Thursday, 15 November 2018

Democracy & the 2016 Referendum

One of the most curious things we hear a lot of these days is “it would be undemocratic to go against the result of the referendum”. But if a political process is, in its conception and execution, detrimental to democracy, then to abide by it would be truly undemocratic. Let us look at a few key facts about the 2016 EU referendum:

[1] Parliamentary Democracy, not Plebiscite
The legislation setting up the 2016 referendum made it clear that it was an advisory process. The UK has a parliamentary democracy. All legislative decisions are made by Parliament, unless it has been explicitly passed to a devolved body or local government. The referendum result was thus never intended to be binding, and democratically the ultimate decision was to rest with Parliament. MPs have the right and the duty to make that decision in light of the views registered in the referendum, the impact of different options, and the changing circumstances facing the country. This is not to say the UK cannot give up parliamentary democracy in one or more cases, or agree to a binding plebiscite for specific decisions. But that did not happen with the 2016 referendum. To insist MPs must vote in line with the referendum result, and not take any other critical factor into account is to defy our system of parliamentary democracy.

[2] Fake Options
If dodgy sales people give lots of misleading descriptions of their product to get people to sign a contract to buy it, public concerns would not be on how to force the buyer to pay out, but how to expose the deception and hold the con merchants to account. In the case of the 2016 referendum, the leading campaigners repeatedly stressed that leaving the EU would not mean leaving the Single Market; and they kept citing the Norway model as a desirable way to move forward: Yet, after the referendum, they were adamant that people voted to leave the Single Market and reject the Norway model (when they themselves had urged people to back leaving the EU because it would not mean leaving the Single Market).

[3] Deception and Rule Breaking
In addition to what was on offer in the referendum being routinely misrepresented, the campaigns involved were also full of illegitimate moves that were designed to undermine democracy at every turn. Democracy cannot function if people were pervasively lied to about the issue they were voting on, and the arrangements to ensure fairness and transparency were brushed aside. From propagating false figures about the costs of EU membership to covering up all the risks and damages that would arise from leaving, people were misled about what they should make of the UK being part of the EU. If a jury trial was conducted with so many attempts by one side or the other to submit misleading evidence, the judge would stop proceedings or even order a retrial. Furthermore, campaign rules which were to underpin the democratic legitimacy of the referendum vote were broken through a range of financial violations (to the extent that these are being investigated by the National Crime Agency). Some Leave campaigners had tried to defend their position by arguing that no one could prove that the breaking of the rules played a crucial part in securing the overall majority for Leave. But that is to forget that cheating in exams or sports is in itself sufficient for disqualification.

[4] The Absence of a Threshold
Any government seeking to change the fundamental constitutional and economic structure of the country by means of a direct binding vote would set a threshold for any proposed changes to go ahead. The greater the consequences and more extensive the disruption, the more critical it is to set a threshold. Even on issues which may impact on people’s lives on a much smaller scale, any direct vote may lead to a threshold being set. For example, the Conservative government introduced legislation to require at least 40% of the eligible voting members of a union to vote for strike action in relation to an important public service, before any strike action can take place – on the grounds that such a decision can cause disruption to people’s lives. As any decision to withdraw the UK from the EU can have far more drastic consequences for the whole country, it follows that there ought to be a requirement for an even higher threshold – say, 50% or two-thirds of all eligible voters. But the government set no threshold at all, and on the basis of 37% of eligible voters opting for ‘Leave’ (below the threshold it set for strike action to be authorised), it refuses to subject that decision to parliamentary democratic scrutiny. It is worth remembering that Nigel Farage himself said in an interview before the referendum (referring to % of votes that might be cast for either side): "In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it."

