Constitution in chaos: It’s time for the left to stand up for democracy

If ever there was a time to think about what a political system 'for the many' would actually look like, it is now.

First published on LabourList.

It’s the sort of headline that – in another era – would make you double-check it’s not April 1st. “John McDonnell threatens to march on palace and tell Queen: ‘We’re taking over’ if Boris Johnson loses no confidence vote,” the Telegraph splashed across its Thursday issue.

Hyperbolic headline aside, the Shadow Chancellor’s intervention actually made sense in the context of our current constitutional crisis. This summer’s debates should have any believer in democracy – all of us not in Number 10 – start to panic now.

First came the refusal of Tory leadership candidates – Johnson included – to rule out proroguing parliament in order to force through a no-deal Brexit. This proposal itself was undoubtedly spurred on by the fact this was the first ‘direct’ election of a Prime Minister, by a party membership that made Jacob Rees-Mogg look moderate.

From there, the constitutional confusion has only grown. MPs soon realised that defeating ministers (by 400 votes to 16) over the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill – de facto blocking an autumn prorogation – was just the first of many steps needed to avert no deal.

Despite parliament’s opposition to a crash-and-burn Brexit being clear and Johnson having a working majority of just one, Labour and progressive parties are struggling to find a way of averting it. Instead, we are desperately looking to litigation to block a political outcome. And we’ve witnessed calls – spurred on by the Lib Dems’ reckless refusal to back an anti-no deal government headed by Jeremy Corbyn – of MPs appointing a ‘unity government’ led by names plucked out of a hat.

Much of this mess can be put down to the vagueness of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, which says very little about what happens when a Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence. We know that there are 14 days to cobble together an alternative government, but we are told almost nothing about how this is done nor how the Queen should give it the ‘OK’.

As Dominic Cummings has been keen to highlight, Johnson could simply ignore a no-confidence vote and pick an election date to take place after we’re thrown out of the EU without a deal. As Labour has warned this morning in a letter to Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, it would be an outrage – given that the convention suggests the status quo should continue under a caretaker government.

But in a government packed with figures from Vote Leave, which broke electoral law during the referendum, it is no surprise that convention could be happily overridden. Sadly, we may not be able to rely on letters to the civil service on this one.

What now? There is little we can do but what our movements do best: build a campaign. If ever there was a time to think and act – in principled terms – about what a politics for the many would look like, it is now. Our system has for too long been the plaything of old Etonians.

We are in the midst of a democratic calamity because we have a constitution built on arbitrary power and arcane conventions. These conventions are only as good as the paper they’re not written on. This August marks 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre, which saw 18 killed and many more injured in an early battle for the vote. 200 years on, the Westminster system is ragged and wrecked. Millions are left on the political margins.

What is our answer? It is good to see parts of the Labour movement exploring these issues – Scottish Labour opening up to federalism, Baroness Pauline Bryan looking at the role of an overhauled second chamber, and Jon Trickett exploring ways of deepening our democracy. Many submissions to the party’s recent home and justice commission consultation showed the strength of feeling among members for a radical structural overhaul.

Hundreds will gather – including many Labour and union figures – to set out a vision for real democracy on August 31st, at a conference in Manchester marking 200 years since Peterloo. ‘This is What Democracy Looks Like’, hosted by Politics for the Many group and backed by the TSSA and PCS unions, is the first step in building that movement for real reform. It might be parliamentary recess, but this is a pivotal time in our country’s history. It’s time for us to step up to the plate.

Josiah Mortimer works with the Politics for the Many campaign and ERS.

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12 Responses to “Constitution in chaos: It’s time for the left to stand up for democracy”

  1. Tom Sacold

    The biggest expression of democracy in the UK occurred on 23rd June 2016.

    Leave won the referendum with a majority of 1.28 million votes.

    The greatest destruction of democracy will be if that vote is ignored and set aside by the metropolitan establishment.

  2. Michael Fitchett

    The sovereign body in this country is the Monarch in Parliament. All else is rubbish.

  3. Will Cotton

    The People vs The Metropolitan Political Establishment

    This could end in violent civil disorder.

