A petition launched apparently launched three weeks before Thursday’s decision of the UK electorate to Leave the EU has garnered over three million signatures since Thursday as I write at half past ten on Sunday morning.
Someone asked me:
“I have 5 friends sharing this. The problems are that (a) referendums are terrible ways to decide complex questions and (b) why? Because we didn’t think the first time?”
I started to respond, but decided I should blog my thoughts.
On point a) I agree entirely and on point b) I have rather a lot to say:
Around half of the people who voted in this referendum won’t have voted the last time they had an opportunity to vote. Turnouts in elections are closer to 30 % than to 70%. And when people vote, the majority of voters understand that their vote won’t matter. (The exception is voting for a member of the European Parliament whose elections are proportional: in all other UK elections all votes cast for everyone except the First Past The Post are 100% useless, even if those votes tot up to 80% of all votes cast.) Very few elections are hotly contested because so many seats are sewn up. There is a massive chasm between the elected and the electorate and the group elected is less and less representative of the people they are supposed to represent. However that does not stop them claiming an electoral mandate to pursue policies which are increasingly extreme, divisive and socially damaging and disrespectful to voters whose candidate did not win. There used to be some protection from the left wing of British politics, but that is another story.
So huge numbers of people customarily don’t vote or vote only to protest, knowing perfectly well that their vote can’t and won’t elect anything remotely resembling what they want. The shock of some Leave voters “I didn’t think my vote would matter” is genuine. In a national referendum, all votes are transferred and only the total matters, which means every single vote counts. For many people (not me: I’m too old!) this is a first.
The Leave campaign must have been delighted that the Remain campaign handed them the opportunity to Kick Cameron Out. Some people will have voted Leave in order to depose the PM. (What on earth did a UK PM think he was doing taking sides at all, let alone monopolising the leadership of it? But I will look at the various issues with the Remain campaign in another blog).
The last UK referendum was for Alternative Vote, where half the people who campaigned for electoral reform voted to preserve the status quo rather than move to an inadequate alternative voting system, which even most electoral reform campaigners didn’t like. The AV campaign was run cataclysmically badly and the status quo was run by real professionals. The stuff AV campaigners were expected to put through letter boxes was outrageously amateur. I imagine a vast amount went in the bin. I personally regretted the time I put into it. The majority would have been better served had we moved to a less than perfect AV system, but not many people understood that and far fewer cared.
It turns out these are the guys who ran the Anti AV referendum campaign were the ones picked to run the Remain campaign. This looked like a massive asset as the campaigns set off. The status quo campaign was far better.
And working with the Remain campaign has been a revelation: I have literally never worked in a campaign which had adequate resources.
So, if you habitually run things badly and people learn to dismiss the whole system and then you pose a serious question, which will make a real difference you are likely to have a problem, whatever the result.
What we have now is:
- a statement of our desire to own our own crown and government (which we failed to accept we had all the time)
- a statement of our hatred, fear and loathing for everything which is new to us or looks or sounds foreign
- the revelation to the world that we are abie to blame all the problems we have created ourselves on the foreign, the strange or whatever we don’t understand (the Leave campaign centred honestly on immigration and the emotions it called out to are exactly those those which fire racism and persecution of minorities world wide)
- the loss of our credibility as a competent, well run state
- the loss of overseas influence in international government, business and academia
- the exposure to the whole world of the shameful social, wealth, opportunity, education divisions which cut across the country and led to a howl of agony, engineered by the bunch of pro austerity privatising millionaires who led the Leave campaign. The BBC prior to the result expected a different geographical split, but the result showed a quite different wealth and education based reality.
- the exposure to the whole world that the majority of the UK electorate don’t trust experts: i.e. people with degrees, qualifications, training or any status or authority within the society we have already built. We should all know, but clearly we don’t that this is a group the Nazis targeted.
- the exposure to the whole world of the political ignorance of the UK electorate and the extent to which it can be misled by a partial press and can’t judge for itself (politics was not taught to some of the generations who have just cast their votes and history as a subject in many schools is becoming a tiny minority subject)
- the possible loss of Scotland and Northern Ireland and the consequential end of the United Kingdom
- the likely loss of London as the first choice for service and finance businesses – including banks – wanting to operate in Europe
- no plan whatsoever for the future from the Leave campaign
- the awakening realisation that the Leave campaign was constructed on some very big fat lies
- Leave supporters were told there would be £350M per week for the NHS – campaign leaders claimed that this was the amount we gave to Brussels and consistently refused to correct it. Farage has now admitted it was not true.
- Leave supporters were repeatedly told that the European Parliament was less democratic than Westminster. This looks a bit hollow, given the responses of each to date. In Europe there is a suspension of committee work on Monday and a plenary on Tuesday. In England the unseating of the two main party leaders replaces business as usual.
- the growing awareness that points made by the Remain campaign, dismissed by Leave as “Project Fear” might have had a point
All this is beginning to sink in. As is the narrowness of the victory in numerical terms. And the understanding that what is left of the British Empire was not even mentioned, let alone given a vote.
This referendum was all about the Tory Party.
Every organisation worthy of the name has two plans: one in the event of a Remain vote and one in the event of a Leave vote. I met a partner of an organisation which by now will have completed moving its headquarters to Brussels (from London) because even the risk of a Leave vote threatened its future operations (which involve the whole of Europe). Each organisation will be quantifying a different set of risks and costs and benefits. This particular company was light, small and easy to shift and it could always come back if it really wanted to: but that is not going to happen if the UK leaves and stays out of the EU. Other, less agile businesses, like heavy engineering will have to take short term hits because they can’t move so fast and they will be looking longer term at Europe and its outlook as a whole. They may look at the EU area and think to themselves, if this vast wealthy area can’t build homes for its own citizens (the UK government does not allow local councils to build much needed social housing) or cope constructively and humanely with an emergency refugee crisis, what point is there in us staying here?
I am horrified and ashamed that my country is deciding to not contribute constructively to Europe’s challenges and instead has engineered a way for a badly led and badly educated electorate to push the entire population, including groups to whom the vote matters critically into darkness on its own.
People are enjoying crashing the government’s petition website. Some of them probably work on systems which take 45 minutes to log a fly tipping problem.
But I hold hands with an organisation which is ready to tackle climate change. To the challenge of climate change this ghastly decision is an extremely unhelpful but distracting gnat bite. I am incredibly proud of Green Party councillors who are ready for this and for the other moments of complete insanity which we know we will have to face if we don’t radically change the way we live and do politics.