Wednesday 31 August 2016

The EU Referendum Laid Bare

The Crisis in our Democracy
To many the results of the EU Referendum were unexpected and incomprehensible. In order to understand it we need to analyse it on two levels, examining two sets of facts. One set is to do with the specific circumstances that immediately preceded it. The other is to go deeper into its wider context and the background of the political changes that brought the alien concept of Referenda into our Representative Accountable Parliamentary Democracy.  Both, Harold Wilson and David Cameron, used the beguiling institution of a referendum as a means to unite their Parties, unmindful of the damage that they would cause in undermining our very own Parliamentary Democracy.

Far from uniting their Parties both Governments and Oppositions managed to divide the country. The purpose of this essay is to show that the phenomenon of Referenda is a symptom of the crisis in our democracy. Whether we are in or out of the EU is no more than a matter of economic policy that needs to be reviewed and to change with circumstances. The impact of introducing Referenda has more enduring constitutional consequences on how we govern ourselves.

1.  For thousands of years communities of humans sought social cohesion to enable them to live in peace together. Social cohesion is built on shared language, culture and moral values. This was at the root and the underlying conclusion of Aristotle’s research into some 150 Poleis (City-States) which recommended that the population of a City State, Polis, ideally should be around 100,000 inhabitants to enable it to secure such lasting cohesion in order to govern itself consensually and peacefully. His pupil Alexander the Great shattered the idea and the cohesion it sought by creating an empire too vast and diverse to gel together.  In the West today only Iceland and the Swiss Canton can be compared to Aristotle’s Mediterranean Polis. All other countries have lost or are losing their internal cohesion, some fast, like the UK, others slower like the Scandinavian countries.

2.  Direct Democracy as the rule of the people by the people was possible and indeed was exercised in some Poleis, for example in ancient Athens, where the adult male population assembled at the city centre, the Agra, and decided on vital issues of state. But the consequences of wars and the influx of immigrations both created centrifugal forces that collided with the centripetal forces that held the society together. In Athens these centrifugal forces caused the erosion of direct democracy to the extent that Plato in his Republic looked to the likes of oligarchic and dictatorial Sparta to constitute his ideal society governed by the philosopher ruler. Dogma and Ideology replaced evolutionary practicality. Ideology by definition is based on the past. Thankfully Plato’s dream remained a dream, indeed a nightmare, from the past.

3.  Skipping over 2000 years of  political thinking the pragmatic English, (after 1707 the British) owing to historical circumstances re-created the concept of democracy and anchored it into the institution of a Representative Parliament. Avoiding dogmas and ideologies the British Genius let this new concept and institution evolve and adapt to the new circumstances that arose from time to time.  The people and their rulers acted in tune if not always in harmony. This practical approach permeated all aspects of our lives and has been reflected even in our Judiciary. Our Judges over the years tempered  the dictates of the cold rigid Law and  balanced it in their verdicts with the underlying concept of equity and fairness. In that process judges in one way legislated from the Bench by creating Precedents that can guide but not dictate future verdicts. This legal procedure is often followed even today. In England the Montesquieu principle of the separation of the powers of the three Arms of the State (Legislative, Executive and Judiciary) emphasised in practice the coordination and not separation of these powers.

4.  By the beginning of the 20th century our evolved system of a Parliamentary Representative Accountable Constituency System that guided us allowed our democracy to continue to flourish and evolve. The two Houses of Parliament balanced each other as the House of Commons embedded within its ranks the Executive i.e. the Government and the Lords embedded the Judiciary, the Courts. Thus the three arms of the state, the Legislative, the Executive and the Judiciary moved in the same direction representing the British people while balancing each other through peaceful co-existence with their bases - The MPs represented the urban citizens and the rising bourgeoisie while the hereditary Lords represented the Shires. Thus it was taken for granted that the Constituency MP represented not his/her Party but all his/her Constituents while the Lords exercising responsibility spoke for the populations of their rural Estates and their surrounding countryside. Therefore Members of both Houses of Parliament were Representatives i.e representing the whole mix of the wider interests of their communities not the narrow interests of their Parties or their Classes. That produced a democratic edifice, the envy of the world.

5.  However, at the beginning of the 20th Century all that balanced edifice began to crack and crumble and mindlessly our political establishments themselves began dismantling it brick by brick. This process was spurred by the deficiency in representation rooted in our Majoritarian FPTP Electoral System when winners take all, which is rigid and lacking the flexibility and elasticity to change with the times. Instead of reforming the House of Lords changing it to an elected chamber, the Establishment of the Commons stripped it of its substantive authority eventually ending it being appointed by the very Establishment that it was meant to guide, balance and supervise. In the Commons, the MPs instead of being representatives were in effect converted into Party Delegates.

