The Weimar Formulation: how Labour’s respect for the 2016 EU referendum undermines democracy

The National Executive Committee of the Labour Party yesterday decided that it would be prepared to support a confirmatory vote on any deal agreed to take Britain out of the EU, but only in certain circumstances; if there was no general election, or if it failed to get the changes it wanted to the withdrawal agreement.

Yesterday evening, Labour politicians backing the position took to the airwaves, emphasising the need to respect the 2016 referendum result, because they respected democracy. It is obviously a superficially attractive position; but I argue that in reality it does exactly the opposite. There are three sets of grounds on which this proposition fails to respect democracy. First, it involves a misunderstanding of what the democratic process means. Second, it is an argument from political self-interest, in which partisan advantage for some MPs becomes conflated with supporting democracy as a whole; and third, and most importantly, it fundamentally misrepresents the issues at stake.

Taking each of those in turn, I shall argue that such an act of “respect” actually undermines a meaningful democratic process; and that Labour’s position represents an act of appeasement of the real enemies of democracy.

First, on the referendum itself. They key points are:

  • it was always intended as an advisory referendum, on a question of principle rather than the detail of policy. To say that a simple yes/no binary vote implies a particular set of policy outcomes from the wide range potentially available is simply nonsense.
  • Second, three years have elapsed since the referendum. The deal that is now on the table reflects what politicians have negotiated. A confirmatory vote would be in essence a vote on how the politicians have interpreted the 2016 referendum result. The essence of Theresa May’s deal was set out, not in the referendum campaign, but in her Conservative Party conference speech of October 2016; it represents her attempt to keep her party together, rather than the national interest.
  • Third, and following on from the above, in a democracy people have the right to change their mind. Since June 2016 we have seen that many of the promises of the leave campaign are undeliverable – from the £350m per week to the NHS advertised on the side of campaign buses, to the promise of easy trade deals, not a single one of which of any significance has been agreed. Democracy is about holding politicians to account; Vote Leave promised what they could not deliver, and what most certainly has not been delivered in Theresa May’s withdrawal deal.
  • Finally, it is now proved beyond doubt that the 2016 Referendum result was corrupt and unsafe. The Vote Leave campaign has been fined substantially for breaches of electoral law. The High Court has ruled that had the referendum been conducted under normal electoral law, it would have been annulled. And there is growing evidence of other corrupt practices, especially in relation to campaign finance. To “respect” the result of the 2016 referendum means to turn a blind eye to the huge and growing evidence of malpractice, in the context of what was a narrow win.

I would add to those the fact that it was a narrow win – one of the most important political decisions in modern British history hangs on a thin majority, when normal democratic process would require a significant majority – perhaps two-thirds – for a change of this importance.

And, most of all, respecting the referendum result as a democratic outcome misundertands the nature of democracy – that it is a process, not an event, of which voting is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. The plebiscite has long been the method by which authoritarians seek legitimacy, while using devices such as the suppression of media freedom and manipulation of voter registration – before one gets to outright corruption – to undermine the democratic process.

Second, there is among Labour MPs who oppose a confirmatory referendum a particular kind of intellectual dishonesty, which I believe to be largely motivated by self-interest. They mostly (though not exclusively) represent Leave-voting constituencies and make the following points:

  • People voted to leave. It therefore undermines people’s already seriously-eroded trust in the democratic system if we do not respect that.
  • In order to carry out their functions as elected representatives properly, they should follow the clearly-expressed will of their constituents
  • People are fed up with Brexit – and it is undermining the ability of politicians to do their job on other issues. We should accept the vote and move on.

All of these arguments have an element of truth. There is no doubt that people are disillusioned with politics and politicians; many people who have seen their living standards eroded in the last decades feel that they have been ignored. This is the fertile ground that the populist Right has exploited, especially outside the relatively prosperous South-East and major conurbations of the UK. As Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton pointed out in their book Saving Britain, there is a close correlation between Leave-voting areas and those areas who fare worst on a number of indications of well-being, including mental health as well as economic deprivation.

Edmund Burke famously wrote that Parliamentarians are representatives not delegates; a reference that is frequently invoked when Parliamentarians vote for what they believe to be right but unpopular – for example, not to return to capital punishment. But the point about Brexit is that we are not dealing with issues of abstract principle, but questions that go right to the heart of the well-being of people. The economic effects of Brexit are already being felt; and may be catastrophic.

So the question for these MPs is – are they acting in the best interests of their constituents? At a public meeting in Aberdare – in the heart of a leave-voting community in South Wales – last summer, I heard Owen Smith, Labour MP for Pontypridd, formulate the alternative view; that he would never support a policy that would make his constituents worse off, even though he represents a leave-voting area – and that in a democracy they could judge him at the ballot box for that.

Smith’s position poses a simple question – do you do what you believe to be right, or what you believe to be popular? And in the face of all the economic evidence that Brexit will worsen, rather than improve the living standards of vulnerable communities, doesn’t this ultimately come down to an issue of intellectual honesty and moral courage?

And in terms of the honesty of politicians, do you patronise your electors by telling them that they are right when you believe they are wrong, and when all the evidence suggests so – in this case that Brexit will do absolutely nothing to deal with the root causes of alienation, inequality and poverty, which are the result of home-grown economic and social policy and therefore nothing to do with the EU? Or are you honest with them, like Owen Smith, about what you know to be true? I have yet to hear one of the Labour leavers explain how Brexit will solve the problems of their constituents. Do they really believe that acquiescing in their electors’ further impoverishment, they will improve the reputation of politicians? Or increase people’s trust? Because, leaving aside the principle, they will sooner or later be found out. I for one would argue that Owen Smith’s position is far more respectful of his constituents, and shows a much greater level of political integrity.

