Brexit, Parliament and the British Constitution: why a People’s Vote is the only legitimate constitutional means of resolving Brexit.

By Dr Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

The first clause of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty states:

“Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”

But as has become apparent, in the case of the UK, nobody really knows what those requirements actually are and a significant amount of energy has been consumed over the last two years in disputes over what the respective roles, responsibilities and powers of Parliament and the executive are, what the precise status of the referendum is and who, if anyone, is responsible for interpreting it.  The Miller case exposed confusion and uncertainty even over who had the power to begin the process.  There is no clear constitutional guidance, either, on how or by whom it should be executed, scrutinised or concluded and, crucially, how and by whom the outcomes should be approved or legitimised.

This messiness reflects the UK’s famously uncodified constitution, which means its basic rules are not systematically laid out in a single, document which governs the relationships of key elements of the political system. This means that the UK constitution is very flexible which has served it well in some respects, not least in adapting to European Union membership.  But it means, above all, that the constitution is political.  Above all, sovereignty and power in the British constitution has not been a matter for the courts, as in many codified systems, but has rather been established and maintained by political struggle, which is why the resolution of the question of who should trigger Article 50 by the courts is somewhat problematic in the UK context.

A key principle of the British constitution is the notion of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ – that Parliament has the sole right to make or unmake law in its territory. For many Eurosceptics, it is this that made the British system incompatible with EU membership, which (as confirmed by the Factortame Case in 1991) instituted a higher body of law over that of statute. But this was merely a qualification of Parliamentary sovereignty, and one which Parliament imposed upon itself and (as Brexit perhaps proves) can also remove.

However, even if that qualification is eventually removed, there are, unfortunately for Parliamentary Sovereignty enthusiasts, many more than that. Significant constitutional changes made under the Blair and Brown governments (including devolution and the creation of a Supreme Court), as well as Cameron’s (including fixed term parliaments, the creation of regional mayors and English Votes for English Laws), whilst by no means part of any strategic masterplan, have also de facto altered Parliamentary sovereignty. In some respects it has been strengthened – the Prime Minister no longer has the power to dissolve Parliament against its will. In other respects, it has weakened: it has lost control over key areas of domestic policy, including personal taxation, to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.  One of the more significant changes in recent years, it turns out, has been the use of referendums to endorse or reject many such reform proposals. It means that, as Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out that a ‘new principle … of the sovereignty of the people’ has entered into the British constitution (Bogdanor 2016, 314).

Thus, the age old struggle over sovereignty and power between the Crown (now represented by the executive) and Parliament continues, but now complicated by two other important participants: the devolved authorities and, crucially, the people. Brexit, in particular, the question of how the process should be carried out has exposed the ambiguities in the relationship between these participants and where the boundaries of authority and sovereignty lie. Ultimately, this raises profound, constitutional questions about who governs: Ministers of the Crown, Parliament, the devolved assemblies or the People?

The flexible and political nature of the constitution means that the response of politicians and political parties to the referendum was always going to be crucial in determining the ‘constitutional requirements’ necessary to withdrawal from the EU. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, with both main parties in states of disarray, and unclear how to respond, backbench MPs had a rare opportunity to set the terms of debate, and an analysis of the first six months of debates in Parliament following the referendum, reveals that five distinct positions emerged which have shaped the debate, are still relevant and still being argued over now.

Whilst these are on the whole politically motivated positions, taken because of their perceived advantage to either a Leave / Remain or a ‘Hard’ or ‘Soft’ Brexit position,  have significant constitutional implications at least as profound as the outcomes themselves, and each leave questions about the developing nature of the UK constitutional settlement.

Five Positions: Arguments, Questions and Implications

Position 1: The Executive should make the key decisions and control the process.

Some argued for this on the basis that the referendum was an ‘instruction … given by the ultimate holders of sovereignty in this country—the British people.’1 There is therefore no role for Parliament in interpreting the meaning of the result.  Indeed, some went further and argued that it is simply legally and constitutionally right that the process be ‘a matter for the royal prerogative’ – and therefore ministers – rather than Parliament.3 Many made a more pragmatic case arguing that ‘we need to unbind the hands of our Ministers and allow them to get out there … and negotiate the excellent deal that we know they can get4 but this has a similar constitutional effect. On the one hand, it denies the right of Parliament to meaningfully contribute to the process, thus effectively subordinating Parliament to the executive. On the other hand, whilst the argument for doing that uses the popular sovereignty expressed in the referendum as a justification, it treats the people’s role as a once and for all, final decision, thereby limiting the ‘sovereignty’ of the people to a once only event.  The outcome, therefore, looks something like a power grab by the executive and a weakening of both parliamentary and popular sovereignty.

