‘People’s Vote’ and ‘Revoke Article 50’ have no place in Parliament’s Indicative Vote Process

Yesterday, the British Parliament once again ‘took back control’ of the Brexit process from our hapless government. MPs held another round of indicative votes on what Brexit policy might possibly secure a majority in the House of Commons. Once again a set of motions were tabled, and once again our representatives set about voting Aye or No to those selected.

Yet again, no motion secured a majority.

Other people have commented on how a series of binary votes is probably not the best method for weighing up many competing options. It prompts people to abstain or stick to only their preferred option, in the hopes of hanging-in-there, becoming the last idea standing. A ‘single transferable vote’ option, where MPs rank the proposals in order of preference, would be better.

But I’m not here for that. Instead, I want to say this: The ‘People’s Vote’ proposal (put forward by Peter Kyle MP) and the ‘Revoke Article 50’ proposal (tabled by Joanna Cherry MP) should have had no place in the ‘indicative vote’ process.

Why? Well, for two reasons. First, MPs are still considering how we might leave. What they need to show (to the European Union, to the government, to their colleagues, and to us) is what could plausibly be written into the Political Declaration that accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement, setting out what we hope the end state relationship with the EU will be.

Neither #PeoplesVote or #Revoke are about leaving the EU.

Instead, they are about process. The People’s Vote idea is compatible with any of the proposals for leaving the EU. It could be a requirement of Theresa May’s thrice rejected deal, Ken Clarke’s Customs Union, Nick Boles’ Commons Market 2.0, or George Eustice’s EFTA/EEA (which wasn’t voted on again last night).

Meanwhile, Joanna Cherry’s proposal is nothing at all to do with the Political Declaration. It is a sensible insurance policy against No Deal Brexit, saying that if we are in danger of crashing out of the EU then we either approve No Deal, or Revoke Article 50.

So while I think a People’s Vote and the Insurance Policy are both desirable, it makes no sense to consider them as options alongside proposals about markets, customs and trade. I actually think that the prospects for both proposals have been damaged by being mis-categorised in this way.

#Brexit: Democracy begins with a vote, but it doesn’t end there

I was unable to attend the Put It To The People march at the weekend for secret reasons, but I have signed the poorly worded petition to ‘Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU’.1

While the march was taking place, I spotted several snide comments on social media, repeating the mantra that it is essentially a campaign to ignore or overturn democracy. Giles Fraser and Sarah Vine, for example.

This prompts a return to the thoughts and conversations I have been having over the past few weeks about the nature and definition of ‘democracy’ and how a free society makes decisions.

Too often during this crisis the political debate has focused on just one aspect of democracy: The vote. And not just the concept of voting in the abstract, but specifically the referendum vote of 23rd June 2016 that delivered the mandate to leave the European Union. Despite the narrow margin, and despite the fact that the Leave.eu campaign broke electoral law, the result was and remains a powerful political fact.

But there are other aspects to the concept of ‘democracy’ that have, in my view, been underweighted. A fully functioning democracy requires way more than a vote. There are plenty of oppressive countries that allow citizens to vote for the government (Iran, for example) but nevertheless constrain freedom in other ways. The vote is a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. Continue reading “#Brexit: Democracy begins with a vote, but it doesn’t end there”

When the Myth of American Democracy Explodes

Listening to Carol Anderson talk about her book One Person, No Vote on the Ezra Klein Show podcast; about voter ID laws and other measures that actively prevent black people from voting; about gerrymandering and electoral college distortions that allow the party that loses the vote to win the election…

Watching Brett Kavanaugh testify to the US Senate Judiciary committee; where he refused to answer or evaded questions; where he perjured himself; and where his white male colleagues apologised to him for having his honour questioned…

… I found myself thinking that American democracy is on the decline. That it may even be irreparably damaged.

But then I thought again about what I had witnessed, and what people like Carol Anderson are complaining about. It is not that American democracy is dying, but that the absence of a proper democracy is and always has been entrenched. Continue reading “When the Myth of American Democracy Explodes”

Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens

I’m really enjoying ‘Clear and Present Danger: The Free Speech Podcast’ hosted by Jacob Mchangama. Its a comprehensive tour of the concept of freedom of expression. It begins in ancient Athens and there are episodes on the Romans, early Christianity, freedom of thought in the Islamic world, and how heresy was persecuted in medieval times.

