“Brexit is the will of the people, democratically expressed in a valid referendum.”
No. No, it isn’t. It never was, and it never will be. The only reason people are saying so is because the mainstream media, the majority of which are rabidly right-wing, keep saying that the EU Is Bad™, and many people are too lazy/prejudiced/thick to call them out on it.
The Referendum itself was enacted as non-binding, with no threshold of either votes or turnout required to confirm a decision. The result of the Referendum was 52-48 in favour of Leaving the EU. That’s a very close margin of victory, and can in no way be called decisive – well before the actual vote, Nigel Farage even said that if the vote was 52-48 in favour of Remaining, it would be “unfinished business”. Many of the senior people of the Leave campaign had serious financial interests in Leaving, and many of the things they said while campaigning were hypocritical, misrepresentations, or just outright lies. The turnout was just under three-quarters of the eligible voters, bringing the proportion of voters in favour of Brexit down to about 35%. The pool of eligible voters was restricted compared to general elections – British people living abroad weren’t allowed to vote, foreign nationals living in the UK weren’t allowed to vote, and since deciding whether or not to leave the world’s largest trade and legislative bloc is a decision that will affect the country forever, far more so than a general election, it can be argued that 16- and 17-year-olds should have had the right to vote. The number of people eligible to vote was therefore restricted by several hundred thousand voters compared to general elections, and several million less than it arguably should have been. Overall, the proportion of people who voted Leave was about 25% of the total population. On top of all that, some of those who did vote acted as though it was a general election, and voted in opposition to the official government position (Remain) in order to punish them, despite the fact that David Cameron had already announced he would not be standing for another term as PM after the current one, and when party leaders change there is an inevitable cabinet (government) reshuffle.
So perhaps the opening statement should read: “Brexit is the will of a small proportion of intellectually and/or morally bankrupt people, expressed in a non-binding referendum which featured massive pro-Leave bias in its’ media coverage.”
The Leave campaign was based on lies, misrepresentations, and playing to peoples’ ignorance and prejudices. The Remain campaign was based on a healthy amount of warning of what would happen if we changed the status quo, and lots of facts and figures. We have seen that the warnings have all started to come true since the 24th of June 2016, and every key figure of the Leave campaign has admitted that they were bullshitting. David Cameron gambled with the future of the country and lost – his stake was securing the future of a political party whose moral and ethical outlook is hideously outdated, unequal and unjust. He got out while he could, and the Tories look like they are starting to tear themselves apart, so they are taking it out on the country.
Enter the British Political System.
First Past the Post is how the UK elects its’ parliaments. It’s a simple majority system, re-iterated down to the lowest level. Think of it this way: You and nine mates want to meet up but can’t decide where to go, so you all get one chance to pick a venue. One person says they want to go to the Royal Oak, two people say they want to go to the Crown & Axe, three people say they want to go to the King’s Head, and four people say they want to go to Cafe Nero. Six people want to go to a pub, four people want to go for coffee, but since the six can’t agree on which pub they want to go to, you all have to go for coffee. That’s FPTP – the one with most votes, no matter if those votes are outnumbered by votes for clearly opposed ideas, wins everything. Under a sensible system (Proportional Representation, of whatever flavour), the ten of you would either spend time in each venue proportional to how many people wanted to go there, or simply go somewhere that allows you to bring your own drinks, whether that be a thermos of coffee, a four-pack of Carlsberg, or a mini-keg from the local micro-brewery. Under FPTP, if you want to go to a pub, you’d have to persuade one person who wants to go to Cafe Nero to go to the King’s Head instead; or at least two people that they want to go to the Crown & Axe; or at least three people that they want to go to the Royal Oak – and if you don’t try and persuade the people who want to go for coffee, you have to persuade one extra person to convert to the pub of your choice. Unless the people who want to go to a pub co-ordinate their efforts, they could end up with votes of 2/2/2 for the pubs and still 4 votes for the coffee shop. Even with co-ordination, in order to not go to a coffee shop it is easiest to persuade someone who wants to go to Cafe Nero that they want to go to the Kings Head instead.