Position 2: Parliament should set the agenda, support key decisions and steer the process.

In a flexible constitution like the UK’s convention really matters and MPs pointed out that – as demonstrated by the Lisbon Treaty – it is ‘clearly established that a major treaty change has to be triggered by an affirmative resolution of the House’ 5 meaning Parliament must have a significant role. This makes practical sense, too, since ‘we cannot extrapolate from the result of the referendum the specific terms upon which the majority of those in this country wish their relations with the European Union now to be governed’. 6  Whilst both these arguments come from a position that does not deny the validity of the referendum, they assert the importance of Parliament’s role as a deliberative chamber, scrutinising in detail and coming to reasoned, considered decisions which neither the public nor the executive can.

However, this begs some questions: if we accept that Parliament must have a role in interpreting the will of the people how much room for interpretation is there? And when does it become blocking ‘the will of the people’?  What – in other words – are the limits of Parliament’s authority in this respect? If the referendum was an instruction, who was it directed at? Some attempted to address this by simply asserting the absolute principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty, arguing that denying Parliament a vote is ‘a constitutional outrage’ because ‘referendums are advisory and … Parliament is sovereign7 and arguing that Parliament should therefore be free in principle to overturn it. But whilst this may be consistent with a strict interpretation of Parliamentary Sovereignty, it is politically very problematic. It does not recognise the fact of popular sovereignty that – like it or not – has become established practice through the use of referendums to endorse or reject some kinds of decision.

Position 3: Government and Parliament need to work together in order to achieve the best possible outcome.

At first glance, a more balanced, pragmatic position recognises the legitimacy of the referendum whilst seeking unity in the ‘national interest’ and to the government’s own desire to make a success of it. Following a relatively close referendum result, Parliament’s role, from this point-of-view is to ensure wider public support – from both Leave and Remain supporters – so that ‘fellow citizens can have absolute confidence in this perilous process’ 8. Besides, the sheer complexity of the issues involved including the ‘citizenship rights, immigration rules, employment and social rights, agriculture, trading relations with the EU and third countries, and Scotland and Northern Ireland’ means that scrutiny of and approval for the government ‘aims, objectives and red lines’ in the negotiations is essential.9  For this reason, it is essential that the executive and Parliament can work together. If they do then the government is ‘far more likely to get a good deal’ because it will have ‘managed to bind both sides of this House and both Houses of Parliament into a strong negotiating position’.10

The implications of this is that there is a division of responsibility based on appropriate areas of competence: the people issue instructions via a vote, Parliament interprets and scrutinises it (including endorsing the timings) and the Executive negotiates and implements it. What this requires, however, is two things: firstly, a level of compromise on all sides which has not really been forthcoming. This has to be at least partly because the control over the process itself has been up for grabs:  who controls the process, gets what they want and therefore it is worth investing energy in doing so.  Thus, secondly, it requires a means of defining and arbitrating between those relationships. If something like this had been in place (in the form of a written constitution, say) then the fight is worth less perhaps we would have had less wrangling over who runs the show and more focus on what the outcome should be.

Position 4: It is right and necessary that devolved assemblies participate meaningfully in the process.

The trouble with the three positions set out so far is that they ignore another fact of the evolving constitution. Whilst the UK is still in principle a unitary system (and the referendum was UK wide), it does in practice contain some features of a federal one, albeit in a quasi and somewhat lop-sided way . There is, at the very least, therefore, a strong argument to suggest that the government needs to be sensitive to the divergent ways the constituent nations and London voted, which perhaps should have meant greater involvement than they have had so far. Thus, whilst there is no strictly legal obligation for the government to consider the demands of the Scottish (or Welsh or N.I or London) government, it may in practice make sense to do so.