One crucial piece of information about the concept of freedom of expression, which I think is desperately relevant to our modern debates and disputes, comes in the first episode. Mchangama points out that there are actually two philosophical idea embedded in the Athenian conception of free speech and which drove their democracy. Continue reading “Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens”

Review: THE ELECTION (ITV)

St John's Grove, Preston Road Estate

2nd May 2019

The chattering classes just love to compare the low turnouts at local and general elections, with the fact that people actually choose to pay money to vote for reality TV contestants. So it is surprising that the Television executives took so long to produce The Election.

It was doubly surprising that it was commercial ITV that gazumped the BBC in what should have been an open-goal commission for our public service broadcaster, and triply surprising that ITV, after being spectacularly dumped by Simon Cowell at the end of 2017, should have chosen to replace their flagship musical talent show with political programming.

We should be glad that they did so, because The Election has proved to be one of the best things on TV on this political cycle, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’ll still be talking about the show a decade from now… if it isn’t still on the air, a dozen series older. Continue reading “Review: THE ELECTION (ITV)”

American Tribalism

By chance, I heard Andrew Sullivan’s radio essay about Donald Trump and tribalism in America on BBC Radio 4 yesterday evening.

Following the shock presidential election result last year, I had heard many of the insights that Sullivan set out in the monologue.  But the particular format of this piece, coupled with Sullivan’s great writing, makes it a particularly powerful iteration.

Crushingly, Sullivan offers no road-map for how this American (and therefore, global) crisis might be reversed, other than the hope that another ‘Lincoln’ might appear to save the country from itself. But isn’t a faith in saviours what has put America into this position in the first place? Obama and Trump are very different characters, but both took on a definite totemic status for their supporters. What is needed, it seems to me, is for the resolution to take place not within a single unifying figurehead at the top, but with a million acts of reconciliation among the citizenry. And we’re all out of ideas for how to bring that about. There is a chance things might get worse before they get better.

A Point Of View episodes are available indefinitely as a podcast. Visit the BBC website to listen again.

People Are Sharing This UK Supreme Court Judgment And It’s Democratic AF

The United Kingdom Supreme Court today handed down its judgment in the case of R (UNISON) v Lord Chancellor – a case about the charging of Employment Tribunal Fees. The court ruled that the way the government was charging fees for tribunal claims hampered access to justice, and was therefore unlawful. A defeat for the government and a success for UNISON, the union that brought the case.

The Court’s judgment [PDF] is 42 pages long, but lawyers on Twitter have been urging everyone to read the section entitled ‘The constitutional right of access to the courts’. Lord Reed, writing the unanimous verdict, reminds us that access to the courts is “inherent in the rule of law” and that the people, even those of slender means, must be able to access the courts in order to have the laws passed by parliament enforced. Continue reading “People Are Sharing This UK Supreme Court Judgment And It’s Democratic AF”

Free Speech and Democratic ‘Buy In’

Yrstrly in the House of Lords

Last month I was privileged enough to participate in the annual House of Lords Chamber Debate.  It’s the one time during the year when people who are not members of the House of Lords are allowed to sit on its benches and debate.

This year the debate was about free speech and its limits.  I made a short contribution about the practicalities of censorship and surveillance, and said that free speech should be about dialogue and conversation. Continue reading “Free Speech and Democratic ‘Buy In’”

No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’

The worrying news from Turkey has made me think about the way in which the recent political machinations within the British Labour Party have been described (usually by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn) as a ‘coup’.

I’m sure the people who use that word do not mean to suggest that the 171 Labour MPs who want Mr Corbyn to resign are equivalent to soldiers with guns.  But use of the word does imply that the manoeuvrings are anti-democratic.

But they are not.  They are profoundly democratic. Continue reading “No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’”

#Periscope needs a ‘handover’ function

I’m really enjoying Periscope, the new app from Twitter that allows live broadcasts direct from your phone.  It was launched very soon after its rival Meerkat and has, I think, better sharing and comment functionality.

Both apps, however, offer something utterly compelling — a live window into someone else’s world.  In 5 minutes on Periscope, you can jump accross continents, watching forest fires in the Rockies, a sunset over the Pont Neuf in Paris, dinner with a family in Pakistan, or a toddler in Canberra learning to walk.  Its magic, in the Arthur C Clarke sense.

With other forms of communication, the most fascinating developments come when the users push the platform in ways the developers had not anticipated.  For example, the @ and # functionality in Twitter was something developed by the users and not by Twitter. Continue reading “#Periscope needs a ‘handover’ function”