Regular London4Europe contributor George Stevenson reflects on the democratic deficit in UK politics and how to address it.
When the statue of Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol a few months ago, during the wave of Black Lives Matter protests, a common comment was why the protesters hadn’t tried to remove the statue by democratic means. The simple response is that campaigners had tried for years to either have the plaque on the statue amended to reflect his pivotal role in the slave trade, or to have the statue removed, but had been thwarted at every turn by those who didn’t want to see any change. Unsurprisingly, their patience finally ran out, and fuelled by a wider sense of injustice, the statue ended up in the harbour.
The same cavalier disregard for any opposing views has also characterised this government’s approach to Brexit – and that of its predecessor. Both have pretty much done what they liked, without any attempt to engage with the electorate as a whole (especially with those who wished to Remain), to find out what the country actually wanted. In the words of the ‘Led By Donkeys’ team, they have acted as though they won the referendum 80/20 instead of 52/48. There is a substantial democratic deficit - the 48% have effectively been disenfranchised by the 52%, and we need to keep angry about this. To be clear, I’m not advocating a programme of civil disobedience, which could be counter-productive. However, I do like the stunts of ‘Led By Donkeys’ and the EU Flag Mafia which can make our case effectively.
We need to make the case for the closest possible alignment with the EU, and eventually rejoining, through political means, to allow a genuine democratic choice on the future of the country. This can complement Richard Newcombe’s recent suggestions on this website for better education on EU and wider European matters.
There are three strands, I believe, to this approach, which I set out below.
- Establish pro-EU think tanks. ‘Leave’ had a number of think tanks, not all directly EU related, with an overall anti-EU, low regulation and low tax agenda. Careful placing of stories to fit this agenda with sympathetic newspapers and other media allowed them to influence public opinion and government policy. Now that we are the insurgents, we need to do the same, so politicians, who we need to influence, will take notice of us. This may be a tall order in a movement which seems to have lost its way a little at the moment, and where there is something of a gulf between the branches and the national organisation. There are, however, encouraging signs of strong campaigns being developed by the European Movement and Best for Britain, which could be a template for the future, particularly if given secure funding and more full time staff.
- Building alliances with MPs - and educating them. Given the current crisis, many MPs can probably be forgiven for not wanting to talk about Brexit. However, we need to demonstrate that their best chance of retaining their seats, or of winning power, is for a close alignment with the EU, and/or eventually rejoining. We need to build a cross-party bloc in favour of these aims, and make this the smart thing to do, contrasting this with the unbelievable incompetence with the government is demonstrating over pretty much everything at the moment. There are good signs of this from the national European Movement leadership, but it would be good to see some more results communicated to, and engagement with, the local branches.
- Join political parties. There should be something in EU membership for most shades of political opinion, whether, for example, improved free trade, peace, or protecting workers’ rights. Indeed, it is testament to the EU that governments of all persuasions in the rest of Europe have generally regarded membership as a good thing in itself. Political party membership in Britain tends to be dominated by those who hold stronger views in the relevant direction of their party, but who are not necessarily representative of the population as a whole. Nevertheless, party members and local parties have significant power over (amongst other things) the selection of parliamentary candidates, party leaders or the general policy direction of a party. So, there is a great opportunity to influence the direction of our chosen party, if we so choose. Of course, this should be by gentle persuasion and education - sounding off in a pro-Brexit local party about its malign effects is unlikely to cut much ice.
At the moment, some of these steps are probably quite daunting. But I believe that if we take them, then there is a good opportunity to educate and inform our politicians, and make it more likely that a genuine democratic alternative to the ‘take it or leave it’ approach that currently exists will be offered - the democratic deficit will be no more.
This article is written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily represent the views of London4Europe or the European Movement UK.