As the political crisis over Brexit spins out of control, support for a second referendum – also known as a “people’s vote” – seems to be gathering momentum in and outside Parliament. In my view, going down this road is not only wrong but is a recipe for disaster.
Firstly, for most of those demanding a rerun of the 2016 referendum this is not about democracy. Giving people a say on the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May is not the main motive here. The self-evident intention is to put an end to Brexit by overturning the original vote in favour of leaving the European Union.
People didn’t know what they voted for first time around, the argument goes, because of all the disinformation (on both sides, it must be said) that accompanied the vote. The electorate also didn’t realise that it was well nigh impossible to leave the EU without making things worse. How stupid of them not to work that out. So they should vote again – but this time, get it right!
No one should be surprised. The majority of MPs have always opposed leaving the EU and only backed a referendum because in their arrogance they thought it was bound to result in a big vote to remain, as happened in the 1975 referendum which produced a two-to-one majority to stay members of what was then the European Community.
How times had changed. The fact that the entire political establishment backed remain in 2016 was one of the reasons a majority voted to leave, such is the distrust of and alienation from Westminster. Secondly, 40 years of neoliberal-driven globalisation have since 1975 created a desperately unequal UK and the impoverishment of millions, alongside the unfettered power of the corporations and banks. Many voters thought they had little to lose by taking a gamble and voting leave.
So the political class has taken fright of the consequences and cannot or will not deliver on the referendum result. Those calling for a second referendum are, in effect, putting another nail in the coffin of representative or bourgeois democracy. In other words, it is an anti-democratic manoeuvre under the guise of a “people’s vote”.
Were it to go ahead, the consequences are entirely predictable. The wave of right-wing, populism and nationalism sweeping Europe (the fascists are back in the Andalucía parliament for example) will find its voice in a second referendum. They will cry betrayal and denounce the political elites as well as the parliamentary system for failing to deliver Brexit and many leave voters could well be drawn to this reactionary stance.
Who would oppose them? A divided Tory Party? An equally divided Labour Party? Obviously not. Even remainers like Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, has cautioned second referendum supporters of the need to be careful what they wished for. Voices against include John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. He said another referendum would undermine trust and potentially risk “civil unrest and violence” on the streets of Britain.
There is another solution. As the political system has broken down, perhaps irreparably, the time has arrived not just to consult the people but to involve everyone in the different countries of the UK in determining their own future, their identities and what sovereignty should mean.
If MPs are really concerned about the democratic process, they should support the convening of citizens’ conventions on the constitution. They would be tasked with proposing new forms of direct and participatory democracy in place of our top-down, centralised system.
In place of corporate power, conventions would need to consider how to democratise the economy, the workplace and their communities. Such a process could form the basis for a new relationship of the people of the UK with Europe – not with the bureaucrats of Brussels – but with their equivalents struggling against the impact of neoliberal exploitation.
To give time for the convention to meet and deliberate, the Brexit process could be suspended (not abandoned). I know this is probably a leap too far for MPs. But if the alternative is a half-baked referendum which opens the door to the far right, it might be their only option if they are really interested in democracy.