The mess we are in

The EU referendum delivers an unmanageable mess. The UK will lose its membership of the EU, and more immediately has lost its elected Prime Minister. Like many Lib Dems, I have never voted Conservative, but I do recognise the dignity and decency of David Cameron. The referendum outcome creates space instead for Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and the reactionary Nigel Farage.

Democracy itself is in an impossible contradiction. The UK norm is representative democracy expressed in Parliamentary sovereignty. The policy of the majority of Members of Parliament is to remain in the EU. But the referendum decides to leave. Paradoxically, those wanting to leave the EU favour Parliamentary sovereignty, but reject this principle on the question of EU membership. This is an irresoluble conflict.

There is therefore a greater decision UK society has to make – whether government is to be by representative democracy or by popular referenda. We cannot have both. This is the first question of principle. The second is the criteria which should apply to either representative democracy or referenda. The last general election showed how unrepresentative first-past-the-post constituency voting is. The referendum highlights the huge problem of maintaining social cohesion when half the population wants exactly the opposite of what the other half wants. Reconciling this is nigh impossible.

By definition, representative democracy relies on the judgment of those who are better informed on issues and their consequences, since it is their professional job to be better informed. Their views are formed in the white heat of debate, whereas referendum voters include the casual as well as the committed, the well informed as well as the less informed, even the totally uninformed.
We then have the question of practicality. Commentators describe the referendum as the people having ‘instructed’ the government on the issue. Initial analyses of the vote show that EU membership is favoured by:

Parliament
London
More educated people
Young people
Scotland

These groupings represent the capable leadership and the future of UK society, less a possibly independent future Scotland. So how can that capable leadership implement a major policy which they do not support? Or how can the 17m people who voted for the UK to leave the EU, define exactly and implement what they voted for?

It seems to me that there are two principles which emerge from this mess.

1 We need to choose representative democracy as the unique process of government in the UK
2 We desperately need to grow social cohesion where politicians and people find a new mutual respect, and where different social groups also find a new mutual respect, including trust in capable leadership matched by respect for those they lead. This is a spiritual more than a socio-political question.

As for the UK’s relationship with the EU, the best we can hope for is that UK’s capable leadership is able to agree a quasi-membership where we are formally out, but in effect remain in strong coordination. But who will lead that process responsibly? We have created the seeds of a nightmare.

* Geoff Crocker is a professional economist writing on technology at www.philosophyoftechnology.com; a contributor to Basic Income Earth Network, www.basicincome.org; and runs ‘The Case for Basic Income’ at www.ubi.org.

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22 Comments

  • Parliamentary democracy versus referenda
    Your points are well made. This question has opened Pandora’s box. The difficulty is that once opened, it will be impossible to close. Parliament should, and must reassert its rightful place within our democratic system. How? That is the question! Answers? I don’t have one, I wish I did!

  • I would join the Liberal Democrats in a shot if it were not for one simple fact, this morning I joined the Tories in order to vote for the least awful choice of leader/Prime Minister.

    Tim Farron has expressed exactly how I feel and after this Conservative leadership business is concluded I will join a party that I think will make a difference.

  • Geoff Crocker does not seem to understand the problem we have had in the recent past. This referendum shows clearly that the majority of MPs do not represent the majority of the electorate. For years going back to when Blair was Prime Minister some voters were concerned about the competition from foreigners for jobs, the worsening of services as the population grew and the increasing housing shortage. From 2008 the “three main parties” were more concerned with reducing the deficit than tackling the issues these voters had. Representative democracy failed these voters, they had no one to vote for to get these issues addressed. It seems clear that this failure opened the door for those who said all these problems will be sorted if we leave the EU.

    UK governments have normally been elected by a minority of those voting and it is now important that the MPs do carry out the will of the majority of voters, this is likely to be a new experience for a UK government.

    If Geoff Crocker is correct and we do need to choose a representative democracy, that democracy needs to change, so all electors feel that their views are represented by those who are standing for election. Would having constituencies based on local authority areas with STV and increasing the number of MPs to 1300 help to ensure all electors will be represented? Does the deposit for standing need to be abolished?

  • If there is a general election created by a two thirds vote of the Commons then let us face the fact, we could be completely wiped out. Let’s focus on that horrendous possibility and see what we can do different to avoid that.

  • Peter Parsons 24th Jun '16 - 6:29pm

    @Michael, I don’t think increasing the number of MPs to 1300 would be a popular suggestion. However, there is a possible solution which is almost on our doorstep – the Republic of Ireland. Small, variable-sized multi-member constituencies (IIRC they vary between 3 and 5) which can then be more closely aligned with natural boundaries e.g. urban areas of different sizes. The RoI uses STV, but Open List PR is equally worth considering as both allow the voter to pick individual candidates and therefore puts maximum power and influence in the hands of the electorate. Closed List PR, where the party picks the order of the candidates is less desirable IMO.

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Jun '16 - 7:15pm

    @Peter Parsons
    “The RoI uses STV, but Open List PR is equally worth considering as both allow the voter to pick individual candidates and therefore puts maximum power and influence in the hands of the electorate.”

