Today's Brexit Vote Is No Triumph For Democracy & Here Is Why
By Alastair Thompson
What ever happens this morning it is clear that something went horribly wrong with the United Kingdom's Brexit referendum. This is not how democracy is supposed to work.
In the final days if it hadn't been for the tragic assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair this contest may not have ended with just the possibility of a political and economic disaster of epic proportions, but rather with a likelihood of that happening, powered by a base of xenophobic and insular public opinion.
Across the water Trump and his xenophobic campaign would have been massively encouraged by this, win or lose. In continental Europe the politics of division and every country for itself would have been on the rise. 100s of millions of true democrats all over the world would have been wondering what the hell is going on!
During this referendum the British people thought they were demonstrating the noble and legitimate art of democracy. Many Trump supporters think likewise, and clearly Donald Trump does too.
But for those us who do not think democracy is just another game, with winners and losers, both the UK Brexit debacle and the rise of fascist fact free politics in the UK and the US is intensely disturbing.
Not because there are people whose base motivations are fear and hatred, and who excel in using these emotions to manipulate the electorate - there have always been these people, and likely always will be. And they too have the right of freedom of speech. What is so scary is that the public in Great Britain and the United States are so susceptible to this politics of hate.
Also deeply disturbing are the many politicians and powerful media companies that were/are willing to embrace these currents - and the lies that go with them - for their own personal political and economic reasons.
The inimitable John Oliver summed up many of the most egregious failures of the Brexit debate on Sunday night. But this was way too little, way too late. The job of countering the anti minority rhetoric of hate of the #VoteLeave campaign belonged to the #Remain side but they failed, spectacularly.
Television interviews and debates show very clearly that Vote Leave voters - disproportionately poor, less well educated and older - are highly motivated, more so than their remain counterparts.
While a majority of Labour voters fairly clearly support #Remain, the fact that Conservative voters are close to evenly split suggests that the #VoteLeave has a complete lock on the Conservative Party's poor and less educated voters.
TV interviews with Vote Leave's supporters show many are clearly true believers in the talking points so deftly delivered by Justice Secretary Michael Gove, former political adviser to David Cameron, Stephen Hilton and most importantly the popular former Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Britain is full, it can't take more people. The problems facing the NHS, Schools and job seekers are caused by immigration. The payments to the EU are causing the hardship in the UK. The EU is a bureaucratic nightmare and Europe is an economic basket case that Britain should not be involved with.
Towards the end of the campaign - as shown up very clearly by Oliver - there was an element of comic madness in the way the lines which dismissed the near unanimous economic warnings over Brexit were delivered on TV. No matter how authoritative and heavy weight the group or person was issuing the warnings of uncertainty, loss of growth and jobs that Brexit would bring, the #VoteLeave mantra that these people were all lying was the message that got through.
The project fear pundits were simply making up their predictions of doom because nobody could possibly know.
The campaign had become a fact free zone.
The Role of the UK
So who is to blame for this, apart from the voting public?
For starters the UK's partisan and mindlessly irresponsible press barons and their political attack channels can share a significant dose of responsibility. The Telegraph - the paper of choice for elderly Tories, Lord Rotheram's Daily Mail, and several of Rupert Murdoch's organs were partisan in the extreme throughout the debate.
The Daily Mail and the Sun led the charge - eventually leading to a petition to sack the editor of the Daily Mail which had received over 50,000 signatures a few days ago. Not that this was unexpected, these papers have been railing against the EU for as long as anyone can remember.
Two days after Jo-Cox was murdered and five days from polling the one-time bastion of Conservative discourse, The Times of London, now Rupert Murdoch owned, came out in favour of #Remain.
However it did so without mentioning Jo Cox's death at all - just two days earlier - and in a manner which makes one wonder if they had only just changed their minds:
In their joint TV debate
appearance, Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart performed a duet
with the refrain “take back control”. No wonder. The
need for greater control of Britain’s borders and
legislative processes is evident to many voters. So is the
appeal of action over inertia. Tory Remain campaigners would
have been hard put to show enthusiasm for their cause even
if most were not already Eurosceptics. Flailing for a
narrative half as compelling as Brexit, they have slumped in
opinion polls while their opponents have been, to put it
kindly, cavalier with the
Halfway through the full page editorial they mentioned that the Leave campaign was based on lies and cited several of them - but they would know that this message was unlikely to be received by anyone that mattered when it was delivered as it was.