On this basis, Scottish nationalist politicians have felt able to argue that ‘the process to exit the EU requires Holyrood’s consent’11 because of its significant effects on what are or may be considered devolved matters and because Scotland claims a level of sovereignty over these matters its own territory.  Taken to its logical conclusion there is a serious case to be made that it is ‘ultimately for the people of Scotland to decide whether they remain in the United Kingdom or the European Union’.12 Whilst this has to be understood through the prism of the SNP’s campaign for independence, a more practical argument for at least consulting with other constituent parts of the UK is that each has its own specific needs and interests that need to be considered and understood in ensuring the best and fairest deal possible. The direct involvement of devolved authorities is vital, for example, ‘so that we can explain to the UK Government how the industries work and how our communities live so that they can ensure that they prioritise them and not just the views of the City of London.’ 13

This illuminates another ambiguity which begs some important questions. Devolution is by now well established: the 2016 Scotland Act recognises the Scottish government and parliament as ‘a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements’. Despite this, there are still tensions over the limits and extent of the authority of the assemblies (the current stand-off between the Scottish and UK governments over the return of powers from the EU to the UK is illustrative of this). Would it not, therefore, make sense to have some consistent, transparent and clear rules about what its relationship to the UK Parliament and other constituent parts of the UK?  In short, how can the relationship between the sub-governments and the centre be regularised and transparently governed?

Position 5: Voters should have the right to accept or reject the terms of any deal in a referendum.

In the first six months after the referendum, the idea of having a further referendum on the exit package / outcome of negotiations was a very niche position, articulated by a few on the Labour benches and the remaining Liberal Democrats.  Geraint Davies, who was one of the early outliers on this argues that once the electorate have a clearer picture of a post-Brexit Britain which they had not got from the referendum campaign ‘they will have an increasing appetite for a referendum on the exit package’.14 One might have expected this argument to retreat somewhat as the process went on and opinion perhaps coalesced around a compromise.

However, the argument for a referendum on the deal has not gone away and has in fact gained credibility, articulated in a popular fashion by the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign. Whilst this has been initiated by anti-Brexit campaigners because it is hoped that the 2016 referendum decision will be reversed, there are other reasons why this may be the only satisfactory way of settling the issue of Brexit for now, whatever the result of such a vote might be.

First, endorsing the proposals recognises the reality of how we got here in the first place.  If we accept that the people legitimately voted to set parliament and government the task of working out a way of leaving the EU, then it only seems right that the people should also be able mark their homework and pass a verdict on their efforts.  A ‘guarantee that people will be able to vote on the destination as well as the departure’ would provide legitimacy for the outcome of negotiations on the same basis as the instruction to begin the process, as Tom Brake put it in 2016.15 Secondly, it provides a way to break the impasse and draw a line under the bitter divisions that Brexit has exposed both within the political elite and the wider population. Thirdly, it recognises the fact that our political system in its current form cannot resolve it. We have a minority government in a majoritarian two party system in which both main parties are divided and unable to come to clear agreements between themselves, never mind with each other. Thirdly, it recognises the fact that referendums have – for good or ill – become part of the UK’s constitutional practice and therefore ‘the people’, alongside the Parliament and the Executive, is here to stay as a key location of sovereignty in the British political system.

So, whilst Brexit has exposed some of the ambiguities at the heart of the British constitution about power and sovereignty, it also points us towards a potentially appropriate resolution. What is clear is that traditional ideas of parliamentary sovereignty simply don’t cut it. Referendums, devolution, the changing role of the courts (to name but a few) have all qualified it. The logic of the UK’s evolving constitutional practice and the need to come to a reasoned and reasonable settlement demands,  therefore, a strong role for Parliament in deliberating, interpreting and shaping the response to the referendum, to be carried through by a coherent executive governing with and through Parliament and subject to its scrutiny, with the final result legitimised by a ‘People’s Vote’.  This must all be done in partnership with and with appropriate provisions made for the devolved authorities. This may be wishful thinking, but it perhaps provides the contours for a settlement how the British constitution might work in the future, too, in or out of the EU. Whilst it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss precisely how, central to this is codification. Writing it down into a clear framework so that rules, relationships and responsibilities are transparent and understood by all participants, including the procedures in place for changing it, will be vital to a settled, just and properly functioning system.

At present, it is not clear we have this. What we do have is mess and deadlock. The government is wracked by division and seems congenitally unable to make a clear decision, Parliament has had to fight against being ignored, blocked and bypassed, whilst the struggle is now on for a People’s Vote. Whatever the outcome, what happens next, and crucially, how it happens may shape our constitutional settlement for many years to come.

This article was originally published on Open Democracy.

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Corbyn, Labour, and the British Left: prospects for realignment after GE2017

Lecturer in Politics, Danny Rye considers Labour’s future after 8 June, if the party does lose the election and the continuing prospects of a re-alignment of the wider British left under the Labour Party’s tent.

