crisis. As we after WWII found ways of sharing the fruits of industrial capitalism, we must now find the recipe for fairness under post-industrial capitalism.

Second, environmental protection and responsible husbandry. The preservation of the earth – its resources, species and natural environment – must be pulled into the centre ground of national and international public policy.

Third, constitutional reform. The Brexit process, from the announcement of the referendum, through its campaign and execution to now its follow up, and other events such as the Chilcot Report on Britain’s participation in the Iraq war, have revealed that we do not have a safe system of political decision-making.

There are various groupings and initiatives that could form the nucleus of a new centre-left party. One is the Green Party, which has already had the success of achieving Parliamentary representation in spite of a hostile system of elections. It is a small force but on the right side of history.

A second relevant initiative, again on the right side of history, is the Women’s Equality Party. This, again, is presently not a strong force, but is an avant guarde in innovative thinking about social justice under new circumstances. Their take is obviously a feminist perspective, which must be central in a new politics of justice, but firmly grounded in a reflection of social justice more generally.

A third relevant initiative is the Constitution Reform Group, an initiative of concerned citizens with broad societal and political experience, constituted as an ideas factory for constitutional improvements. The group has published, most centrally, a draft Act of Union Bill with a new settlement for the regions of the United Kingdom, broadly federal in nature, with consistent devolution from London to all of the regions and hence a new system of governance with shared authorities between Parliament in London and the regions.

There are many other groups and initiatives, not least at the neglected local level, that could join in the deliberation on how to meet the challenge of opposition in a new political landscape, if only an initiative of catalyst could start the process. Let this be a challenge to the groupings mentioned to make themselves that catalyst. It is much to ask. All of them are no doubt happy with their current circumstances and all of them would fear the ugly necessity of compromising their purity if they were to join up with others in collaborative action. But political Britain needs opposition and is not getting it from present political constellations.

PARTICIPATION I: IS PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY DEMOCRATIC?

The dust is settling after the British Brexit referendum – leaving us with this paradox: There was a majority in the population and in Parliament for Britain to remain in the European Union, but because of low turnout of younger voters, this majority did not prevail in the referendum. The matter was “put to the people,” resulting in a decision contrary to the popular will. Had the matter been left to Parliament, British EU policy would have continued to accord with the majority will of the people.

This paradox raises a question mark not only against the use of referendums but also more generally: is it a democratically good thing to encourage participation from below by the people in political decision-making? Is participatory democracy democratic?

In a series of posts on this blog, starting here, I will reflect on the theme of democracy and participation. The matter is all but simple. It might seem obvious that participation is a democratic good, but as so often what first seems simple on reflection turns out to be complicated.

I am in conversation with a student leader in Hong Kong who was one of the organisers of the “umbrella revolution” in late 2014 when up to 100 000 protesters occupied strategic sites in the city for a period of about two months and seriously disrupted governance and business. The action was in protest against what was seen as a stalled movement towards complete political democracy in Hong Kong. The student leader did not regret the action he and others encouraged at the time, but two years on needed to acknowledge, he said, that it had been of little or no consequence.

On the 21st of January 2017, the day the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, millions of women across America and around the world participated in Women’s Marches in protest against the anticipated policies of the new presidency. More than 600 marches took place in more than 80 countries, on all continents (including Antarctica), more than 400 in the United States, in probably the most massive political action from below ever seen.

It is easy to be sympathetic with young Hong Kong people who take to the streets in their demand for democracy. But did their action matter? It is easy to align with women across the world who stood up against the misogyny of the new American president. But did their action matter?

Of course, democracy depends on participation from below, but when and how? Of course, referendums are a democratic procedure, but when and how? Of course, manifestations of mass action are a democratic form of expression, but when and how? What is it right to do, and when? What works, and under what circumstances?

A sceptical view on participation was once expressed by the great Max Weber. He was an adviser to the German delegation to the peace treaty negotiations in Versailles in 1918 and got into a rambling and probably lubricated conversation one evening with General Ludendorff. (At one point he suggested to Ludendorff that he should offer up his head for execution as a way of restoring the honour of the German officer class.) Ludendorff asked him to explain the meaning of this thing democracy that he kept going on about. Weber replied: “In a democracy, the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.’ Later the people can sit in judgement. If the leader has made mistakes to the gallows with him.”

That we the people should just shut up and obey hardly corresponds to modern sensitivities, but could there be more truth to Weber’s provocation than we might like to accept? With participation, is it the more the better? Beyond voting in elections, how should we ordinary people be and get involved in democratic procedures and democratic decision-making?

In a thread of posts under the heading of “participation” I will try to find democratic answers to some of these democratic problems.