6.  It started with the 1911 Parliament Act (with its follow up of 1949) when the power and responsibilities of the House of Lords were curtailed. Both coincided with the rise and rise of the trade unions and the Labour Party. What concerns us here is the effect on our constitutional arrangement not the merits or the reasons which brought it about. Politics became polarised and adversarial. The Press and the Media simplistically followed suit and projected each policy or argument into black and white, yes or no, or in new parlour “Binary”

7.  Class war, not as in Karl Marx’s lexicon but class as short for social grouping with shared interests, is at the root of evolution. Socio-economic classes are stacked on top of each other with the better-off at the top and the least fortunate at the bottom. For the purposes of research and statistics the ONS graded them into A, B, C1, C2, D and E.  However what interests us here is not an objective grading but the subjective feeling of individuals as to which class they belong to and judge themselves deserving  to belong to: the Upper, Middle or Lower Classes. As social conditions evolve the individual members of each class try to better their position by climbing up and join the class above. The mechanism that blocks this natural social evolution brings about revolution or convulsion, in the past it was violent, today it is through the ballot box. If blocked it can lead or resort to violence. This has been enacted before our eyes today but we refuse to see it. As a result   the strife for change is moving from Westminster to Trafalgar Square. The rise of Corbyn and his popular support  as the leader of the Labour Party reflect the attempt of the rising lower middle class to take what they believe to be their natural right to participate in leading the country and shaping our society. This convulsion in our political system could have been absorbed and channelled through gradual changes as befit the traditional practicality that we are so famous for. However what obstructed this gradual smooth change that we needed was  a fossilised Majoritarian electoral system which freezes the status quo and prevent  natural and gradual changes.

8.  Paradoxically the EU Referendum results, instead of leaving the Conservatives in disarray, resulted in Labour losing its opportunity to claim the victory. If the Labour leadership used its members and supporters to push for the Remain camp more vigorously and visibly, and with the Tory Party divided down the middle, the Labour Party could have claimed and indeed would have been credited with the result. Instead of its declared objective of Remain, the Labour leadership were busy fighting a class war with the Tories instead of leading the Remain factions of all parties. The EU Referendum results are deepening the rifts within the Labour Party and causing a crisis in our democracy that the results of the 2015 Elections had left exposed, weak, precarious and vulnerable.

9.  It is interesting to contrast today’s Labour Party leadership contest with that of 1980 following the resignation of James Callaghan. Callaghan who was Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979 and had stayed on as leader of the Labour Party for eighteen months in order to oversee an orderly transition to his favoured successor, Denis Healey, over his own deputy Michael Foot. (Contrast the behaviour of Callaghan with that of Miliband and compare the instant departure of the latter with the orderly withdrawal of Michael Howard after his defeat.) However, during that period the party had become bogged down in internal arguments about its procedures and future direction. (Plus ca change etc !) Initially, the candidates were thought likely to be Denis Healey, Peter Shore and John Silkin, but Michael Foot was persuaded to stand by left-wingers who believed that only he could defeat Healey (not defeat the Tories!) This was the last leadership election to be conducted amongst Members of Parliament only; an Electoral College was subsequently introduced for future contests. That procedure paved the way for Corbyn now to ignore the elected Labour MPs and to appeal over their heads to the wider membership in order to stay in power and lead the new wave that engulfs the Labour Party pushing politics to spill over  from Westminster Hall into Trafalgar Square with all the consequences that will ensue.

10.  We must not take the Corbyn phenomenon lightly. The trend and the sentiments of many alienated young people are with him. When assessing his support we must remember that the overall percentages of turnouts in recent General Elections left  one third who chose not to vote. How many of this third might support Corbyn and make a difference? The shift from moving the direct responsibility from Labour MPs to a college of voters for the leadership of Labour has in effect moved the centre of gravity from Parliament to the outside paid membership.  Clearly the British genius of compromise that managed to keep all dissents within the tent of Parliament has deserted it.
11.  The elected Labour MPs in the Commons have misjudged the mood of their young supporters in the country.  Evidently in their judgment and indeed that of many political commentators Corbyn  did not measure up to his new role. However With Labour now torn between Left and Right wings it needs an Attlee now to mediate between “Erbert and Erni !!” Hilary Benn could have fulfilled that role but he  hastily messed it and missed it.  Unless an Attlee emerges quickly the prospect of preserving unity in their Party will be difficult to achieve. Our concern here should be the enormous impact this is going to have on our  Representative  Parliamentary Democracy. We must not let any dissent group to take over and replace the exclusive role of the electorate in choosing the leaderships of political parties in parliament.  