Until recently, the received wisdom had been that in order to win a general election, Labour had to appeal to a moderate ‘centre ground’. In 2015, Ed Miliband had gambled that the centre of political gravity had shifted to the left. His failure to return Labour to government after one term in opposition was taken as a signal that this was not the case and the party needed to tack back to the right. The subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn suggested that the party’s electorate disagreed with that analysis. The shifts in the polls in recent weeks, seems to suggest that quite a lot of the UK electorate might too.

As I wrote at the time, Corbyn’s election opened up an opportunity to realign politics on the left. A re-engagement of the Labour mainstream with the broader left would help to reinvigorate and refresh the party’s policies and approach – developing not only new appeals in terms of policy but also new ways of organising, building a stronger presence in communities and reinventing the party for the future. This is arguably dependent on Corbyn being able to do two things: pull off a more leftist version of ‘big tent’ politics, drawing together the left, the centre-left, and the left-behind into a coherent alternative to austerity; and reform the Labour Party structures in such a way as to secure the left’s continued ascendancy.

Corbyn has certainly been successful in drawing the wider left into his tent. However, at present at least, much of this appears to be entirely based on his leadership rather than reflecting any general inclination to support the Labour Party. Were he to step down, it is difficult to see how that broad alliance would hold together. It seems also that some see the survival of Corbyn himself as vital to the whole project of the left in the UK – hence the qualified support he has from groups like the Socialist Worker’s Party and the Socialist Party. The failure of the Corbyn project would thus be a setback for the left more widely.

Corbyn has also undeniably been successful in galvanising new support and reawakening old support that had drifted away from Labour in the 2000s. Despite some suggestion that many of these newer members may be less keen to do the hard graft of party activism, there are reports around the country of greatly expanded participation in meetings and the day-to-day grind that is essential to the functioning of an organised political party. Whilst it is true that a good number of those are thought to be older, returning members, many of them are new and relatively young. This may be an important base from which to build for the future. The key again is how much these newer members are specifically wedded to the Corbyn project rather than the Labour Party itself. If he fails, or falls, will they stay on and engage in the debate about how to go forward?

Where Corbyn has been notably less successful is in persuading the bulk of his parliamentary party of his merits. It was clear from the outset that the vast majority of MPs did not support him. Despite a level of acquiescence by some in the wake of his initial victory, there has been more or less consistent hostility, which broke out most spectacularly in the failed so-called ‘coup’ of 2016. Thus, instead of a debate, what we have had is a long period of stand-off, infighting and distrust, followed then by what can best be described as an uneasy  peace, or a kind of sullen hostility. Whilst things have gone remarkably quiet during the General Election campaign, this seems likely to break out into the open again on June 9th. This underlines the division, too, between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the membership, particularly those who have joined or re-joined because of Corbyn. But the membership itself is also divided. In the 2016 leadership contest, Corbyn got a slightly higher per centage of the vote than he did in 2015, but those who were members before May 2015 cast most of their votes for Owen Smith, whilst those who had joined since the general election voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn.

However, there are more serious divisions which animate many of Corbyn’s critics in the PLP: that between the more cosmopolitan, urban Corbyn supporters and ‘traditional’ Labour voters – especially working class voters in the North of England and Wales – who are relatively socially conservative and economically dislocated. Many Labour MPs fear that these ‘left-behind’ voters simply will not vote for the party whilst Corbyn remains leader. But there is at the same time a divide between the pro-European majority of Labour MPs and those very same voters.

For many in the PLP, a trigger for last year’s vote of no confidence and failed leadership challenge (although by no means the only one) was Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre support for the Remain campaign, whilst most voters in key Labour areas overwhelmingly supported Leave. This double whammy of hostility both to Corbyn and Remain-supporting MPs underlines the fear that the Labour Party is in a very deep crisis in areas where support had previously been solid.

In this light, Corbyn’s unwillingness to make an issue of Brexit might be a wise move, but Labour’s electoral challenges do not stop there. On top of this, Labour is making no headway in Scotland, and is already virtually non-existent in most of the South of England. This crisis is not new by any means, but it underlines a conflict about the party’s future, what kind of party it is, and where it should be building its support.