    Precisely why the control freaks in the 2 major UK parties wouldn’t go for either of these – can’t have the people holding the power……

  • The thing is, you can have both. What we have is the rather strange situation where referendum can’t be called by the people.

  • Michael B G is right – what about people like me who support Council Housing – who is Government has listened to us since 1979 ?

  • Rightsaidfredfan 24th Jun '16 - 8:38pm

    I see no contradiction here.

    Parliamentary democracy is the norm as having a referendum on all matters is impossible.

    But huge decisions that affect the constitution of the country such as should Scotland be an independent country, or should we be members of the EU, can be (and should be in my opinion) be decided by the majority of the population.

    As for FPTP it’s not such a bad method, sure only 37% got what they wanted and 63% got no representation in government. But with PR you’d get a Tory UKIP coalition with 48% getting something that they hate and 52% getting only some of what they wanted.

    This referendum shows me not that FPTP is a problem but the problem is that the political establishment are so different from the country as a whole, PR wouldn’t have fixed that. Virtually the entire political establishment and every mainstream political party were against the majority of the population in 9 out of 12 regions and the majority as a whole. PR doesn’t change this.

  • Theakes is right, the prospect of a General election in six months or less is very real, we need a pact with the Greens for starters (and Labour too) if we are to make any progress and an agenda based on a new great reform act that people can sign up to.

  • @ Peter Parson
    Having constituencies based on local authority areas would provide variable sized constituencies, and having STV would make them multi-member. In 2016 2,136,405 electors voted for 157 members of the Dáil Éireann, which is 13,607 voters per Teachta Dála. Their constitution sets the number at between 20,000 and 30,000 electors per Teachta Dála. In the 2015 UK election 650 MPs were elected by 30,691,680 voters, making 47,217.9 votes per MP. With a turnout of 66.4% the total electorate was about 46,222,410 making 71,111 electors per MP. So my suggestion of 1300 MPs would only halved this figure to 35,556 electors per MP which is much higher than the Irish Republics 20,903 electors per Teachta Dála. I would accept say 21,010 electros per MP making 2200 MPs in 2015. The reason for having more MPs is to make it easier for someone to get elected and so increase the range of opinion of MPs. I accept it would be a hard sell, but it would increase the representative element in our democracy.

    @ Geoff Crocker
    “I do understand this disconnect – in fact that’s what my post is all about.”
    “Politicians certainly have to respect the people and listen”

    I must have missed the parts where you set out why people where disconnected with their MPs.

    Just respecting and listening is not enough they have to be able to “represent” them – work towards solving the issues that they want solved. I am sure the majority of people want something to be done about the housing shortage, but no UK government has provided a solution of over 35 years.

    A representative is not a delegate, but a representative does have to provide solutions to the issues faced by their electorate, they don’t have to vote for the solution that the electorate wants, but their solutions do have to deal with the issue.

    Trust has to be earned. Most people think well of their own MP, but we have a political system where not answering the question is normal practice and stretching the truth has become an art form. People know that politicians don’t tell the truth and the proof is clear from all the fact checking websites. There should be no need for such sites because politicians should be banned from standing for office if they ever tell a lie about a fact.

  • Laurence Cox 24th Jun '16 - 11:21pm

    @Michael BG :1300 MPs is far too many; the House of Lords is 800-900 and even that is too large. If we have around 600 MPs from 100-120 constituencies, elected by STV, then getting about 10% support across a constituency would get you one of the 5-6 seats. It also has the benefit of making it more difficult for small extreme parties as the constituency size is larger. It used to be that a candidate lost his deposit if he polled less than 12.5% of the vote, so it is not unreasonable to set at about this level the effective threshold for representation. Apart from a few areas like the Highlands and Islands where logistics demands smaller constituencies, the rest of the UK could easily be divided up into 5-6 member constituencies.

  • @ Laurence Cox
    I think you have missed my point. Having 71,111 electors per MP is a major factor in the failure of our representative democracy. Increasing it to 77,037 or more will make it worse. Having such a high threshold to get elected will also making it worse. In the Irish Republic 13 pure independents were elected and 10 in parties of unions of independents. It also has a few new small parties. This is a good thing. Having lower elector to MP ratios, I think, will re-connect with people and assist in making our democracy truly representative.

  • In a parliamentary democracy if our parliamentarians had any guts they would ignore this vote. For it has opened up the door to fascism and xenophobia in Britain and Europe. This will set communities against each other neighbours against each other families work colleagues.

  • jedibeeftrix 25th Jun '16 - 8:43am

    Neil, are aware of article 61 in the original treaty of magna carta: lawful rebellion?

    i.e. turning up in front of parliament with burning brands and erecting a gibbet.

  • Watching RT for another reaction.
    Ken Livingstone interview at the moment.

  • Tony Dawson 25th Jun '16 - 2:01pm

    “The UK will lose its membership of the EU, and more immediately has lost its elected Prime Minister.”

    Remind me, please, as to when Britain ever elected a Prime Minister.

  • The author of this piece forgot to include Northern Ireland in the list of Remainers.

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