While it is true that the Remain side - which uses the #StrongerIn hashtag - also had some influential newspapers on their side - most notably the Independent (no longer in print), The Mirror and the Guardian - the disparity in firepower between the two sides is enormous.
Moreover the columnists of the Telegraph and the Times were were ideally placed to sap the morale, energy and passion from the conservatives within the Remain campaign and to build the arguments for leave creating the impression that there was substance to the leave campaign's absurd assertions.
On the morning that Jo-Cox was killed, as UKIP Leader Nigel Farage was unveiling his fleet of mobile billboards [carrying a poster - see above - which is so eerily similar to a Nazi propaganda film from the 1930s that it is hard to imagine that this was not deliberate] the Mail published a front page lead which seemed time to reinforce Farage's "Breaking Point" campaign- and like Farage's campaign deliberately sought to misled people into thinking that the refugee problem was the same as the European immigration issue - which it isn't.
Coincidence? Possibly. Misleading? Definitely. The Mail eventually published a correction.
The media's response to Thomas Mair being named as the killer was and even more shocking example. The headlines on Friday Morning the day after:
Saturday Morning's UK Press Headlines About Thomas Mair
Throughout the campaign the BBC tried so hard to be even-handed that it somehow failed to actually say anything at all.
The BBC's coverage was entertaining but not at all critical. When even amounts of time is religiously given to a group of people who are lying vs a group of people who are trying to tell the truth (but are being accused of lying) the public are left with no guidance at all. In the United States this problem is compounded markedly by the fact that Donald Trump has not been granted even time, because he rates, he has been given most of the time. A direct feed of nonsense into the heads of people who have been programmed by the media for decades to believe what appears on television from people on podiums with flags behind them.
And so in a fact free environment with everybody accusing everybody of lying, the fallback position for voters is to return to gut instinct and prejudice - the very things that the Leave Campaign has been cleverly designed to exploit.
The highly motivated leave voters are voting for things which cannot possibly be changed by this referendum - at least not without a complete collapse of the UK economy and a revolution in its politics first.
Concerns about the cost of living, insecure jobs, crowded motorways and schools, NHS budget pressure and the consequences of a decade of significant levels of immigration, mostly from places further afield than the EU.
None of these things are the EU's fault. As every economist who was asked pointed out - the main reason that the UK is doing better than everywhere else in Europe is because it has access to the biggest single market in the world + finance because it has its own currency and its own quantitative easing programme.
The Remain Campaign Is Also To
But the Remain campaign should also shoulder its share of responsibility for this debacle.
Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn could have passionately led his 200,000 new, mostly young, members of the Labour Party on a massive get out the vote campaign. Young people are far and away the most enthusiastic supporters of staying in and have been so since this campaign began. Which is far from surprising as the prospect of living on the edge of a massive, growing, culturally diverse, engaging and fascinating continent like Europe - and not being able to participate in its life along with the millennial generation of every other nation - would be crushing.
But Corbyn didn't do this. In fact he didn't do much at all.
He started well, appearing on platforms with Prime Minister Cameron making phone calls. But maybe this didn't agree with him. Later on just looked grumpy about the entire business. Perhaps he began wondering perhaps why he was expected to get involved in a mess that is not of his making. An observation which while true, is also a little narrow minded.
And towards the end of the campaign he appeared to be absent for long periods of time, leading to speculation that he is at heart a bit of a euro-sceptic. And this was gold dust for a campaign whose target audience was dissatisfied Labour Party voters in the North.
David Cameron also performed far short of his best. Not so much because of how he delivered his lines, or his commitment and dedication to the campaign - which were steadfast - but because of how he came to be in this position in the first place.