A key aim for the left of the party, and precisely what Corbyn’s opponents would like to prevent, is changes to party rules to their advantage. Much, as ever, will depend on events, specifically the election result and what happens in its immediate aftermath. If he does badly in the election, Corbyn will be under pressure to step down. But, although a bad defeat might on one level make it harder for Corbyn to justify staying in position, it may also ironically make him more secure than before. Analysis by Policy Network found that Labour’s most vulnerable seats tend to be held by Corbyn’s opponents. This means that pro-Coryn MPs will make up a larger proportion of a smaller PLP in the event of a Conservative landslide. In any case, the PLP are unlikely to risk another challenge unless Corbyn voluntarily stands down, since it seems likely that were it to be put to the vote, he would win again.

But if Corbyn does well – and the polls are suggesting he might do much better than anticipated – the converse is true. The snap election meant that there was no time to go through full candidate selection processes and most existing ones were simply readopted. Attempts to install Corbyn supporters were unsuccessful except in the odd case like Walton. So, if Corbyn does as well as the polls now suggest he might, he is likely to face a still largely hostile parliamentary party. A key problem therefore will be what to do about his MPs. Yet, many of the objections that MPs hold come down to a concern about electoral prospects, so perhaps a good result will quieten them for now. At the same time, it will give party moderates a stronger hand within the parliamentary party (if not in the party as a whole), which will be crucial when the time comes to replace Corbyn.

The risk for moderates is that this would give the party’s left room to focus on reshaping the party internally in its own image and gradually change the internal dynamics of the party, and the make up of the PLP. However, despite their numerical support, the key problem for the party’s left up to now has been an organisational weakness which means that the leadership has found itself frequently unable to get its way. Moderate groups like Labour First have been very effective at organising within the party and winning key organisational positions such as the Conference Arrangements Committee which makes key decisions about what gets discussed at party conferences. Thus, even if he stays in position, there is no guarantee that the left will get their desired rule changes and the party will be locked into an ongoing internal war of attrition.

The stalemate seems likely to continue for the time-being. The only chance of change in the moderates’ direction is if enough members change their minds. But, in a lot of local parties there is still enthusiasm for the Corbyn project and, if the party can hold onto its vote or improve it, then it seems likely that members will want to stick with him. A relatively successful campaign may well win over previous sceptics, too. Whether this is enough to secure genuine organisational change and sustain a longer term realignment on the left depends ultimately on the capacity to win over the support (or at least the acquiescence) of the parliamentary party and other internal doubters, at least in the short-term. A measure of electoral success may go some way to achieving that.

This post originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

Reflections on the 2016 Labour Party Conference

It may not have been a hot summer, but it has certainly been a long one in Labour Party politics.  The fallout following Brexit, the resignation of almost all of Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench and his crushing defeat in a vote of no confidence amongst MPs was matched by his expected and emphatic victory in the leadership contest that ensued. The culmination of this on Saturday, many would hope, might settle the matter. But Labour is still a party divided.  The trails of sometimes bitter in-fighting are strewn around social media for all to see, the wounds that have opened up in constituency parties around the country, not least in seats like Liverpool Riverside and Wallasey are unlikely to heal immediately. Some of the evidence of the party’s division could be seen on the conference floor and indeed on the podium.  Tom Watson’s combative speech, for instance, railed against what he saw as the ‘trashing’ of Labour’s brand – by downplaying the record of the Brown and Blair governments, Labour’s current leaders were undoing its prospects. Len McCluskey, in a challenge to rebel MPs, quoted from Henry V, calling on those with no stomach for the fight ahead to “depart the battlefields”, a perhaps not so heavily coded reference to deselection. In the hall, both were cheered and applauded enthusiastically.

There is no doubt, then, Labour is still divided. The evidence is there for all to see.  Moreover, it is difficult to see how it will be otherwise for the foreseeable future.  Although it would be too simplistic by far to say that it is about the electability of New Labour versus Momentum movement politics, there is a definite tension between those who see power in parliament as the final destination and those who see it as a staging post along the way to something much more fundamental. Corbyn himself, in a speech which was significantly more assured and confident than last year, sought to argue that Labour could be both of these things: it could be about protest and campaigning and about winning elections. What is undoubted is that the party is now bucking the trend in terms of membership, and looks likely to grow further now that Corbyn has for now consolidated his grip on the leadership.  If that increased membership translates into campaigners on the streets at election time, then that will be of significant benefit to Labour at election time.  Nonetheless, the evidence available suggests that Corbyn’s appeal as a potential prime minister remains very limited.  Despite enthusiastic support from a growing army of activists, in the wider country his ratings are very low as a range of polls have shown and Labour as a party is performing poorly.

