Always expect the unexpected. That should have been the government health warning at the bottom of the European Union referendum ballot paper. For the outcome has unlocked a whole load of log-jammed processes and sent the political class into panic mode.
At the same moment, the Real Democracy Movement has an outstanding opportunity to build support for its ideas and to campaign for a progressive alternative that challenges the corporate-dominated power structures.
Although they ran the official leave campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove never got off the starting line to challenge for the Tory leadership after prime minister David Cameron announced he was off. The right-wing nominee Andrea Leadsom lasted barely a weekend.
So for all the speculation that Brexit would lead to a takeover of the government by the populist Johnson and his sinister accomplice Gove, it is Theresa May, a pro-remain “social Conservative” member of the cabinet, who heads the Tories with policies like workers on boards borrowed from Ed Miliband. Yet she leads an embittered, divided party into a prolonged crisis period of negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU amid deepening economic problems.
Labour, meanwhile, is in the throes of an historic split between a leader with massive support of the membership and a parliamentary party in the hands of right-wing careerists and opportunists. Jeremy Corbyn wants a membership-driven party and the PLP the exact opposite.
At the heart of this struggle are two things. First, Labour will find it almost impossible to win an overall majority in Parliament ever again. Now behind the Tories as well as the SNP in Scotland, and struggling against Ukip and others in Wales, it’s hard to see where a majority Labour government could come from. Add in planned boundary changes that will redistribute seats in favour of the suburbs and Labour’s task gets ever bigger.
That’s one of the reasons John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, and other Corbyn supporters now favour proportional representation in place of the present first-past-the-post voting system. The logic of that is a coalition with other parties. Naturally, the Tories have no intention of ever introducing PR.
Secondly, the movement to elect Corbyn (and hopefully re-elect him) was by its nature a social movement that did not necessarily look to the parliamentary system for solutions. In fact, it could be considered an anti-parliament, even an anti-Labour vote, a rejection of the established ways of “doing politics” which continue to reinforce austerity, gross inequality, low wages, a housing crisis and crumbling public services.
Labour was, of course, founded to win seats in Parliament, to form governments and to reform capitalism where and when it could and to rescue the very same when it couldn’t. That mission now looks improbable, wrecked by the globalisation process which has impoverished whole sections of the working class. Many workers in turn voted leave in a kind of anti-globalisation protest, probably on the grounds that leaving the EU could hardly make matters worse.
In addition, the EU is clearly a democracy-free zone which hardly has the best interests of its citizens at heart. Austerity has bitten just as hard in the eurozone as it has in Britain – harder in indebted countries where the Troika has put the survival of the euro ahead of the wellbeing of member states.
As writer, academic (and remainer) Tim Parks put it: “After 17 years of the euro, to have the economies of France, Spain, Italy and Greece (which adopted the currency in 2001) in long-term stagnation is a devastating failure. Youth unemployment in Spain is running around 45 percent, in Italy around 37 percent. About Greece the less said the better.”
The ruling elites, including prime minister May, understands that the alienation of large sections of the population from the parliamentary process is bad news for a political system which needs a kind of social harmony to function and to claim legitimacy in a class-divided society.
Pressure for a second referendum on Scottish independence is growing as a result of Brexit and there are calls in the north of Ireland for a vote on unifying the island partitioned by the British in 1921. Into this mix comes the attempt to extricate the UK state from the EU supra-state.
Together it amounts to a full-blown constitutional crisis about how the state rules over us, how the different parts of the UK relate to each other and whether leaving the EU will make any difference, as the official leave camp promised. In fact, the UK parliament will be no more sovereign over the country’s affairs than the Greek parliament was in resisting the austerity package imposed by the EU.
The UK state transferred part of its sovereign power to Brussels when it joined what was to become the EU in 1973. In the nearly 45 years that have passed, residual power has been transferred to even more powerful bodies – namely the transnational corporations and the financial centres. Leaving the EU won’t change that.
Even Cameron acknowledged this when he launched his ill-fated referendum back in February. He told MPs: “There will be much debate about sovereignty, and rightly so. To me, what matters most is the power to get things done for our people, for our country and for our future. Leaving the EU may briefly make us feel more sovereign, but would it actually give us more power, more influence and a greater ability to get things done?” The answer to his rhetorical question was “No”.
The ruling class is scrambling to modernise the constitution, through, for example, proposals to create a federal UK in place of the Westminster-centric system that has prevailed since the end of the 17th century. So the times are changing and with them come opportunities.
This is our chance to put the case for fundamentally remaking the constitution at the top of the RDM’s agenda because doing that is the only way we can achieve real democracy.
A new constitution would have to establish that power resides with the people and not the corporations, the financial markets, landowners and other powerful economic interests. How citizens would exercise a democratic power is for people themselves to decide in a convention, an idea which is gathering support from key figures in the democracy movement.
As the Monty Python crew were fond of reminding us, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. And nobody expected the turn of events that has gripped the UK since the Brexit vote.