When he appeared before the public on the BBC's Question Time debate this past Sunday Night he was asked by a young woman why anyone should believe what he had to say about Europe now when it was he who had agreed to let the question be posed in the first place. She seemed quite angry.
Cameron responded as he has often to similar questions that he believes that there are some questions that ought to be put to the public because they are so very important.
While this is a nice phrase and a nice idea its not, as far I know a idea which has any currency in political science, and on the basis of the Brexit experience is certainly not an idea which any national leader ought to follow.
Two Revolutions - Different But
Whatever the outcome in today's poll. The bleak and tragically insular Brexit campaign has demonstrated very clearly that the clearly apparent major trend in developed nation politics is in fact two distinct trends, with important differences.
All around the developed world the public is rejecting establishment politics - particularly two-party politics and the entrenched political elites that populate them.
Because of this previously I had previously thought that what was happening in the UK, US and France was basically the same thing.
The "dissatisfaction effect" is driving a wedge between the public and the political classes - whose relationship is fast trending towards outright hostility.
It's root cause is an inability by the state to address the multiple challenges they face - often because they consistently choose partisan bickering over solving problems - or appear to do so because that is what the media reports.
For many voters this creates a sense of weariness and hopelessness about the complex problems - climate change, economic performance, lack of and quality of jobs, technological change, immigration, inequality - which it appears the politicians either have no ideas to deal with, or prescribe the same failed solutions for over and over again.
In response to this trend in many different countries we are seeing the same impacts :
- the rise of new third party political forces (NZ first in NZ, UKIP in the UK, The Front Nationale in France, Syrizia in Greece, Podemos in Spain, ),
- the rise of the anti-politicians (George Bush, Bernie Sanders & Donald Trump in the USA, NZ's John Key and Winston Peters, the UK's Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage, Canada's Justin Trudeau, Diem25's Yanis Varoufakis and Iceland's Birgitta Jonsdittor ); and
- until recently - falling voter turnout, especially among the millennials a group which is becoming increasingly frank about how alienated they feel by a form of representative democracy which does not represent them. (NOTE: NZ and the US have both seen rising turnout more recently
- This "dissatisfaction effect" is emerging in my native NZ, is in full bloom across the ditch in Australia, and has reached the level of minor revolution in the US, UK, France, Spain, Italy and Greece.
But while what is happening looks similar on both sides of English Channel its definitely not the same.
One - here in continental Europe - is possibly positive and healthy (depending on your perspective of the importance of the status quo) and looks a little evolutionary. It is characterised by a critique of political orthodoxy as being no longer fit for purpose, inter-generational collaboration, the emergence of new alternatives and an emerging contest of ideas, and hope.
The other - in the Anglosphere - is on its face more toxic and regressive. It is characterised by an "auction approach to electoral politics", a free market approach to electoral politics (i.e. if I vote for what is good for me then I am exercising my vote correctly), inter-generational conflict and despair.
And these differences I now think arise out of starkly different dominant political philosophies among the public.
Three decades of neo-liberalism has made Anglosphere politics sick. Its voters and its politicians believe politics is a process. As voters we have been taught to measure what is on offer from the sides to us personally and then to vote for that. Our belief in the invisible hand of the market has extended to a belief that in pursuing our own self-interest we exercise our political responsibility.
In Continental Europe by contrast there is a deep seated understanding that elections are about making collective decisions in the interests of all the people. That values are important as well as self interest.
The Brexit Debacle will soon enter its next phase.
If Remain wins as expected there will be lots of patting each other on the back, crisis averted, the people have spoken, democracy was the winner on the day and other ideas which are intended to make us feel that this was and is ok.
Its not often that I agree with Nigel Farage but when he said earlier this morning that a loss to vote leave will not mean an end to this fight he is correct. The politics of hate have been massively spurred by the Brexit referendum, in the UK, the US and Europe.
But the drama of how this has unfolded has also created the space for a very important learning experience for everybody involved in politics. It was the tragic violent death of Jo Cox not democracy that saved the United Kingdom - not democracy. And collectively we now need to start saving democracy.
- 500 Words, Alastair Thompson 24th June 2016 - Geneva Switzerland