  4. Dr.R.L.Symonds

    One aspect that has suddenly come into focus is the lack of a written constitution for the UK, almost unique in the world. Now we realise that without it any charlatan can suddenly manipulate parliament and take control. If we had had a written constitution it would have specified when a referendum is an appropriate tool and the threshold required for a major cocnstitutional change – commonly 60% in most countries. It is not a doorstep issue but is essential and Labour must set up a Constitutional Commission immediately after government.The Supreme Court could act as a Constitutional Court. Along the way , would go the Privy Council and ‘The Queen in Parliament’, with a few other archaisms.

  5. Tom Sacold

    “Back in 1975 when a referendum was at last called on going into Europe, the labour
    movement was very clear and united. Many campaigned around the country,
    including Tony Benn along with Arthur Scargill and Jeremy Corbyn.
    Benn stated that “the EU has the only constitution in the world committed to
    capitalism. It destroys the prospects of socialism anywhere in Europe, making
    capitalism a constitutional requirement of that set-up.”
    He repeated this at the time of the Maastricht Treaty when the so-called “four
    freedoms” allowed powerful companies to move goods, people (workers), services
    and capital around at will, never mind the consequences for people and communities
    losing their industries and work. Recently in the Midlands, parts of Jaguar/Landrover
    were the subject of a relocation to Slovakia.
    No doubt this will be welcomed by workers in the Slovak Republic, but they, like their
    counterparts in Britain, will have no control over their employers.
    Regrettably there was little resistance to this latest demonstration of power in the
    hands of unaccountable multinational corporations above elected governments.
    Corrupt lobby systems in both Brussels and Westminster ensure the compliance of
    both members and officers.
    In the current debate the mass of voters who decided enough was enough are being
    wilfully ignored. At the same time the losers are making every attempt for a re-run,
    with campaigns being conducted by groups claiming to be on the “left.” Do they
    begin to understand what the EU is about? We have had the vote. Leave the EU now. ”

    Extract from an article by John Tyrrell, President of the Socialist Labour Party (2018)

  6. steve

    Blocking the leave vote will allow the Right to present themselves as defenders of democracy.

    And, if we remain in the EU, with the neoliberal underpinning of the EU becoming increeasingly apparent, can the LP then begin to oppose the organisation its middle class membership presents as an oasis of benevolence?

    By handing the pro-democracy stance over to the Right, the LP will kill any prospect of an even moderately Left future for the UK.

  7. Dodgy Geezer

    “….If ever there was a time to think about what a political system ‘for the many’ would actually look like, it is now….”

    Given the convincing win for ‘Vote Leave’ in the referendum, it is hard to see what any system ‘for the many’ would look like if it did not include leaving the EU. ALL the current political chaos is being caused by the Establishment being unwilling to accept that they lost, in spite of all the illegal, untruthful and overwhelming pressure that they brought to bear on the British People….

  8. wg

    Firstly, it is amusing now to see so many speaking of “Democracy” – where were these democratic paragons when we were having Maastricht and Lisbon rammed down our throats?

    It is also amusing to see the pro-Remain fanatics defend their unfathomable love of a political EU by invoking Peterloo – a movement dedicated to gaining representation in a British Parliament: what was the point – why not just shut Parliament down and allow Brussels and 27 other countries to decide how the UK is run?

    This second point is important – when I first began my apprenticeship I was placed under the wings of people who had returned from a terrible war: they rolled up their sleeves, fought for a NHS and welfare system (which are both now being horribly abused) and they fought for my working rights and conditions.
    Of course, we are now being told that the hundreds of years of fighting for our rights were all a figment of our imaginations – that all our rights were won, not by the blood, sweat, and tears of the working people of this country, by those fragrant and well turned out democratic paragons in the EU.

    If Josiah wants a pointer to where we all end up, just look to Greece: their quality of life was trashed and offered up as collateral in pursuit of this wonderful EU paragon of democracy – their written constitution, Syntagma tis Elladas, didn’t stop their pensions and civil institutions going to the wall.

    Wake up, FFS!

  9. Will Cotton

    Democracy is carrying out the will of the people.

    Democracy is not just what the metropolitan establishment think is best.

  10. Clive Donne

    The political establishment have to be taught a lesson in democracy. The people are the power.

    Smash the establishment.

  11. Patrick Newman

    To constantly talk of the “will of the people” is a crime against mathematics and demography. Just over a third of British citizens supported the leave choice and very few of those supported or knew of any possibility of a no-deal Brexit. Legal actions on the breach of constitutional conventions will be flying about and which will inevitably involve the Queen in conflict with the Judiciary!

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