Let us now look at the problem with a change in analogy. From the evidence available so far in the falling GBP, the periodically plummeting stock market, the flocks of businesses saying they will re-locate out of Britain, the hordes of services and amenities that say they will find it damn-near impossible to operate after Brexit, and the utter chaos and incompetence visible in the Tory party on an almost-hourly basis, it appears that the process of Brexit is akin to jumping out of the window of your nice comfortable 43rd-floor executive office suite. The Tories, UKIP and the DUP want to take a running dive through the plate-glass window and use a parachute hastily sewn together on the way down from used fivers and blue-covered passports. Every other party apart from Labour want to open the window and wave at the people outside before heading back to the table and getting down to work. Labour is split at least three ways on what they want to do, and are further conflicted because there is a Blairite rump still opposing Corbyn. Because many Labour marginal constituencies behaved like turkeys voting for Christmas, the party can’t risk upsetting their electorate and have to be seen to support Leaving; on the other hand, the majority of the membership and MPs support Remaining (on a personal basis at least, in the case of MPs); on the other other hand, the leadership, whilst recognising that the EU is important in protecting things like workers’ rights and the environment, have always been sceptical of the pro-capitalist milieu of the EU and will support Leaving until it becomes obvious that public opinion is more in favour of Remaining, economic conditions be-damned. Consequently, Labour want to open the window before climbing out onto the ledge, jumping with a parachute equipped, arranging for an air bag to land on, and making a jet pack out of spare parts in their pockets so they can quickly get back up to the 43rd floor if they need to.
That’s the problem we are dealing with. So how do we stop it in the context of the UK’s obsolete and not-fit-for-purpose political system? Under FPTP (some further problems of which are gone into here), the only parties able to form governments in the foreseeable future are Labour and the Conservatives*. Consequently, if we want to stop Brexit we have to do two things: First, since the Tories are the only party ever likely to be in government that actually want to Leave the EU, we have to get them out of power, by any means possible and necessary. This will almost certainly mean that a majority Labour government need to be elected. Second, we have to persuade the Labour leadership that the prevailing public opinion is in favour of Remaining.
We are already seeing signs that the second of these is starting to happen, with promising statements from John McDonnell and others – let us hope they are the first of many voices. In the face of mounting economic problems (and inconvenience for British tourists), even the most extreme bits of the hard-right media are having trouble pretending that Brexit is a Good Thing™, and the more they cool off from it, the more people can be persuaded to ignore the jingoism and false promises and accept the facts, which, in turn, will persuade more MPs and the Labour leadership that Brexit is actually not desired. As for the first, the snap election earlier this year destroyed any legitimacy the Tory party had. Under these new, more difficult circumstances (ie. having thrown away a majority government for a minority one, propped up by 1.2% of MPs who were voted for by 0.9% of people who voted (0.6% of the electorate and 0.45% of the population), all of whom are extreme-right anti-science, anti-equality religious nutcases), the internal Tory party tensions are coming out into the open and tearing them apart whilst simultaneously showing how incompetent and stupid they are. It is now quite likely there will be another snap election before summer 2018, and probably as early as this autumn.
