Alternative Editorial: Is Marching Alternative?

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By A/UK co-initiator, Indra Adnan

As I’m writing this editorial, 600,000 people are gathering on the streets of London. They are marching to demand a People’s Vote on the deal that the British government eventually agrees with the European partners on the terms of the UK leaving Europe. Due in March 2019.

Several people asked us where The Alternative UK stood on this and would our members be joining the march? We couldn’t answer easily without doing a poll of them – it’s not obvious.

On the surface, the conflict seems to be between two interpretations of democracy.  Those against a second vote are those who ‘won’ the first time and would not change their vote given another chance. To them it seems profoundly undemocratic to ignore the findings of the first vote.

More than that, given the popular characterisation of the Leave vote as belonging to people traditionally ‘left behind’ by the mainstream culture – often the least advantaged people in the country – there is a danger of extending the privilege of those that lost the first time. As if they would keep holding referenda until they get the result they want. Possibly by turning those people - who voted for the first time in their lives during this referendum - off voting for evermore. 

Those in favour of a People’s Vote are largely those that would vote Remain – whether for the first or second time. It’s undeniable that their motive is to overturn the original vote. However, their claim on democracy is also strong. Over the past two years, much evidence has arisen that the call to vote Leave was orchestrated by cyber activists who targeted the emotional vulnerabilities of the disadvantaged. This was built on by Leave MPs making promises that were not in their gift to make or – as in the case of NHS spending - were rescinded the day after the result

Even if this is conspiracy theory, given the unrelenting bad news that has emerged from the Brexit talks – on the economy, the loss of freedom of movement, on the dangers to our human right and environmental laws – shouldn’t the people have the right to change their minds?

John Major made a poignant case that if the results of Brexit are unremittingly bad, particularly for the millennials who stand to lose most as we distance ourselves from Europe, the Leavers will be blamed for ever more. If they feel excluded now, the gap between the forgotten towns and the thriving cities could get much bigger (see our blog this week on reports about this potential widening divide, from UK, France and Germany).

Add to that the challenge to standard democracy that comes from the right to national self-determination, especially from sub-nations within larger entities. Scotland’s majority vote to Remain in Europe has put its own ongoing Independence referendum conflict in a new light. While 55% of the Scottish people voted to stay in the United Kingdom, 62% also voted to stay in Europe. If they are in favour of a second referendum on Europe, should they not also be in favour of a second Referendum on Independence? It’s complicated.

If we had a position consistent with The Alternative UK’s approach to democracy, there would be no People’s Vote because there would not have been a vote on EU membership in the first place. At least not before meaningful deliberation amongst the people had happened - of the kind for which there are simply no mechanisms at this point in our slowly developing concept of democracy.

What might such mechanisms look like? After all, did we not have plenty of time to read up on the facts and debate them amongst ourselves? It’s a question that opens up huge questions about our 2% political culture. About the divisive and fearmongering narratives of the mainstream media that feeds on it. And about the lack of time the majority of citizens have to think deeply about external matters that affect them directly.

What most of us experienced was a barrage of polarised debates in which facts only appeared opportunistically – in service to whichever side wanted to use them to further their own argument. For example, the 5.9% of people from non-British European countries working in the health service were presented as a threat to British jobs by the Leave campaign. The same fact was presented as evidence, by the Remain campaign, that our services are able to continue working well because of these Europeans.

Without understanding the context of these facts – which might include further facts about the shortage of nurses on the one hand, but also the lack of training for nurses in the UK on the other – it’s difficult to know where the advantage lies for the British people. Or who to blame.

Perhaps more important even than the confusing complexity of the economic and services debates, are the emotional arguments. Crudely put, Leavers called for us to “take back control” of our future. Remainers appealed more to our feelings of “connection and belonging” to Europe. From a psychotherapeutic point of view, these two needs are of course complementary. Connection and belonging give us a sense of more control: disconnection can disrupt us severely.

The Alternative position would point out that the divisiveness of our current political culture consistently leaves people vulnerable. Pitching one emotional need against another, two perspectives on the same fact against each other, only serves the political parties who are competing to take the reins of power. It’s very common in politics for one party to oppose another’s policy on principle - even if under normal, non-partisan circumstances they would agree to it.

Which is why The Independents From Frome exercised their natural rights, as local citizens, to come together to take over the council. It seemed logical to do that in the interests of the majority of people living in the town. Which is why it was not difficult for these local people to win all 17 of the available seats in the last election.

Could independents, offering alternative political structures and culture similar to that in Frome, also offer alternatives to national referenda? In the recent gathering organised by the Radicals from Frome, Carne Ross, author of The Accidental Anarchist, helped them explore the options.

For example, a Citizens Assembly - increasingly popular across Europe - was recently effectively used in Northern Ireland as a prelude to a referendum on abortion.  Using the principle of sortition – where a manageable group of people are randomly selected from the electoral roll – they took six months to look at the issues carefully. Experts were called in from all sides of the debate and the selected people weighed up the evidence between them carefully. They were then invited to share their conclusion with the rest of the citizens.

If you’re not familiar with the process, it’s worth exploring as a new way for citizens to come together meaningfully, within the current socio-political circumstances.

Imagine if we’d had Citizens’ Assemblies across the UK to deliberate the European issue carefully. People from all sides of the debate given the time to find their common needs. Encountering the facts in spaces where their context can be explored. Doing the work of overcoming old political baggage - because that person sitting in front of you, who you might never have spoken to except through this random selection, is actually interested in the flourishing of the same community that you are.

Citizens Assemblies are only one example of a growing raft of new mechanisms that help people meet each other, discuss and come to conclusions together. In the common interests of themselves, their communities and the planet.

Whatever the outcome of the March for the People’s Vote, it would be a win for democracy in general if the result of the EU referendum was this: more demand for more deliberative participation from more people, more of the time.