Defending Democracy against Populism. Speech notes for Open Britain Shrewsbury meeting, 11/9/19

Thanks for the invitation to speak. I’ve been asked to focus on the issues of  ‘Defending Democracy and the Rule of Law, and how to get out of the current mess’. I’ve also been reminded, this is not a hustings!

We are facing a populist attack on democracy. What does that mean?

This is not a fully-fledged attempt to do away with democracy, but it is about weakening the checks and balances, and protections, that prevent versions of authoritarian rule. From Trump, to Orban, to the Law and Justice Party in Poland, to the League in Italy, to Putin in Russia, we see elected leaders using the same three-part approach: claiming to represent the ‘will of the people’; ‘othering’ groups in such a way that they no longer belong to the people, and blaming them for everything; using their claimed leadership of ‘the people’ to undermine institutions and groups who might hold them in check.

We have heard repeatedly the claim that ‘people just want to get on with it’ and that the referendum result ‘must be respected’. The evidence for both suggests that, at the very least, there is no single dominant view on these things.

We then also hear a variety of ‘out’ groups getting the blame: un-elected EU bureaucrats, (who are about to be replaced by a new set…. elected by the European parliament or nominated by elected governments); the liberal elite; treacherous parliamentarians organising a surrender; even – unbelievably given the backgrounds, connections and income streams of the Brexit hardliners – the Establishment. But underneath it all I remain convinced that the principal driver in many people’s decision to vote for Brexit, and the principal driver that still motivates them, is chauvinism and hostility to immigration.

Finally we see the attacks on the rule of law; the stretching of the constitution to near breaking point with the Proroguing; the ease with which they float the idea of simply not implementing the law; and of course this was all preceded by the attack on Judges as ‘enemies of the people’ for stating that only Parliament could invoke Article 50 back in the winter of 2016.

So how to respond?

Firstly, (and I don’t claim this to be the only view in the Green Party) replacing one form of populism with another isn’t going to solve the problem. So when the Labour leadership talk about ‘people’s real concerns’, claiming they really aren’t to do with Brexit, and then, to quote Corbyn, describe it as a ‘Bankers Brexit’ or an ‘Establishment Brexit’ (as Momentum have said), this doesn’t help. It’s not accurate, and it deliberately avoids taking head on the issues which are driving Brexit. I am not persuaded that the vote was a straightforward response to austerity or neoliberalism. After all, even in the leave constituencies, we know most Labour voters voted against Brexit. So, the left populist version is really about not taking on the more conservative, chauvinist elements within the core Labour vote, and therefore will probably leave them in the hands of the right-wing populist.

Secondly, I can’t see how defending democracy can be helped by calling for the revocation of Article 50. OK, if the LibDems won a majority in an election on that platform then they would have a mandate, but it doesn’t offer a way to heal. A Peoples Vote on the best deal available versus remain seems to me to be the best way to get out of this particular mess. I would prefer to see this Peoples Vote prior to an election. A General Election is highly likely to fail to resolve the issue. Assuming Johnson fails to present a deal that can command a majority, a vote of no confidence, followed by an interim government that comes to an agreement with the EU quickly, and then puts that to the People, is my preferred route.

But more generally, we need to push back against the notion that the nation speaks with one will. We simply don’t. We need healthy debate to give voice to the different strands in society. My voice will be about standing up for diversity, for freedom of movement, and for social justice. I also believe that we really have reached the end of the road for the two-party system and first past the post, and that introducing PR is part of the way forward.

Lastly though, there are moments and issues that can unite, and which show that we can’t give up on turning the tide in a progressive direction. Who remembers the outpouring of practical support for refugees in response to the picture of a dead boy on a beach? Or – and this is tricky for me as I was pretty sniffy about this at the time – the sense of unity in diversity and social democracy that went with the London Olympics opening ceremony?

I think there is a monumental task facing us that really could unite people: facing up to the threat of global heating and a climate catastrophe. This weekend I’m working with Green Party councillors from across the region, looking at how to develop local Green New Deals. Of course we would love to be holding the main reigns of power to see this through locally and nationally, after all, we’ve been at this the longest. But just imagine if all progressive parties got behind the transformation of energy, transport, construction & retrofitting, wildlife protection and re-invigoration, that then produced the skilled green jobs and affordable warm homes we all need.

I’m sure the discussion will want to focus on the practical issues around defeating our local populist excuse for an MP. And I will respond as constructively as I can to that discussion, given that we all know discussions are bound to be taking place above our pay scales; but I really wanted to layout some more general thoughts about possible directions of travel.

Thank you for listening.




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