Make Votes Matter takes no position on the merits or otherwise of leaving or remaining in the European Union. Here, Joe Sousek gives his own view, attempting to analyse the various, competing democratic claims playing out around politics of Brexit - and the need for PR.
The EU referendum has compounded the already urgent need for Proportional Representation in the UK. It isn't just that people felt their votes counted in a referendum that was free of the irrationalities of our normal, arbitrary voting system. It's that the outcome has shone light on the internal contradictions of a representative democracy that is fundamentally unrepresentative.
Whether or not you believe the referendum was advisory, it is a plain fact that it was - in itself - non-binding. We will only leave the EU if and when the elected representatives enact the decision the majority of people voted for in June. It’s easy to prove this point - because we haven’t left or triggered Article 50 yet.
Only about 150 MPs (of 650) supported Leave. Considerable pressure is exerted on the 500 or so who supported Remain to now accept Brexit. On the other hand, the referendum was pretty close and, many of those MPs will believe, misleading. It seems clear that many of them interpret the collapse of the pound and other bad economic news as a sign that Brexit is not in the best interest of their constituents or of the country. They could, not entirely unreasonably, deduce that the result would have gone the opposite way had people known what they now know. If they believe to proceed would be to lead the country down a path to catastrophe that the people couldn't possibly have wished for, it's quite possible that more than 325 MPs will reject whatever deal is offered.
Failing to implement a referendum decision doesn't feel democratic - but representative democracy is self-correcting. Sooner or later - and sooner if the scenario above were to arise - there will be a General Election and the electorate can decide, in light of all the circumstances, whether to ratify any decision made by their representatives to not implement their own decision to leave the EU. If most of the electorate still wants to leave, they'll elect a majority of representatives who are willing to pursue Brexit. If most of the electorate at that point wants to remain, most of Parliament will be made up of Remain MPs and we'll stay in.
Unfortunately, our political system is not self-correcting precisely because it is not a representative democracy. A representative democracy requires that the sovereign body (Parliament) is a fair representation of the views of the people. Our next General Election will again be held under First Past the Post, and whichever party wins most of the seats in Parliament will almost certainly again represent a modest minority of the electorate, while many millions of people will again be left with little or no representation. Parliament will still fail to reflect the will of the electorate.
This is why I essentially agree with Theresa May when she says decisions about how to act on the referendum cannot be for the current Parliament. They cannot be for any Parliament elected under First Past the Post. The PM can't rely on Parliament to implement Brexit on behalf of the voters because Parliament does not represent the views of the voters. At the same time - and for the same reason - any decision by Parliament to reappraise the decision to Brexit is unlikely to be taken in good faith, because MPs were overwhelmingly against leaving from the outset. We are therefore at an impasse.
The proper response to this would be to immediately reform our electoral system so that seats match votes and all votes matter equally - as they did in the referendum. With the full range of views of the population proportionally represented, our system would become genuinely democratic and therefore self-correcting. Any majority in the commons would draw a mandate from a majority of voters and, whether Leave or Remain, its decision would express the contemporary will of the electorate. If MPs failed to express this will they would soon be replaced. But the new Government is continuing its predecessor’s policy of opposing even the possibility of taking steps to make Parliament representative of the people, and evading any substantive discussion of the glaring problems with our electoral system.
Worryingly, Theresa May's response to the impasse has been the opposite. She cannot rely on Parliament to deliver the will of the people because it doesn't represent them. Rather than modernising our voting system to allow Parliament to represent the people, she is trying to circumvent the sovereign body by use of powers that are dictatorial in nature. She is seeking to trigger Article 50 by Royal Prerogative without the approval of Parliament - a move that has been challenged in the High Court; decision pending - with the suggestion that MPs will be allowed a vote to give final ratification to whatever deal is offered. Of course, if Parliament were to vote against the deal, or if no deal were to materialise in the two years following the triggering of Article 50, the UK would leave on a default - that is to say worse - deal. So, in effect, she would be using executive power to commit the country to radical changes that go far beyond membership of the EU.
Some will argue that the PM is only doing this to implement the will of the people as expressed in the referendum. But the referendum asked "yes/no" to the EU, not for decisions relating to the single market, freedom of movement or the minutiae of international trade deals and, therefore, of the entire economy. These are precisely the sort of questions that must now be answered.
This sets a precedent that should give great cause for concern to any democrat; a PM, who was elevated to power by the MPs of a party that represents a minority of voters, claiming a single-issue referendum decision as a mandate to decree fundamental changes to a series of divisive, complex and hugely important issues. The approach the government is currently set upon would transfer the discretion and agency of our legislative representatives to a handful of people in the executive, to whom this power was never democratically granted. This course of action will likely be rejected by the High Court. But what is more, it should be rejected, because pursuing this route would represent a sharp repudiation of the very democratic processes that are the only means by which decisions of government can self-correct in order to reflect the will of the people - not only on the specifics of Brexit now, but on all matters of public policy in the future.
A parallel struggle is playing out in the House of Lords, where Tory peers have made the same demand for scrutiny of a Brexit deal by both houses before Article 50 is triggered. The Lords is an even worse representation of the people than the Commons. The solution, again, is to replace it with something more democratic - that better reflects the will of the people, whatever that happens to be. But the Government’s response, again, is the opposite of this, with a Cabinet Minister proposing to dominate the upper house by flooding it with a thousand new peers.
It should be remembered that, once concentrated, power rarely diffuses of its own accord - hence the perpetual struggle that has afforded every single advance in democracy in British history. And as an aside that perhaps sounds only slightly more ominous than it should do; few dictators have ever claimed to be doing anything other than implementing the will of the people.
The status quo of a representative democracy that is fundamentally unrepresentative has always been a bad one; whether this can be called a democracy at all is a serious question. But this status quo is now at risk of becoming critically and immediately untenable, as our leaders zealously appeal to the democratic legitimacy of a referendum decision, while at the same time they fiercely defend the status quo of a sovereign body that is democratically illegitimate. This can only be resolved in one of two ways: either by adopting real democracy - and permanently aligning Parliament with the will of the people - or by marginalising Parliament and effectively consolidating power within an executive of even greater illegitimacy.
The mere fact that the latter of these options is being considered shows that perpetual struggle for democracy must continue, now more than ever.
- Joe Sousek