Some have asked whether this means that Labour is somehow dying as a party of government.  Of course, no party has the right to exist, and in the short term at least the party’s prospects do not look particularly strong. However, as anyone attending conference would have seen, there is much life left in the party on all sides. On the fringe, debate is lively, ideas are coming from the left, the right and the centre of the party, grappling with practical issues of governing and policy, particularly in local and municipal government.  The forthcoming elections for metro-mayors in Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands also open up opportunities for Labour to prove itself in government and victories in London and Bristol earlier in the year are also high profile platforms for Labour in power.  Corbyn appears to be growing into the role of leader, and is demonstrating a level of relaxed confidence and authority that he perhaps lacked in the recent past.  Policy ideas are beginning to emerge and both his and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s speeches showcased some practical and radical ideas.  So the party faces a huge challenge. It has a mountain to climb to get an appealing message across to the wider public, particularly those who have voted Conservative in the past or not voted at all. Next year, hopefully a year without an energy-sapping leadership contest, perhaps we will have a clearer idea of how close they are to meeting that challenge.

Also featured on Liverpool Hope University’s Expert Comment page.

Vote Remain, Take Back Control: A Personal View on the EU Referendum

By Danny Rye

Many of you have already made up your mind: some of you like me are, instinctively, ‘Remainers’, others of you ‘Leavers’. Some of you may genuinely have been persuaded by the arguments of one side or the other. Some of you perhaps have still not made up your minds which way to go. Nearly all of you, I imagine, can’t wait for this to be over.  I have already voted Remain by post, but I have spent much of the time since attempting to formulate why I am doing so. I realise that as I have tried to do so, many of my feelings are contradictory, muddled and inconsistent. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Part of the problem is that the EU, rather like the constitution, is something that our attention has always been deflected from: we have been told ‘people are more concerned about jobs, public services, the NHS’ than issues like Europe or the voting system.  We are told that we should not worry our poor little heads about it, but this ignores the importance of our political institutions, the technicalities of our democracy to the way decisions are made, who makes them and influences them and therefore what the decisions actually turn out to be. In other words, the problem is one of power.

The opportunity of this referendum was that it might open up the possibility to finally address some of such questions, or at least begin talking about them. If this debate is about anything it is surely should be about how we are governed, about our democracy (or lack of it) and our future relationship in and with the rest of Europe, as a European nation (which we will remain, even if we leave). Instead it has descended into a confection of knee-jerk nationalism and cynical utilitarianism, with wild predictions of economic disaster if we leave and virtual invasion if we remain. Thus it still feels as though that debate has not really been had.

The arguments that have dominated the campaign have been profoundly depressing. The arguments of the Remain campaign are centred around an appeal to narrow material self-interest. It is not that these outcomes are not important: our economic prosperity and security should be a vital component of any such decision. It may be that this narrow economistic appeal to the wallet may work in the end, but the suggestion that we should stay in merely because we might be materially better off displays an underlying cynicism and, indeed, ambivalence about European cooperation. Sadly, the Labour Party has failed, despite the clear opportunity, to set out a distinctive, democratic argument, largely riffing on the protection of workers’ rights and similar issues.  This, again, is important but underlying it is a message of despair: that we should stay in the EU, not because there is a compellingly positive reason to do so, but because without it we lack the strength and the will to ensure such protection ourselves.

Similarly, the Leave campaign poses legitimate questions about the EU and democracy with its slogan ‘take back control’.  However, if we leave the EU who will have that control?  And how will they be held to account? In what respect will this renew our democracy? Rather than answer these questions (to which the obvious answer is they will take back control, not us), it has reduced the argument to one of control of borders, implying – without explicitly promising – that there will be a reduction in the number of foreigners coming to live and work in the UK. This focus on immigration has given vent to some very unpleasant sentiments, releasing a genie of xenophobia and hostility within and between communities that will be very difficult to put back in the bottle afterwards.

I am voting Remain because I believe that cooperation with our fellow Europeans within a permanent framework is desirable on principle and because I reject the narrow, nationalism on offer from Leave. But where is this argument? Where is a positive vision of a European future?  A stable, cooperative continent of nations, working to agreed rules and within an established framework is without doubt the best, most constructive way of resolving our differences and we have to be engaged in it. It is vital to peace, security and prosperity in the future. However, the EU has also developed a disdain for national electorates that, if it is to survive, it must seriously address. In the words of the new DiEM25 movement, it has to democratise before it disintegrates. Some might say that it is beyond reform, especially since the Lisbon Treaty which goes further than any treaty before in its integrationist ambition.  But we have to try, and since the EU is the existing framework we have for cooperation, it is the platform from which we can begin to change it. Departing from it or destroying it will not help this process.

