The EU Referendum and the ailings of contemporary democracy

In this post Adrian Bua argues that Brexit highlights fundamental failures in contemporary British democracy.

Democracy was a key element of the debate around whether the UK should exit or remain in the EU. One of the main criticisms of the EU from both right and left is the distant and unaccountable nature of its institutions. And now, calls for the referendum to be repeated by those shocked by the actual and potential future consequences of ‘Brexit’ are increasingly popular. This move is condemned by Brexiteers as an affront to democracy. On the face of it, they make a valid point. The referendum result gave a clear, if narrow, mandate to leave. Ignoring it would further underline the reality of a pro-EU elite that has lost touch with those ‘ordinary people’ that politicians such as Farage argue have been oppressed by migration.

However, contemporary democratic theory places serious doubts on plebiscitary forms of decision making. In deliberative models it is not only the process of aggregating votes that matters, but also the processes of opinion formation preceding the vote. Leaving aside the widely debated, complex and unresolved issue of whether, and when, direct democratic processes are appropriate to make complex decisions – the phenomenon of the EU referendum highlighted clear deficits and inconsistencies in our representative democracy. In characteristically opportunistic fashion, David Cameron called a referendum to avoid a Tory split that could have been fatal for his 2015 election ambitions.  Martin Lodge and Will Jennings argue that this reflects a broader phenomenon whereby referenda are used not to advance democracy but for political leaders to control divisions in their own parties.

These inconsistencies reflect deep rooted problems in our political system. During the post-war consensus, the institutional landscape of British democracy was enriched by collective mass-membership organisations that had close relationships with political parties and kept them grounded in people’s lives. However, the current turmoil is arguably symptomatic of what Colin Crouch termed the UK’s condition of ‘post-democracy’.  The institutions of the social democratic consensus remain, but have been hollowed out by the de-politicising consequences of neo-liberalism and the dominance of politics by privileged individuals and big business. For citizens, elections have become a spectator sport, managed by experts and reported on by private media monopolies. The rise of single-issue politics has been a salutary development, but in no way has it matched the capacity for the institutions of collective action that heralded the social democratic era to channel demands into the political system.

I would argue that the vote in favour of Brexit is a symptom of Britain’s ‘post-democratic’ condition. It is no secret that it is the constituency that suffered the most from the economic re-structuring over the past few decades that favoured ‘Brexit’. The faith that neoliberal policy makers had for entrepreneurial private sector activity to replace the gutting on manufacturing and heavy industry never materialised in peripheral regions. Instead, what Colin Hay has termed an “anglo-liberal growth model” emerged – based on a service industry concentrated in London and consumption fuelled by private credit and a housing boom in the South East. Gordon Brown’s infamous declaration that boom and bust had been abolished revealed the institutionalisation what Colin Crouch termed an “unacknowledged policy regime”. The election-winning machine that was New Labour contributed to the post-democratic condition. Its obsession with “scientific” approaches to evidence based policy making cohered with Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis – politics becomes a managerial and technical endeavour. Citizen participation becomes limited to focus group and survey research designed to optimise the party’s chances to reflect public opinion and thus win elections. Importantly, this left behind the concerns of those working class constituencies that “have nowhere else to go”, as New Labour architect Peter Mandelson put it.

But the chickens have come home to roost. The financial crash, and ensuing recession, deepened the economic woes of peripheral regions. Public sector employment and redistribution from the proceeds of the economy in the South East reduced through austerity. This was compounded by the deepening of the, already established, ‘beggar thy neighbour’ politics that generated contempt for a dependency culture. The Brexit campaign deepened a discourse which was already well developed and increasingly propagated by corporate media empires, that blamed immigrants for economic woes – as well as a lack of ‘control’ over our borders and burdensome EU regulation. At the time of writing, the Labour Party which had given hope to so many people that this situation might change with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, is ripping itself apart with internal struggles between its left and right. It is unclear what the outcome will be, that is a debate for another day, but – regardless of whether Brexit materialises – it will certainly be of great importance in the struggle to shape a fairer, more inclusive and democratic Britain. Should the right win, we can expect even more tea mugs and headstones promising to control immigration than in the campaign ran by Ed Milliband.