[5] Timescale and Democratic Responsiveness
Democracy cannot be sustained by any government declaring that it can take a decision that will be binding for all time. If a government wants to treat a referendum-based policy decision as irrevocable for a specified period of time, then it needs parliamentary approval in order to establish that as part of the referendum vote. However, nothing of the sort was put forward for the 2016 referendum. That means that just as after the previous (1975) referendum on the UK’s EU membership, there can be another referendum on the subject, it is legally and democratically coherent to have a third referendum. To claim that to run another referendum would be against the ‘will of the people’ is to overlook the democratic fact that the overriding will of the people is that they are allowed to change their mind. Above all, it is the Leave campaigners who have most ardently stressed that what ‘Leave’ means is fundamentally disputed – some of them insist it means leaving the EU (but keeping the benefits of the Single Market), some maintain it means leaving the EU and any form of customs union, and others argue that it means just leaving the EU (regardless of what other changes may or may not take place). Since those who back ‘Leave’ cannot agree what it should mean in practice, it would be wholly undemocratic to hand the power to decide the matter to an executive which is unlikely to command majority support in parliament.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

In Defence of Cooperative Communities: 7 points to note

Those who promote prejudice, conflicts, and irrationality are getting more emboldened every day. They thrive on lies, reject science, celebrate bigotry, deny exploitation, endorse pollution, and blame scapegoats at every turn. We are aghast at what they do, but we need to be united ourselves to push back effectively.

We can begin by focusing on the kind of communities we seek to develop, and the key threats and obstacles that we must tackle. Below are seven points to note:

[1] The Real Political Divide
We should not be deflected by devious rhetoric or subtle misdirection, and remind ourselves and others of the real dividing lines between those of us who want to build more cooperative communities that foster mutual respect and genuine collaboration, and those who want to have greater power to exploit and oppress others in society. The former seek to foster solidarity, the latter try to con others into subservience.
[Read more at: ]

[2] The Cooperative Community Paradigm
We do not need to invent a new philosophy. The ideas from centuries of progressive, civic republican, and communitarian reflections have shaped the cooperative community paradigm, which distinguishes the kind of rules, customs and relations that should be promoted for the sake of all, as opposed to the attitudes and arrangements that ought to be urgently reformed.
[Read more at: ]

[3] Cooperative Problem-Solving
A vast amount of work has gone into developing the theory and practice of cooperative problem-solving. It is an approach that is known to have facilitated consensus building and conflict resolution. By drawing on the available evidence-based guidance, we can take forward more initiatives to support the development of cooperative communities.
[Read more at: ]

[4] Degrees of Reciprocity
In society, there is a spectrum that goes from those of us who take the Golden Rule of reciprocity seriously, to others who are driven by egoistic and authoritarian tendencies. In between are people with varying dispositions. It is not ethnicity, gender, religion, or any other ‘identity’ factor, but how an individual’s outlook has been shaped that influences the person’s receptivity to cooperative working.
[Read more at: ]

[5] Progressive Lifelong Learning
The more people develop pro-reciprocity dispositions – which may be termed their Cooperative Gestalt – the more likely they will interact with each other with reason and respect. Through progressive lifelong learning, they are more able to assess and share ideas on what is to be believed in an on-going, provisional manner that is open to anyone to contribute, question and revise.
[Read more at: ]

[6] The Pathology of Marginalisation
Oppressors and exploiters con people into joining their cults, gangs, and extremist groups, especially by preying on those who feel marginalised by society. They turn those vulnerable to manipulation into followers who will inflict harm on themselves as well as others, and dismiss any contrary evidence as ‘fake news’. We need to understand such vulnerabilities to be able to expose the con tactics more readily.
[Read more at: ]

[7] The Cult of Thoughtlessness
The politics of manipulation depends on promoting thoughtless attitudes and behaviour. People are easier to con if they are less inclined to think critically. To counter it, educators in all fields have a vital role to play in advancing civic thoughtfulness – with its empathic, cognitive, and volitional elements.
[Read more at: ]

For detailed expositions of why and how we should defend the ethos of cooperative communities, the following books may be of interest:

Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics:

What Should Citizens Believe: exploring the issues of truth, reason & society:

Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship: