Referendums, Parliament,Brexit & the left
The Parliamentary vote on whether or not to trigger Article 50 on Brexit on 1st Feburary has attracted an enormous amount of comment, a good deal of it from those who think the world is binary. That is, it’s either black or its white and that’s it.
Historically matters are a little more nuanced. The left preferred Referendums over Parliament certainly until after the First World War when it became clear that the ‘left’ however defined might manage to win a Parliamentary majority in an Election.
We do know that Switzerland is keen on them and that while the June 2016 one was called by a Tory Government, Tories have generally not been enthusiasts. However in the constitutional crisis of 1910/11, over the role of the House of Lords and its ability to block measures agreed in the House of Commons, they did suggest one.
On the left historically speaking the referendum was much more popular.
The view of Britain’s first Marxist organisation the Social Democratic Federation in the 1890s and beyond was that ‘issues of principle would be put to a direct vote…legislation could be drafted in line with referendum results’. That suggests something quite like the High Court decision on Brexit.
The SDF also supported the ‘right of initiative’ which meant that a ‘certain proportion should be able to refer a legislative proposal to the general vote’.
The SDF General Election Manifesto in 1895 attacked what it called ‘Fabian Caesarism’ where experts (think Sidney Webb who co-wrote the 1918 Labour Party Constitution) decided on laws rather than the people voting in referendums.
The SDF was critical of what it called the ‘impudence of the official’ or what Michael Gove might call an ‘expert’ perhaps.
The matter was hotly debated on a spectrum between absolute support for decisions being made in Parliament to important matters being decided by a Referendum. Politically this ranged from support for a politics of Parliamentary democracy, with the left standing in Elections to an anti-Parliamentary position, where elections were shunned.
The latter was espoused by William Morris’s Socialist League which had split from the SDF and contained a current of anarchists.
These different positions on the importance of Referendums or Parliament represented a deep rooted strategic political debate about what mechanism would be the most effective in achieving change for working people.
But there was much broader terrain to the debate than just the British left. While George Bernard Shaw memorably argued that referendums led to disaster they remained the policy of the (Second) Socialist International.
In 1900 it declared that socialists should ‘acquire and maintain everywhere the referendum and initiative as the prerogative of popular sovereignty’.
This is an important point because it underlines that support for the idea of popular democracy or sovereignty was something shared across at least the European left in the period before World War One.
Until the 1970s the idea of Referendums seems to have disappeared on the left. Why is not completely clear but there are some material factors.
Firstly until 1924 it was not thought possible that there could be a Labour Government that might be able to legislate directly in the interests of working people. Secondly organised labour- trade unions- grew in strength and effectiveness meaning there was another strategy of pursuing change as well.
The 1970s saw an upsurge in class struggle and with it the idea that other forms of democracy than Parliament had validity, whether workers direct action or Referendum. Pandora’s Box had been re-opened.
The point here is that those on the left who believe that the Referendum was the key vote and those who think that Parliament must ultimately decide both have some labour history on their side, although the political flavour of those sides might be hotly debated. But whichever side you favour, see you on the demonstration against Trump the Muslim ban and racism on Saturday eh? There is no wriggle room for history on that.
This post appeared in the Morning Star 7th December 2016