This is not what democracy looks like

A week after the country went to the polls, the dust from the referendum result steadfastly refuses to settle. The initial economic and constitutional convulsions continue to roll on, leadership ambitions are devouring the Conservative party and Labour seem desperate to do whatever they can to focus attention away from Tory in-fighting and onto their own attempts at self-annihilation.

So much for the great democratic revolution touted by the Leave campaign.

I say that not to suggest, like some, that the referendum result should be ignored, that Parliament should step in to save the British people from themselves, that the result simply shows that the electorate cannot be trusted to answer complicated questions. In short, I don’t think the chaos we are currently immersed in is a result of too much democracy.

Rather, I think the problem remains a lack of democracy: that is the over-riding feeling the experience of this referendum leaves me with. From start to (seemingly) endlessly-deferred finish, democracy has categorically not been at the centre of this process.

As we all know, an in-out referendum was promised by Cameron in a misguided attempt to outmanoeuvre Ukip and his own right-wing. The fact he was then able to call the referendum was due to the perversions of our antiquated electoral system delivering Cameron a Commons majority on 36.9% of the vote (representing less than a quarter of the electorate). So little ‘democracy’ evident in the run-up to the campaign.

Then we have the referendum itself. Without commenting on the quality (or lack thereof) of the campaign, the simple fact of attempting to distil a complex issue into a binary choice, presented as a ‘once in generation’, ‘no going back’ vote is, in my view, a parody of direct democracy. Again, I say this not because I think the public ‘can’t handle’ the complexity of the issue, but that public engagement with politics is distorted and degraded when direct participation is allowed only on such high-stakes, high-pressure occasions.

If more trust was placed in the public’s ability to make decisions, if direct democracy was more diffuse, more widely-used, then we could avoid this situation. If referenda were common place, a series of public votes could have been held to determine our relationship with Europe, treating the issue with the gravity it deserves and valuing the public and their ability to make informed decisions when given the opportunity.

A series of votes on separate issues like the free movement of labour, the single market and the issue of legal sovereignty could have averted the complete vacuum we currently find ourselves in, where no one can even define what ‘Brexit’ (I grimace while I type that odious neologism) would even look like, let alone how it will be achieved. And it may also have averted the perverse situation whereby dissident republicans in Foyle seeking to destabilise the UK in order to fuel their violent campaign for Irish unity voted on the same side as staunch Loyalists in North Antrim seeking to liberate the UK from the tyranny of the EU.

And now, the aftermath. 330 Conservative MPs and around 150,000 party members will decide who our next Prime Minister is, while the 231-strong Parliamentary Labour Party fight to bring down a leader elected by 250,000 party members and supporters. Little democracy here.

When I celebrated my 18th birthday on 15th February 2003 by marching in Belfast against the impending invasion of Iraq, the veteran left-winger (and now recently elected MLA for Foyle) Eamon McCann addressed the crowd outside City Hall with the words ‘this is what democracy looks like, this is what democracy feels like’. I was old and cynical enough to realise that the march, and the thousands other like them, would not avert the relentless drive to war. But I was young and idealistic enough to be charged by McCann’s words.

Now that we have plunged ourselves into a series of crises on the back of the Leave vote, I think more strongly than ever that calling for more democracy, not the sham we have just been presented with, is  the best response: not to pour scorn on the ability of people to make political decisions, but to fight for their further empowerment, for better and more effective forms of democracy (both representative and direct), as the best strategy for avoiding fresh disaster on the back of a seemingly ‘democratic’ votes.

Cameron’s Blame Game

Last Friday David Cameron gave a speech at the Global Security Forum in Bratislava that was widely reported as a warning to British Muslims to do more to combat radicalisation. This provoked the predictable support and opposition from different sections of the media, but nothing I’ve read so far highlights the inherent contradictions in what Cameron said.

Cameron’s speech is directed not just at the issue of radicalisation in the UK, but three ‘extraordinary challenges’ facing Europe, in the shape if ISIL (as he calls them), Russia and migration. He begins by stating that Europe can meet these challenges as long as ‘we stand up’ for the ‘values that have made European nations strong and successful’, values which he lists as ‘democracy, freedom of speech, free enterprise, equality of opportunity, [and] human rights’. The danger, in Cameron’s eyes, come not only from those who pose a direct threat to these values, but from those who do not fully accept this constructed identity, those who would say something different.

In terms of ISIL, this threat to European identity takes the form of young people abandoning their homes to travel to Syria and Iraq. This process, he argues, in the most widely-reported sections of the speech, begins in an environment where such views are normalised by those who ‘hold some of [ISIL’s] views [but] don’t go as far as advocating violence’, from those ‘who do buy into some of these prejudices giving the extreme Islamist narrative weight and telling fellow Muslims, “you are part of this”.

According to Cameron, this ‘paves the way for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent’, with the reinforcement of ideas coming from something ‘that is quietly condoned online, or perhaps even in parts of your local community’.

Let’s pause at this point. I don’t think it would be an over exaggeration to suggest that Cameron is placing part of the blame for young people turning to ISIL on the failure of the Muslim community in the UK to challenge extreme narratives, and that he is urging the Muslim community to take more responsibility for this. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this point, I think you can accept that Cameron is seeking to apportion some blame on those who could have acted differently in order to prevent young Europeans travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the brutal and murderous IS movement.