Finally, I would argue – following on from the above – that at its heart the concept of “respecting the referendum result” fundamentally misunderstands what Brexit is about, and how it came about.

At one level, the Brexit debate is about leaving the European Union. But I would argue that during and since the referendum campaign, it became about far more than that. It is essentially about a clash of political values – one that goes right across the conventional political spectrum and going to the heart of the nature of political discourse and practice.

First, I think it is essential to understand what Brexit is. The Leave campaigners have invoked a number of powerful emotional slogans – about taking back control of your country, about going back to values and institutions that provided a set of certainties that could make more sense than an uncertain world. It is about tropes of family, nationhood, belonging, of nostalgia for Empire and bucolic visions of Commonwealth, even of knowing one’s place. During the 2016 referendum campaign, the lightning-conductor for these feelings was immigration. But it goes far beyond that. And at its heart is a simplistic view of democracy, in which all sorts of emotional responses have become packaged up as “the will of the people”.

But in reality, Brexit is something very different. It is fundamentally an economic project; it is about creating an economic order in which the ability of Government to act is constrained, and in which free market ideology is entrenched.

And, far from increasing sovereignty – as Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former Permanent Representative at the EU has pointed out sharply in his book 9 Lessons in Brexit – it is, quite consciously and deliberately, about reducing sovereignty; it is about a power grab by corporate interests away from Government, by ensuring that policy-making in the UK is dictated by its vulnerability to global economic forces; it is about reducing the power of Government and leaving economic policy in the hands of markets, exercised through the operation of trade agreements made through executive action by Ministers and officials. Healthcare? Food Standards? Trade deals with the US would require us to open up the NHS to US providers, and to food produced at lower standards, sold to the public on the grounds that it is cheaper. In other words, by reducing – permanently – the role of Government in economic policy making, and making the UK economy more vulnerable, it is in the literal sense of the word (as distinct from its colloquial misuse by the Corbynist left) neoliberal to its core. (There is a huge irony in the way in which those on the Left who – rightly – agonised about the now-defunct TTIP appear to have no problem with Brexit). It is, fundamentally, about reducing the constraints on corporate profit inherent in being part of a bloc that sets environmental, health and consumer standards.

And, in a world of zero-sum economics, in that can only be achieved by falling wages, cuts in services and the role of Government; and, all the time, the UK, no longer at the EU table involved in decisions, would be the ultimate rule-taker. It also means that the likelihood of a future Labour government being able to implement even a mildly reformist programme is hugely diminished

And, it is to the Labour Party’s enormous discredit that it does not articulate any of this. Many – especially on the Corbynist wing – are blinkered by ideology and, frankly, political inexperience. But there are undoubtedly some in the Labour Party who do, and their silence is a disgrace. Returning to my argument above, is this – in all serious – what they want for their electors?

But – more than this – Brexit has become a focus for a revival of the populist right. Obviously this is not new – the rise of UKIP took place over some years, and as I have argued before has been fuelled by the concerns of a generation, raised in the expectation of cradle-to-grave social security, rising wages, decent affordable housing, and an improvement of their lot, who have given expression to their uncertainty in the face of a failing model of capitalism in the scapegoating of immigrants and now of the EU.

But there is no doubt that since the Brexit vote, the position has changed. There is an aggressive edge to the Right that was not there before; the soaring rates of racial incidents, of people being abused in the streets, of the use of the extremist and threatening language addressed at those in those who opposed Brexit who won’t keep quiet – especially in the sewer of social media. It also finds expression in the wave of antisemitism which has – with at least the tacit support of the Party leadership – engulfed the Labour Party.

And now even UKIP, once the reserve of the splenetic discontented, is increasingly being taken over by what might be described as the neo-Fascist right; coalescing around the personality of “Tommy Robinson” at whose rallies there is a toxic mix of racism (especially Islamophobia) and misogyny (the presence of anti-abortionists and Fathers for Justice). Although Farage has left UKIP, even his more genteel form of populism is notable for its links to the US far right.

In other words, this is not about Brexit: it is about Brexitism, the old, nationalist, anti-democratic right coalescing around Brexit. And most of all, it represents an attack on liberal values; on diversity, on expertise, on civility, on debate – a return to the language of blood and soil, of kith and kin.

And when Labour MPs say we must respect the result of the referendum, it seems to me that this is what they are appeasing. Not just an economics that would make their constituents – already suffering the effects of austerity – worse off, but a politics that is illiberal, authoritarian, nationalist and racist to its core. Frankly, they are walking away from the dominant political debate of our time – whether democracy is a process, designed to ensure decision-making on the grounds of evidence and consensus, underpinned by universal rights, or a winner-takes-all plebiscitary system in which the the ability to command a slim majority overrides the rights of minorities or of rational argument itself.

And, above all, whether the job of politicians is to treat electors as adults by telling them unpalatable truths, or to disempower them by feeding them populist flannel.

And, as I watch Labour Party spokespeople repeating the line about respecting the referendum – and its inevitable coda about bringing people together – I coined the phrase The Weimar Formulation to describe what they are doing. Not because I want to describe Brexiters as Nazis, but because of the deep-seated moral and intellectual cowardice of the Labour Brexiters’ position; about the way in which they are legitimising a politics that will ultimately destroy them, because they do not have the intellectual and moral courage to confront it; to defend the people who they claim to speak for; or, in fact, to defend rational liberal politics itself from the politics of identity and faith, of nation, blood and soil; and the economic neoliberalism that lies behind it. And it is a reminder that you never defeat authoritarian nationalism by appeasing it – because when you do that you have allowed the Right to set the agenda.

I call it the Weimar Formulation because ultimately, in the name of democracy, Labour Brexiters are acting as facilitators for its very opposite. And they need to be called out at every opportunity.

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