12.  To avoid such a situation, way back on 4 Nov 1980 I published a letter in The Times detailing a new transparent and democratic method to elect Party Leaders. I quote it hereunder in full for its relevance today. If my method were used for electing the Labour Leader then, and now, it could have avoided the turmoil that is convulsing the Labour Party on this very issue.
The Times, 4th November 1980
Electing Labour’s leader
From: Mr. A. Nathan
Sir, The election of the leader of the Labour Party is of concern not only to the party itself but to all of us who value democracy in this country.  May I suggest through your columns the following method of election hoping to test its merits by the reasons of your readers:
1.  The leader is to be elected by Labour candidates of the last general election, ie by present Labour MPs together with all Labour candidates who failed to be elected.
2.  The present procedure is to be maintained except for substituting the secret ballot by an open ballot.
3.  Each elector casts the number of votes he or she officially obtained in the last general election as his or her votes for the leader.
In this method the leader is elected by all citizens who voted for Labour candidates, and therefore for the Labour Party, in the general election casting their votes by proxy.
That this method is both democratic and fair is self-evident and therefore any elaboration is superfluous.
Yours faithfully,
9 Highbury Road, SW19.
October 31.
Events leading to the EU Referendum
13.  Blair started the process of shaking and undermining the UK Union. Exploiting the Pathological hatred of the Lairds, the absentee land owners identified with the Conservatives, Blair, anxious to perpetuate the dominance of Labour in Scotland as a cushion for its position in Westminster, revived the nationalist institution of the Scottish Parliament.  Once he started it, and erected a monument of a building to house it, the genie slipped out of the bottle. Following the untimely death of Donald Dewar, the moderate safe hands, the Scottish ultra nationalists started their campaign to replace Labour as the dominant Party as a first step. The clamour for Independence was the clarion call and devolution became the vehicle to renege on the 1707 Contract of the Union. No one seemed to bother with analysing the results of the defective Electoral Mixed System on the three Scottish elections results that followed which pointed the way to the ascendency of the SNP.

14.  Without any regard to the bigger partner, the combined English Welsh and Northern Irish of the Union, nor to all the Scots living south of the border in the UK, David Cameron agreed to hold a referendum restricting it to the those living in Scotland alone. He was wrongly relying on Labour in Scotland to deliver. But that was at the time when Ed Miliband was losing credibility and grip on his Party in Scotland casting doubt on his leadership in the country. David Cameron gambled on the future of the Union. His late realization of the possibility of losing the referendum resulted in Cameron showering the SNP with promises which later on he lived to regret. The results of 55/45 sounded good on the face of it when in fact they reflected the strength of the SNP who adroitly followed them by incrementally inching forward towards the ultimate objective of an Independent Scotland while meantime displacing Labour as the dominant Party.

15.  In contrast when Harold Wilson at the time opted for a referendum on the restricted objective of joining the Common Market the country was not divided and there was a genuine desire by all the Parties to ascertain the wishes of the people. We all thought that was a “one off” exercise in democracy not making it a new habit.  It is then that Harold Wilson announced his “Yes” recommendation supported by leading Cabinet colleagues  which he announced and defended. Still even that in fact undermined the authority of Parliament. Clement Freud decided to ask his constituency how did they want him to vote following the debate in Parliament and he was told by some constituents : “Why are you asking us? after all we voted for you to vote for us.” How wise those voices were. 

16.  It is here that David Cameron went disastrously wrong. Not having learnt the lesson of the Scottish Referendum he plunged into the new EU Referendum instead of waiting to 2017 as he promised because he was sure it was a walk-over. He wanted to finish it before the German and French Elections and get on with fulfilling his Manifesto while Osborne was succeeding in cutting the deficit and getting ready for the succession. In fact if he waited for the new Governments of France and Germany post their elections he could probably have squeezed better terms.

17.  All over the world government leaders want to perpetuate their rules and secure their legacies by fair means or foul. The USA is the one country that protected its leader constitutionally from this character defect by restricting the Presidency to two terms of 8 years. In fairness David Cameron learning the lessons of Thatcher and Blair announced that he was not going to run for a third term. But he was overtaken and overwhelmed by events of his own making.

18.  Philosophers and political thinkers over the ages were puzzled and tried to understand how people are swayed between Reason and Emotion. The root of Reason based on logic is in our human nature. We are born with it. Emotion on the other hand is in our acquired culture. We are tossed about between Reason and Emotion or between Nature and Nurture.  Our emotional responses push aside our reasoned arguments. Between reason and emotion the latter wins. Durkheim, Freud and especially his nephew Bernays understood and explained this to us. And that was how the Public Relations Industry “PR” and packaging took off and took over insidiously and subliminally and controlled our responses.