As Cameron moves on with the speech, he quickly contradicts this position, by affirming that ‘radicalisation starts with the individual’. Trying to deflect blame by pointing the finger at ‘agencies or authorities’ is wrong, in his view, and indeed ‘dangerous’. So when he talks about the Muslim community in the UK, there is responsibility beyond individual agency: but when he talks about the state’s role, it is ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’ to say anything else than ‘the individual is solely to blame’.

Let’s pause again: it seems that Cameron is able to separate state governance from the role of the community in moulding individual action. While communities can be held at least partially responsible, governance structures should not. We can encourage and help the ‘police and intelligence agencies to stop people travelling to Syria’, but that does not mean we can blame them for the fact that people want to go in the first place. Communities can be responsible, but state agencies cannot. Communities shape individuals and can therefore be the root source of threats, but state agencies do not and cannot.

As he brings the speech to its conclusion, Cameron contradicts himself again. He affirms that the security threats emanating from Eastern Europe and the Middle East ‘often have one thing in common: a failure of governance in other countries’. By this point his short-sightedness and double-think is reaching astonishing levels:

It is the failure of governance in African states that leads many to want to leave. It is in part the failure of Libyan governance which has allowed the traffickers to profit from human misery. It was the failure of Ukrainian governance in the years before 2014 which led to discontent and instability. It’s the failure of governance in the Middle East which has left a vacuum within which ISIL can proliferate.

The first blind-spot in Cameron’s analysis is the role that the UK and its allies have played in contributing to any poor governance that exists in these areas, be it through the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank in sub-Saharan Africa, the role of these same institutions in Ukraine’s post-socialist transition straight into a four-year recession, or the violent interventions in Iraq and Libya which destroyed lives and infrastructure.

The second, and perhaps more damning for Cameron’s vision of the world, is the fact that he is able and willing to blame other governments for their failure, without accepting any responsibility for his own government’s failures. In his world the ‘blame game’ involves blaming local communities in the UK and the failures of foreign governance for Europe’s problems, while not accepting that any responsibility rests with his own government.

Cameron’s platitudes about building a ‘national identity’ that ‘young people in our country feel truly part of’ is not enough. If he is so keen to ensure people take responsibility for their actions then he should take responsibility for his own: for the demands he makes on Muslims to pledge their loyalty to an undefined idea of ‘British values’, that could indeed not be defined in anything but an exclusionary manner; and for the essentialised notions of a ‘Muslim community’ his government propagates, requiring surveillance and securitisation.

While he continues to apply the contradictory logic expressed in this speech, Cameron will be unable to recognise that the failure to engage with the Muslim community is a failure, and that speeches like these only serve to contribute to that failure. That is perhaps the most damning indictment of all.

Demystifying elections

There are many reasons to vote tomorrow, and many reasons not to. You may like a candidate standing in your constituency, or you may support certain policies of a party or have an affinity with their leader. Alternatively, you may think that party politics lacks any efficacy in a globalised world, the party you support may have no chance in your constituency or you may live in such a safe seat that voting at all seems pretty pointless.

I will be voting, and voting Labour, because I want a Labour-led government. While there is no chance that my vote will actually make a difference to Labour winning the seat, I’ll be voting because the larger the share of the popular vote they get the more legitimate a Labour-led government will be (and though that shouldn’t really matter in a parliamentary system, all the disingenuous comments by people who should know enough about our politics and history to know better makes me think it might be important).

I want a Labour government because I think they will be better than a Conservative-led government. I think they will stop finding new ways to throw money at people who already have money while squeezing those who don’t. I  appreciate it when Ed Miliband says that he does not offer euphoria after the election but hard-work. I understand that him becoming Prime Minister will not make things miraculously better overnight. There will be no socialist dawn. But in small ways I think things will be better. And personally I hope he can pass a law on three-year tenancies and pegged rent rises before the contract on my flat is up in November…

So that is why I want to vote. But what about people who think things won’t be any better regardless of who wins, who don’t think any of the leaders are decent people, and who don’t even have a reason to vote in their own narrow self-interest? Why should they vote when they believe that politics and democracy should be about more than voting, about more than choosing the lest-worst option from barely-distinguishable non-entities who cannot and will not offer the radical changes we need to reformulate our society on genuinely equitable and communal grounds?

I understand those arguments, but I don’t think they offer any reasons not to vote. Elections are given too much weight and importance in political culture, often in a completely inverse relationship to their actual impact. But the only way that elections will stop being treated as the be-all and end-all of our politics is if participation in them becomes a given, if it is accepted that everyone will engage and cast their vote. It that becomes an accepted reality then the battle for influence and involvement can move on to the spaces in-between elections, when the real decisions about the allocation of resources and authorities are made.

When the very point of elections are questioned and debated then they themselves become the issue. But elections should not be the defining point of our democracy. They should not be treated as a mystical moment when the individual transforms into the citizen, when the world pauses and political destiny turns on the cross of a pen. It should be just another day, just another way in which people participate in their political system. And nothing you do on that day should silence you or give you an excuse not to participate the next day, and the next, and the next…