Why lack of democracy in the UK, not just the EU, led to Brexit
– and why the power battle within the Labour Party is not incidental
In the 2015 UK general election with its first-past-the-post system, 75% of all the votes cast — that’s 22 million votes — had no direct influence on the result due to either being cast for a losing candidate, or being cast in excess of the winning candidate. Of these, 15 million people’s votes, precisely half of all the votes cast, were for losing candidates and thus thrown into the bin, leaving them without any political representation at all. This lack of representation — coupled with the fact that first-past-the-post systems stifle plurality and genuine choice — is surely one of the main reasons why just over a third of the electorate didn’t bother to vote at all.
The result of all this? A majority Conservative government with just over half of all the seats in Parliament, despite the fact that it only obtained 37% of the vote and support from just 24% of the electorate. There was clearly no overall support for the Conservative Party’s electioneering on austerity that has rendered so much misery on the vulnerable, yet Parliament ended up with a Conservative majority able to exercise its will and not the electorate’s.
A little over a year later, the UK braced itself for the EU Referendum. Suddenly, people were faced with the prospect of casting a vote that would actually count. There were no convoluted constituency borders where leave votes would be discounted in North Cornwall if remain pipped them there, while remain votes would be binned in Northampton North if leave won by a single vote. Every vote would be counted and added to the national tally. Here, finally, was an opportunity to make one’s voice heard against those who ruled so unjustly, so undemocratically; against the years of austerity and its cold and distant cutbacks in public services and social welfare, the lack of investment in housing, opportunities and support for education and training, as well as the proliferation of food banks, the working poor and loan sharks.
Unfortunately, the vote had nothing to do with any of this. It was actually about the UK’s membership of the EU. Potato Potata?
The EU has become synonymous with undemocratic, ruling elites, while the very name ‘Brussels’, much like ‘Westminster’, has become a kind of swearword and catch-all to describe all that is distant, corrupt and just wrong with the political establishment. While general elections merely reshuffle the deck, the EU Referendum gave people the opportunity to reject a whole realm of the political elite.
This was simply too tempting to ignore, especially when emboldened with the tub-thumping rhetoric of Farage, Johnson and co, who in the end could only really connect people’s plight to the EU by blaming society’s ills — implicitly and explicitly — on the voiceless immigrant (this despite the fact that around half of immigration comes from outside the EU, that immigration in any case is a huge benefit to the UK — although the benefits are not evenly distributed, which is a fault of the UK government — and that it is austerity and other political policies that are doing the real damage to society).
The referendum result cannot, of course, be reduced merely to an opportunity to strike back at the political classes — a ‘protest vote’ as many have put it. It was and remains a genuinely complex affair with numerous factors in play, yet we’d be foolish to ignore the role played by the lack of democracy in the UK, not just the EU, and the years of unheard voices who feel that they have suffered unnecessarily and without representation. In light of this, the result was a victory for all those whose voice is not normally heard. They have shaken the political world and set the political elite, as we are wont to call them, scrambling amongst themselves in the shock of not having things their own way.
Few genuinely believe, however, that we really can ‘take back control’ — to quote that Leave sound bite repeated ad nauseum — and return power to the British voter. In the hyperbole of the campaigning, there was a collective amnesia — perhaps a wilful one — over the fact that the British voter has very little power and Britain precious little meaningful democracy. In fact, the EU — despite its many problems and justifiable reasons for leaving it — provided some important protections against the excesses of our governments.
In the understandable drive to reject political elitism, the rampant elitism on the British Isles was conveniently overlooked. This was made all the easier by the rhetoric of being under threat from foreign ‘invaders’; in times of war and conflict, the ruled often temporarily exalt their rulers and forget their ill-treatment (hence the propensity of unpopular leaders to go to war or invent/exaggerate a foreign threat). Suddenly, after years of lambasting the ‘Westminster bubble’, it became vitally important to return all powers to it so we, the people, could vote its members in and out according to their policies and actions. A noble sentiment, certainly; but sadly not something that we can really do. In fact, a significant proportion of voters have given up even trying.
The reality of the situation is made stark when considering what happens next. While millions voted on the bare question of the UK’s EU membership, ultimately just 350 Conservative MPs and 150,000 party members will decide the practical reality of what leaving the EU will actually mean for the whole country when they vote for a new leader and thereby the UK’s new Prime Minister. Will we pull out of the single market or have limited access to it? Will we have unlimited, limited or conditional immigration from the EU? Are current EU citizens’ rights protected in the UK or will there be expulsions? Will we apply to be a member of the EEA? Will we seek a Norway option? Will we pull up the bridges completely and go another way altogether? Will more money be made available to the NHS, as sincerely promised by the Leave campaign (I think we all know the answer to that one).
All these vital questions and many more will be decided by the Conservative Party and its new leader. A party that has no mandate whatsoever to do so. Calling a general election could go a long way in solving this, if there was a genuine plurality of voices and most of the votes weren’t thrown in the bin.
Nonetheless, the battle in the Labour Party right now is one where democracy is trying to emerge and where most Labour MPs seem to be battling against it in order to return to the status quo. Corbyn gets his support from the wider public and not Westminster, which is not the way things are done, they say; but have they learnt nothing from the referendum? People want democracy — and the more they get it, the more voices will be heard and the more trained, focused and successful it will become too.
As a traditional party leader, Corbyn might not be able to win an election, but the Labour Party can win if it embraces the democratisation that Corbyn’s leadership represents. There are few signs elsewhere in Westminster of anything other than the status quo, and that’s not something that people seem willing to accept.
Without such democratisation, EU or no EU, this is the brutal political reality of the UK: an unelected head of state, an unelected upper house and an austerity-driven majority government with support from less than 24% of the electorate. If the vote to leave the EU was as much about democracy as it was about immigration control — as many of the Leave campaign insist it was — then the UK cannot avoid taking a long, hard look at its own; just as the people who voted to bring powers back to Westminster must brace themselves for being entirely at its mercy.