19.  So how is this question relevant to our argument? The answer is that while the Leavers played on the emotional fear of immigration, the Remainers concentrated their efforts on the reasoned economic benefits.  So we the voters were tossed about between Reason and Emotion.  The emotional responses of the majority pushed aside  the economic reasoned insights in favour of the emotional responses of the immigration.  Between reason and emotion the latter won. 
So What Now?
20.  In the midst of this turmoil we need stability and first and foremost in order to avoid widening cracks in our democratic institutions and help us to face the consequences of what Brexit could throw at us.  And so while the Government will have to deal with the nitty gritty of Brexit we need to reach to new ideas and policies that will help to adjust our institutions and avoid in particular the break up of the UK in the process. May be instead of the Iron Lady and the Ice Lady we need to hark back for inspiration to Labour’s Red Queen and her call “In Place of Strife” to repair and adjust our fracturing institutions.

21.  There are in the public domain some solutions that could constructively and positively reform our political system to avoid a Class War and bring our electorate from Trafalgar Square back into Westminster Hall. Bewildered Edmond Burk’s first reaction to the French Revolution in 1789 was to condemn it. Why could not those fiery French learn from our Glorious Revolution! Since those days our politics were conducted gloriously in evolutionary steps  going along  with the grain of our political cool  temperament. It is in that spirit that our steps we take now have to be in response to the political chaos in which we find ourselves highlighted equally in their impact  by the 2015 Elections and the 2016 Brexit

22.  The Referendum Results were fairly balanced 52/48. It will  be advisable in dealing with the Brexit to remember this. True democracy takes into account the minority side of the equation, and more so as the difference between Leavers and Remainers is very small.  The crisis in our democracy that the conduct of both Remainers and Leavers exposed reflected the underlying more worrying division in our society as reflected by the electorate in 2015.

23.  Skipping over all the minutiae of statistics that many commentators and academics are so fond of and engrossed in, here are two glaring numbers from the 2015 results that tell all : UKIP’s  3,881,1129 votes sent one MP to the Commons, the Lib-Dems with 2,415,888 managed 8 MPs. Compare and contrast these with 1,454,436 SNP votes securing 56 MPs!! The analysis of the other Parties demonstrates clearly the widening crack in our Electoral System of FPTP.
Solutions through Evolution not Revolution
24.  The ambitious response to change to a pure PR System proved to gain neither traction nor consensus. In fact if succeeded it would have created even more instability  So let us resort  to the  simple, practical and pragmatic TR The Total Representation Electoral System which in essence can tweak the same FPTP without an upheaval. The details of TR are in the public domain advocated and analysed succinctly  by Dr Ken Ritchie in his excellent book “Fixing our Broken Democracy – The Case for Total Representation”

25.  Basically TR is the fusion of FPTP Constituency System with PR in the proportion of 80:20 or say 500:100 simply through the use of one ballot.  Once it is explained it can prove to be possible even for the present House of Commons to approve its introduction by simple majority to be followed by an Inter Party Committee to deal with agreeing the details of its application.  That is the first and most urgent step in order to restore to the House of Commons its prerogative to represent all strands of political aspirations of the electorate.

26.  It is also an opportune time as the Boundary Commission is trying to  adjust the number of voters in the constituencies to as equal number of voters in each to eliminate the big disparity between them. So instead of reducing the number of constituencies to 600 as proposed why not reduce that number to 500 MPs introducing TR at the same time by creating 100 Party MPs. The result will be 500 MPs from the constituencies elected by the Majoritarian FPTP as is the case now and 100 Party Members of Parliament “PMPs” elected by the combined number of votes lost in the same 500 Constituencies who did not succeed to secure any representation in Parliament.  In this way the 600 MPs of  House of Commons will still have the same proposed number of 600 using a combination of the FPTP and Proportional Representation “PR” in the ratio of  500 to 100.

27.  The second  step is to restore to Parliament its representative power by replacing the present appointed House of Lords with  a smaller elected Revising House of 300 Members without infringing on the ultimate authority of the House of Commons. Any one of the present Lords can offer himself/herself as candidate for election for the new House.

28.  My detailed proposals for a New House of Lords are based on totally elected 300 Lords in two stages. The first stage is to select 150 from amongst the present lords on the lines of the Blair/Cranborne procedure of 1998. These “stay behind Lords” will supervise and guide the election of the first batch of 150 newly Elected Lords under the Electoral System of Total Representation, TR. After say 5 years the stay behind Lords will resign and will be replaced by the second batch of 150 Elected Lords. In this way continuity is maintained and the present functions of the House of Lords preserved. Full details of the purpose and procedure are contained in my Website. or just Google : Aharon Nathan on the House of Lords.

29.  The third step is for the Parties to adopt the simple method of electing their Party Leaders as described in my letter to the Times of 4  Nov 1980 above. Such a Leader is to lead the elected MPs of that party in the Commons. That does not preclude electing a president or chairman to a party or movement outside the Commons that includes within its ranks the elected members of a Party in Parliament.
The above three steps can transform our political system gently and peacefully avoiding strife and upheavals by bringing the elected MPs and the elected Lords inside the tent of our accountable Parliament to represent and guard the wishes of all our electorate.
Aharon Nathan, Wimbledon, August 2016