Friday, 23 June 2017

Gisela Stuart is right - this is not "good democracy"

It is Parliament that is responsible for the democratic mess
Gisela Stuart decries.
It's a rare occasion when I find myself agreeing with Gisela Stuart.

I left the Labour Party in 2009, but remained an associate member of the Fabian Society until last year - I decided enough was enough when it allowed Ms Stuart to use their once intellectually stimulating Fabian Review to communicate what can only be described as a UKIP-lite message. To say she isn't my favourite former Labour MP is not to do justice to the rather low regard in which I hold her.

However, I read in today's Independent that she has described the EU referendum as "an abuse of democratic process", criticised David Cameron for calling it, expressed discomfort at the "vacuous choice" expressed in the binary question that was asked, and complained that the campaigns were unaccountable. All this seems reasonable enough.

Aside from the fact that Ms Stuart voted for a referendum to be held on the UK's membership of the EU on three separate occasions - she also once described the referendum as "defending democracy" - it is interesting that she has chosen to make this statement now, on the anniversary of the vote. Coming from Labour's most vocal cheerleader for Leave this is quite an admission. While it does nothing to change my view on Ms Stuart's hypocrisy (especially in relation to the rights of EU citizens residing in the UK), what she has done is identify some significant issues not only with the EU referendum itself but the UK constitution and the way our political system works.

She is of course right - this is not "good democracy". Mature democracies do not hold referenda that are merely advisory in nature. Many states do not hold referenda on constitutional questions without requiring either a special majority or something like the "40% rule" used in the Scottish devolution referendum of 1979*. Australia uses the "double lock" system, requiring both a majority of voters and a majority of states - imagine the implications if such a requirement applied in the UK, given the Scottish and Northern Irish Remain majorities. Similarly, strong democracies that make regular use of referenda not only have a clearly defined way of running them but also ensure that clear plans are in place to implement specified actions in the event of a particular outcome. None of this happened in the case of last year's EU referendum - a Prime Minister called a referendum he believed he wouldn't lose, "throwing his vacuous question in the air" to quote Ms Stuart, without considering either the economic, social or constitutional consequences.

However, it is not only Mr Cameron who is to blame. Of course, it was his hubris and misguided belief that he could use a referendum to finally unite his party and neutralise UKIP's threat that caused it to take place at all. But it was MPs of all parties other than the SNP (including the Liberal Democrats) who voted in support of holding a referendum. It was the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which made no provision for the result to be either binding or to lead to specified outcomes, that allowed for this outrageous travesty of democracy to take place. Where were the appeals to use thresholds, something that was advocated by some - including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kate Hoey - for the 2011 AV referendum? Where were the calls to identify and firmly establish what should happen in either eventuality? Where was the insistence on accountability, the absence of which led to a toxic and dishonest campaign? Why was a binary question allowed to go forward, when MPs of all parties would surely be aware that, whatever the outcome, the verdict of the electorate on the more complex issues of what either leaving or remaining would look like could not be discerned?

And what about the Electoral Commission, whose oversight of the process amounted to merely phrasing the question and announcing the result? The EC has been rendered relatively ineffective in recent years in any case, as underlined by the Tories' maximum fine of £70,000 for multiple breaches of electoral rules, but why was it not strengthened to ensure greater transparency and accountablility? How is it acceptable that even the barely adequate rules relating to UK elections did not apply to something constutitional, especially as serious as our future in the EU? How was it permissible that, the day after the referendum, the campaign groups were allowed simply to cease to exist? As Gisela Stuart explained today: "You had no bodies accountable for an outcome …This notion that you can create these campaigning groups that aren’t established political parties. Immediately after the referendum with Vote Leave, we resigned as directors and the whole thing was shut down. And that’s not good democracy." Quite.

This was no way to do democracy. I agree with Ms Stuart. What I will not do, however, is blame the then Prime Minister exclusively for the democratic mess that followed. Parliament could, and should, have been making these noises at the time. It should have ensured the outcome would be legally binding, and committed the government to specific actions in the event of both potential results. It is Parliament that should have required greater accountability on the part of the campaigns, and Parliament that should have at the very least discussed whether to apply thresholds. It is also Parliament that is to blame for the binary nature of the question, and for the inevitable ambiguity this created. Talk about a potential further referendum on the outcome of negotiations should have taken place in Parliament when the Bill was being formulated. It was Parliament that was negligent in allowing a poorly conceived bill to pass, undermining our democracy in the process. We are all the poorer for it, irrespective of how we voted on 23rd June last year.

The Liberal Democrats have, I believe, suffered electorally for advocating a referendum on the final outcome of negotations. That's not because it's an illogical or even a poor stance to take, but because of the way in which this shambolic referendum was treated as what it was not - as both politically binding and the ultimate, sovereign expression of the collective will of the British people. We were seen to be challenging the democratic verdict, rather than seeking to clarify it once some unknowns are determined. All this could have been avoided if Parliament had acted to ensure the inadequate, "vacuous", binary question was replaced with something that better reflected the complexity of the situation and provided some clarity.

Ms Stuart has correctly diagnosed the problem. She has, however, neither put forward solutions nor correctly apportioned responsibility. The failures she decries are the failures of Parliament.

If we want to be a mature democracy, perhaps it's time to follow Ireland's example and adopt a written constitution in which clear processes are outlined for the holding of referenda on constitutional issues? The alternative is not to learn from the mistakes that even Ms Stuart admits have been damaging.

* The outcome of this referendum was a 52-48% decision in favour of devolution but, as less than 40% of the total electorate had not supported the change, no further action was taken by the government of the day.

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