The People Over Parliament

Self-explanatory. London, 20 October.

Close to a million people can march for a just cause and still lose. This is why the march calling for a people’s vote needs more than noble intentions from below. It may be too late for a second referendum, but it’s worth asking why it is too late.

It’s not every day you see radical socialists marching alongside members of the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and known Blairites. Yet some of the oldest political divides in British politics may have just been blurred for the sake of the European project. And this should concern anyone pushing for radical change.

However, the problem with a campaign for a second referendum is not that it’s for such a vote, the real problem is that this campaign is so uncritical of parliament. This is the very institution that plunged the country into this crisis to begin with.

Unfortunately, the desire for a people’s vote is partly a conservative demand to set the clock back to before 23 June 2016. Setting aside whether this is even possible, we have to ask ourselves if this is a good idea or not. It may be that clinging to the past just won’t cut it. But what is the case beyond this?

It’s possible to argue for a people’s vote and critique the parliamentary system. After all, it might be the only way to end the deadlock in which our alleged representatives find themselves. It could be the dramatic break we need to bring the process to a conclusion.

Another referendum would have to be waged as a multiple-choice system, for it to be meaningful. This means the options of no deal or reversing Article 50 have to be on the table, and the more choices available create more room for a narrow result. In other words, the vote cannot just be a way of reversing Brexit.

Self-rule is often a messy, tempestuous affair. The 1970s is so demonised in living memory because it was a time of great industrial struggle, the Heath government and the Wilson-Callaghan administrations were brought to their knees by strikes.

In each case, the British working class was standing up for its interests in defiance of business management and conservative trade union leaders. The same can’t exactly be said about the march for a people’s vote, given the convergence between neoliberal centrists and genuine progressives on the ground.

If you want to resist the forces of reaction, you should do better than join Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry arm-in-arm. Yet Remain has become an impossible demand issued in the streets by managerial types. It’s a very odd situation.

The best thing that can be said for a second referendum is that it might create more chaos. Of course, the reason you can see Tories and Blairites backing it is because they desperately want to reconstruct the centre ground and reinstate the old order.

This is a fantasy. Even if the hard Remainers got what they wanted, they would have proven UKIP right and simply reinforced this dichotomy between the people (conceived as a white working class rebels) and the establishment (who would not let them have their way). It would be framed as the middle classes holding a second vote to get the result they wanted.

It’s unclear to see how the people’s vote will reconceive ‘the people’ outside of populist terms. If the people are the source of sovereignty, then the vote could well go for a no deal and the campaigners would accept it. But somehow I doubt they would.

In reality, all sides understand that the source of sovereignty is not with the people – it is with Parliament. Even this is less clear than it may seem, it’s actually the institution of the crown and the signing of the bill in Parliament which is the source of sovereignty. This is not a serious basis for a political system.

The UK may have never got into this crisis had it been more democratic in the first place and had a proper written constitution. Instead, we have a pantomime constitution, bankrupt institutions with little accountability, no elected head of state and an unrepresentative electoral system.

It’s remarkable that so many of the people marching to stop Brexit seem to think everything was fine until June 2016. Certainly, every single politician on the march believes the world was just fine back then. Austerity was fine. Wage stagnation was fine. Privatising the NHS was fine. The list goes on.

Ironically Brexit may force us to finally address the rotten quality of our political system. It may be the crisis that the status quo fears will open up it to democratic forces. Indeed, the next government will likely be led by Jeremy Corbyn. We could well see democratic reform under his leadership.

So we live in interesting times. Everywhere you look you can see signs of cracks forming on the face of the establishment. We all know it’s coming and how we respond to it will define what kind of people we really are.

Photograph courtesy of duncan_c. Published under a Creative Commons license.