Inside and outside the Labour Party, the left should counter this discourse by finding improved ways of communicating the message that the difficulties faced by many supporters of Brexit are not due to immigration, EU regulation of lax border controls, but by a deliberate, and by no means irreversible, re-shaping of the UK political economy since the late 1970’s.  An integral part of this is to articulate a left politics based on democratic participation, empowerment and investment in social services. As Adam Przeworski pithily stated “to discuss democracy without considering the economy in which that democracy must operate is an endeavour worthy of an ostrich”. The left needs to develop a coherent and convincing vision for an alternative political economy that delivers genuine equality of opportunity, and meaningfully redistributes wealth and power. In this vein, Jonathan Davies has called for the UK and European nations to develop a “Marshall Plan for the 21st Century”. It is imperative to put flesh on the bones of this idea, and organise for its fulfilment. Social democracy should end its flirtation with neo-liberalism and regain the necessary confidence to regenerate itself on its own grounds. There is a rich legacy of thinking on participatory forms of socialism to draw on here. EU elites seem keen to make an example of Britain through a painful divorce, and the disposition of the likely UK post-Brexit leadership will be to turn the UK (or what remains of it) into some sort of libertarian utopia and international tax haven – “a free-wheeling island nation” as put by one article outlining a terrifying blueprint for a post Brexit Britain. This “scorched earth plan” is the way we are currently headed, and it is not pretty.

Dr Adrian Bua researches for the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity and the New Economics Foundation.

2 thoughts on “The EU Referendum and the ailings of contemporary democracy

  • July 18, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Fair point! Post-Bre’shock’ this was on my mind – how can you have democracy if the referendum is more or less regarding 1) the responsibilities of the already elected politicians (why aren’t they doing their jobs?!) and 2) the ‘divine’ (referendum question on the line of “do you believe heaven exists?”). However, the more I considered the aspect of political failure, came the freedom dilemma – the democratic imperative of people voting for whatever they “think they know/believe”. So, the bigger issue with this whole political/economical conundrum is that the population’s invested trust in the British system is poof-ing away. It will not make a difference whether Labour or Tory, liberal or social or neoliberal, the British politics turned onto itself and its people. Despite the recent economic growth, it chose austerity by forcing the population into crass ignorance by selling ‘riding unicorns policies’.
    After each global economic crash, it has been the poor and the immigrants paying the ‘democratic’ price. Whatever policies will be adopted as a response to sorting UK post-Brexit, tax haven or ‘wanna-be’ utopia plans, will affect health and social welfare, will diminish opportunities for the youth population, will further isolate single parents and the elderly, will demotivate going into education and research.
    Although I am no politics expert, it is not the EU elites who “are keen to make an example of Britain through a painful divorce”. In all fairness, it was Britain politicians that ignited the ‘divorce’ – you cannot blame the opposite part for ‘letting go’ in whatever manner they wish to do so. Being entitled should not bring along indignation; otherwise, it was not entitlement to begin with.

    • July 21, 2016 at 1:54 pm

      Hi Mara, thanks for your comment – I agree with you that the direction of travel is the one you describe, but this is not necessarily so. the key question remains what policies the British state (or whats left of it) and the EU, will implement. There is another piece on the CURA blog, by Jonathan Davies calling for a 21st Century Marshall Plan – take a look. I also welcome the recent announcement by the Labour party that they will create a £500bn fund for regional investment – it seems that this, in my view, may deliver more than the EU structural investment funds that are in danger of being discontinued. On EU elites and the painful divorce, I think its the rational choice for them to ensure it is so, with anti-EU movements in the Netherlands, Italy, France being inspired by Brexit. My hope is that Brexit will serve as a shock to the establishment, and begin a change in direction towards a more social Europe

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