One thing for sure (to borrow from the Leave campaign) is that the status quo is not an option. If Remain wins, as I hope it does, the debate about our future as a European democracy must not end here. Both the critique of the EU – along with the language of democracy and self-determination – and pro EU arguments have been too easily conceded to right-wing, elitist narratives that display very little interest in actually extending democracy very much. For Remain, staying in means following the same corporatist, undemocratic path; for Leave ‘taking back control’ means giving that control to our Westminster elites, not the people.

Whatever happens on Thursday, this ground has to be reclaimed. Democrats need to contest the lexical terrain on which the right has planted itself and begin to articulate a response that addresses the concerns of ordinary people – not just by appealing to their wallets or by blaming foreigners – but by addressing the very real problem of power. This problem is not just a national one, but one that concerns all the people of Europe and it thus means fighting both for a more democratic EU and a more democratic UK.

In other words, let’s vote remain and perhaps then we can start to take back control.

George Osborne’s Clever Politics

Dr Danny Rye, Liverpool Hope University @dannyrye

If there were ever any doubts about George Osborne’s credentials as a political operator (and I confess to being one who has questioned this wisdom in the past), following his recent Summer budget they should be dispelled. There is no question that the budget was regressive in its effect, hitting the budgets of low income households more than others, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out and that it cemented the Conservative agenda to reduce the responsibility of the state for welfare and what used to be called social security and shift it to individuals. Whilst reducing welfare payments to working-age families by £12 billion, tax thresholds would be raised, relieving the tax burden of many lower and medium income people and families, and taking many of the lowest paid out of taxation altogether. Businesses would have to play their role in this too by paying a so-called ‘national living wage’ (in fact a rebranded and increased minimum wage). In addition, banks would have to pay a ‘super tax’ on profits, and ‘non-doms’ would no longer have the same rights to maintain and pass on their status.

Whilst some of these measures were clearly in line with Osborne’s declared vision for a ‘high wage, low tax, lower welfare’ economy, and contained a distinctly Thatcherite tinge (abolishing maintenance grants for poorer students for instance, limiting benefits to only two children), some could easily have been measures being delivered in an alternative universe by a Labour Chancellor (and in fact, according to the same IFS report the budget raised far more in taxes than it gave away). The result of all this is that Osborne has made it difficult to respond and laid a trap for the opposition. The trap for Labour is that in attacking a government for reducing working age benefits which has at the same time introduced a ‘living wage’ and increased tax thresholds makes it very difficult for it to be seen as anything other than the ‘party of welfare’. This is a position which, given the almost endless talk of ‘aspiration’ in the leadership contest, an incoming Labour leader will not relish. The first task of the new leadership come September will be to formulate a coherent strategy in response and attempt to outmanoeuvre Osborne. I cannot say I envy them.

This post was written for the Liverpool Hope University Expert Comment webpage

e-mail: ryed at hope dot co dot uk

Why Carswell and Brand are both wrong about British politics

British politics is in a fragile state.  Levels of trust in politicians are low, traditional measures of political engagement indicate an increasing dislocation between a distant ‘political class’ and the electorate. People are less inclined to vote at all (as turnout figures for recent elections indicate) and those that are seem in increasing numbers to be more attracted to ‘insurgent’ parties and charismatic individuals from George Galloway to Nigel Farage who appear to offer simple answers to often complex questions. Underlying this is a sense of powerlessness, anger and disappointment that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the political system itself, and which mainstream politicians seem powerless to address without making worse.

In the midst of this storm, two curious characters have emerged on the political scene who, whilst representing very different approaches to and understandings of politics, tap into this same vein of discontent.

Continue Reading (links to full article at opendemocracy.net)

Why Study the Concept of Power?

A proper theoretical and applicable understanding of power can help in identifying new ways of organising and new political structures that, as far as possible, empower and free up people and their communities.

My key academic research interest at the present time is oriented towards questions about the concept of power, specifically in a political context:  how should it be defined, how can it be analysed and, crucially, how can we make use of it?  The problem with the concept of power, however, is that it is, as Steven Lukes has argued, an ‘essentially contested’ concept on which there is much disagreement as to its nature and character.[1]  Is it a capacity possessed by an individual, as behaviouralists would argue?  Is it rather a collective attribute of societies and groups as theorists like Hannah Arendt and Talcott Parsons have contended?  Is power only a product of conscious agency or can it be attributed to impersonal structures and organisations too?

