The push for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal is gaining momentum, fast.
A huge London march last month and a rapidly expanding petition have been bolstered this week by the latest demonstration that we don’t have a government capable of delivering an orderly Brexit – and the Opposition certainly doesn’t have any different ideas on how to proceed.
I was asked on Twitter at the weekend: ‘Why a popular vote, rather than a parliamentary one?’ – and I thought that was a good question, which deserves some examination.
At first glance we have a parliamentary system – it is even sometimes (although unjustifiedly) called a parliamentary democracy – so shouldn’t parliament decide the way forward after the 2016 referendum?
Well, there are real questions about whether parliament is even capable of making the decision.
Both of the largest parties are riven with splits on the issue and the decision – if it can even be made at all by the current parliament, which is seriously in doubt – would be made on the basis of shady backroom horse-trading based on personal interest, last-minute deals and pure dishonesty (along the lines of the recent “meaningful vote” wrangle). That’s no way to make such a crucial decision.
Yes, we could have an election, indeed we may well have an election, but that won’t solve anything, since the two largest parties (who in our first past the post system are extraordinarily difficult to overturn, although in the Green Party we’ll certainly be giving it a good go) have almost indistinguishable positions, in so far as neither can be said to have a solid, majority-backed position at all.
If we do have an October election, as looks increasingly likely, we’ll then still have a parliament unable to make a decision about a massive, existential threat to our economy and society due to arrive in March. At the most it might be able to beg the EU for a delay, to do the work that should have been done over the past two years in the next two, but there’s no guarantee the patience of the 27 other member states of the EU will extend that far.
After a 52%-48% referendum vote, we have and will continue to have a 90%-plus majority parliament that demonstrably fails to represent the people on the most crucial issue of the day.
That’s a practical illustration of the fact that we don’t have a democracy. In the last election 68% of votes didn’t count, 20% of people voted for a party they didn’t want in the hope of stopping a party they disliked more, and since the polls were way out on the final result, many of them voted “wrongly”.
That’s because first-past-the-post complicates voting enormously. Voters have to guess, on insufficient evidence, how everyone else in their constituency is going to vote.
Now in most parliamentary systems, there’d be an elected upper house, chosen by a different representative method explicitly as a house of review, that could have oversight of what our MPs are doing. But in the UK we don’t have this. Instead we have an unelected House of Lords, with members chosen by a mix of accident of birth (the 17th-century system), and patronage (18th century).
Consequently, when I sat in the chamber a couple of weeks ago at the invitation of Green peer Jenny Jones, listening to the “meaningful vote” debate when it had “ping-ponged” back from the Commons, I heard what were clearly key arguments, from men I’m sure are defenders of the constitutional status quo, saying that the Lords could not block the will of the Commons, because it wasn’t elected. The argument certainly had an impact on the debate.
In other words, the Lords can’t do its job of being a check, a review, because it doesn’t have the constitutional legitimacy to do it. (Incidentally, Jenny, who was elected by the members of the Green Party to the top of our list for peers, is the one exception to this.)
So, a People’s Vote, practically and politically, has to be the way forward. And there’s also a symmetry, a balance about that. The people – very narrowly – set us out on this journey in 2016. They decided a direction of travel, but they had no indication of the distance we’d go or where we would end up two years down the line.
It’s as though you’re a driver in Sheffield just told “drive North”. You could end up in John O’Groats. Or you could end up in Leeds. Those are two very different destinations. Or you could end up broken down on the Parkway just outside central Sheffield. (The best analogy to where we are today.) Only the people can decide if the destination is one they are satisfied with.
It the people are not satisfied with the destination, they should have the right to turn around. We’re dependent on other members of the EU to be allowed to do that, but all the signs are they’d welcome us back with open arms.
We’re in a much better place to have a People’s Vote now than we were in 2016. We’ve had two years to start at least some of the detailed discussion we should have had before the first vote, for instance about the complexities of the Northern Ireland border issues. A lot more people could answer a quiz on the difference between the custom union and the single market than in 2016. Young people have had the chance to get far more engaged in the defence of free movement.
A second referendum is the balanced, democratic way to proceed. And then we can turn our attention urgently to the need to create a functional parliament and democracy, to rebuild our crashed systems of governance from the ground up – and tackle the crushing poverty, inequality, educational and environmental disasters that blight Britons’ lives every day but which this parliament has not even begun to tackle.
Natalie Bennett is the former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
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