A quick general election would be a great opportunity to remove the Tories from power, which is the first step towards stopping Brexit. However, it will require the collaboration and co-operation of all the minor parties and Labour. Labour will find it very difficult to form a government if the anti-Tory vote is split between them and the other parties; it will be nigh impossible if Labour maintains its’ pro-Brexit position (although not as hard if they agree to at least a second Referendum). In the June 2017 election, Labour was seen as the best chance to stop Brexit by many people, even though Brexit and its’ related problems was hardly mentioned by the major parties, and even though Labour’s official position is currently to negotiate the best deal for exiting the EU that we can get (as opposed to stopping Brexit, or holding a second referendum on the subject, or holding a referendum on the terms of the deal). As a result, Labour increased both its’ vote share and the number of seats it had, but could not consolidate enough support to block the Tories from forming another government. Therefore, there needs to be a general agreement between the parties to work together, which includes an acknowledgement by the Labour leadership that Brexit is not the will of the people – but an agreement like that in and of itself has obstacles. The Lib-Dems are still scarred from their coalition with the Tories, and are under the misapprehension that it was because they were in a coalition that they were punished electorally; they’re wrong – they were punished because they were in a coalition with the corrupt, self-interested, falsehood-spewing party of social inequality, the Tories. The SNP and Plaid Cymru have certain things which they will not proceed without guarantees of, such as greater autonomy and further opportunities for independence referendums. The Greens have redlines of their own, such as the renewal of Trident and the level of commitment to environmental and social justice policies. And Labour are, despite the mass appeal of a leader who actually engages with people and cares about them rather than peering out of the window of an ivory tower, stubbornly clinging to the party system that became effectively obsolete in the 1990s.
What? Didn’t I just say that the party system was obsolete long before then, or that it’s the electoral system that’s obsolete, not the parties?
First Past The Post was designed in the days when maybe 10% of the population could vote, and only 15% of the population could read & write or had any awareness of the world beyond 20 miles from their home. Society has changed massively (70% are eligible to vote and 90% can read & write and have an awareness of things going on in the whole country, not to mention the world), but the electoral system has only changed slightly – allowing women to vote, lowering the age at which people can vote, no longer requiring voters to own property or have a huge income; they are all good things, but they are still operating within a winner-takes-all system designed for a small elite of decision makers. Consequently, in order to make any headway in politics in this country, you need to be in one of the two established parties. However, in the 1990s, with the communications revolution allowing a rise in alternative channels through which information could propagate (ie. not newspapers or TV stations owned by right-wing megalomaniac billionaires), and a spread in capital increasing the ability of people from all walks of life to experience a greater degree of self-determination, minor parties, with new ideas and without constant scandals, were much more appealing to vote for, no matter how unlikely it was that they would get into power.
Unfortunately, all these parties must co-operate to get the Tories out of power, without which halting Brexit cannot happen. Some sort of agreement will have to be reached, the cornerstone of which will almost certainly be a guarantee of a switch to PR (for after the election), and a national agreement for some parties to not field candidates in certain constituencies if there is a chance that concentrated opposition can beat the Tories (for before the election). While there was an “understanding” between parties in some constituencies, and agreements reached on a local level, Labour’s national policy was to not co-operate, and this meant that while Green and Lib-Dem candidates stood aside in constituencies where they never had a chance to win in order to give the Labour candidate a chance to beat the Tory, no Labour candidates stood aside in constituencies where Labour never had a chance to win in the first place. Hence, a split anti-Tory vote, and a failure to kick them out of power.
Unfortunately, there must be a certain amount of simultaneity in the two goals of getting the Tories out of power and persuading the Labour leadership that Brexit is no wanted. Labour is unlikely to oppose Brexit without massive public opposition, nor are the other parties likely to agree to co-operate with Labour without them agreeing to oppose Brexit (among other concessions, many of which Labour largely supports), but without co-operation between the parties it is likely the Tories will stay in power, which means the mainstream media will feel safer in airing their pro-Brexit bias thus encouraging public opinion to back Brexit. Someone who is more of a people person, who has organisational ability, charisma, and who has some influence with either the press or political parties will have to co-ordinate the efforts of Remainers to see that these goals are achieved; I fear my usefulness in this matter is limited to this strategic overview.
* Digression: Labour was formed in the early 1900s, before which the two main parties were the Conservatives and the Liberals, and their respective forbears. It took 20 years for Labour to become a significant parliamentary presence, and that was at the expense of the Liberals. It took another 25 years for the Liberal presence in parliament to die off enough that Labour could form a majority government in their own right, and Labour and the Conservatives have been trading off ruling the country with each other since the end of WW2. I, for one, am not prepared to wait 40+ years for another political party to come to prominence while watching one of the current ones wither away.