Controversy and debate about power rages on in a small corner of the academic world, but why bother with such an esoteric pursuit?  Why is it important to spend so much time engaged in such theoretical controversies?  The answer is simply because power is (perhaps self-evidently) an important and fundamental aspect of the analysis of politics:  all politics is in some sense a manifestation of power struggles and as Max Weber long ago argued in Politics as a Vocation the importance of politics is that it strives to share power or influence its distribution within and between states.[2]

There are many reasons, but, here, I want to focus on two reasons for engaging in debates about power.  Firstly, it can provide an important perspective on human society and the political institutions which form a part of it. Seeking to understand them in terms of power brings a particular perspective on social relations, human behaviour and organisation, especially the question of what it is that makes people conform to certain behaviours, what makes them obey consciously or unconsciously certain social conventions and practices, what is it that predisposes some to accept the authority of others and obey them?  And what is that makes others seek to resist these?  Secondly, and perhaps the most important reason for undertaking an analysis of power, is that the empowerment of human beings as effective political actors and citizens is dependent on a clear understanding of power relations and power’s structure, dimensions and modalities in different settings (such as a particular institution or organisation).

If this latter purpose is to be realised, it follows that a key distinction needs to be made between what it is that empowers people and what it is that disempowers them. We need to be able to identify who is empowered and disempowered as a result of these relations and structures.  This requires us to separate analytically two key types of power:  firstly, power over something or someone, sometimes referred to as ‘domination’ and power to do or achieve something or other, or ‘empowerment’.  Thus, power is not just a term that signifies the ability of one person or a group of people to control or command others (although it is part of it), but also one which signifies the capacities individuals or groups have to realise their full potential as human beings.  Having some means of evaluating how, in different ways, groups or individuals are empowered or dominated (and hence disempowered) in certain settings (such as political parties or interest groups), we can identify ways in which their situation can be improved in the direction of greater empowerment and liberty.  In other words, in order to understand how people can best be fulfilled, to be able to reach their full potential as human beings, we have to understand both what it is that prevents them from doing so and what might enable them to do so.

As an example of this, power is often experienced by those subject to it as a form of constraint, but not all ‘constraints’ should be seen as negative or disempowering.  For example, training and education can be understood as constraints on the one hand, but on the other, they might be understood as ways of investing people (through instruction) with the capacities and resources to act effectively in political contexts.  Organisations too, governed by rules, structures and hierarchies, might be understood from one point of view as restraints on the ability of individuals to act freely, but from a different perspective could be seen as providing avenues for using diverse skills and abilities effectively and means of making actors more effective through collective action.

Too often, these kinds of things are seen in black and white terms.  Almost a century ago Robert Michels, in his analysis of the German Social Democratic Party, argued that oligarchy was an inevitable outcome of organisation despite its necessity as a tool of empowering ordinary people.  The organisation therefore subverts its original purpose to liberate by becoming a tool of domination by elites.  This gloomy prognosis has become part of the canon of the study of political parties, but though important it is incomplete because of a failure to take a properly multi-faceted view of power which not only looks at its operation on different levels, but understands it in terms of empowerment as well as disempowerment.  Rather than simply accepting the notion that ‘who says organisation says oligarchy’[3] we need to ask what kind of organisation do we need to ensure that democracy – in terms of empowerment of ordinary members – flourishes and oligarchy or domination by elites is as far as possible resisted.  Rather than giving up on political organisations as Robert Michels did (eventually despairing of democratic politics altogether) we need to identify new ways of organising and new political structures that, as far as possible, empower and free up people and their communities to make their own decisions, take power over their lives where it really matters and keep in check the ability of elites to reform and capture that space.

Political analysts need tools to help in the task of evaluating and making judgements about this.  What is needed, in other words, is a means by which a) organisations with political and social goals can be evaluated in terms of how they empower and disempower those whom they are intended to serve and b) judgements made as to what appropriate changes might need to be made to ensure maximum empowerment.  To support this, a series of questions with which to interrogate these issues need to be developed which are fully applicable to organisations with social and political goals.  This is my task going forward and I hope to report back on my progress via this blog in the near future.


[1] Steven Lukes (1974) Power: A Radical View

[2] In H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds) From Max Weber (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1948), 78.

[3] Robert Michels (1968 [1915]) Political Parties (New York: Free Press), 365