Alternative Editorial: Brexit As Gateway Politics

By Indra Adnan, Co-initiator of AUK

When we launched The Alternative UK in March 2017, it was something of a relief to turn away from the spectacle of what we call 2% British politics and focus better on the 98% of people who are not members of political parties, to see how they are remaking society. 

But recent events have drawn us back to watch the high drama of a politics in meltdown. What is essentially a two-party system, represented in the House of Parliament by two rows of benches facing each other squarely, has fractured into many parties within parties, each trying to game the system to achieve something, well, nebulous.

In the midst of this is a concept of democracy that baffles. As the comedian Rory Bremner described in a recent gig at Portcullis House (more about that later) this is the only government that would vote first and then devise a manifesto after. 

And then to underline the incoherence, invite Parliament to agree to that process - and then change your mind. All the while telling their fellow representatives, “you simply cannot change your mind about allowing the people to change their mind”.

What we need now is an MP who voted Leave to call for a second referendum, because they don't want to be held responsible for condemning a country to a decision people made blindly. An MP who has the courage to take the truth test twice.

Beyond Brexit, the binary trap we are in cannot deliver the future we want because it lacks subtlety. When we can only choose blindly between two things, yes or no, in or out, left or right, all sorts of finessing on the choice appears as a weakening of that position. 

Jeremy Corbyn, whose position was always Remain with caveats, has been doing his darndest to say Yes but No, but is ridiculed by all political pundits for doing so. After the 2016 vote made clear that his own party is split down the middle on this question, his task has been to represent two different viewpoints at once. His only hope is for a General Election, as only the PM appears to be able to have cake and eat it. 

It’s a common observation that life has become much more complex since the advent of the internet. Now that everyone has a little taste of the power of their own opinion, we have become much harder to handle by those who still hold the reins. 

So why does our politics not follow suit and become more capable of complexity? Instead it seems childish, old fashioned and - let it be said - stubbornly patriarchal. While Theresa May calls for a more reflexive process, the dynamics within her party – with 117 of her own MPs ready to ditch her - make it impossible to deliver.

I can’t help referring to the set of experiments that Carol Gilligan recorded in her 1982 book In A Different Voice. She copied almost exactly the questionnaires for adolescents that Laurence Kohlberg designed 24 years earlier, from which he concluded that men were more capable than women of leadership because they were better at making straight choices from the age of 16. The one change that Carol made was to offer not only binary options to the same questions but a third option of I don’t knowand some lines to explain why. 

While more boys continued to respond yes or no, more girls used the third option with the explanation that it was a mix of both the first two options. Or, that it was more complicated than yes or no. This ambivalence, Carol suggested, displayed an appreciation of complexity that the boys only developed a bit later in life. Or maybe it doesn’t develop at all, if the simple binaries enshrined in our socio-political system, taken as evidence of ‘strong’ leadership, are anything to go by. 

When Uffe Elbaek established the Alternativet Party in Denmark in 2013, one of the rights he called for as a politician was to be able to be wrong sometimes: to be able to change his mind and to not always know the answer to the questions that journalists put to him. His argument is that flexibility, openness and the ability to reflect with humility are signs of strength, not weakness. He still upholds that righteven though he is often subjected to intense attempts to humiliate him on air.

Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, describes the ‘right’ that Uffe is pointing at as the ‘feminisation of politics’ where feminine is a quality of relational awareness rather than, singularly, a gender attribute. In this videoshe describes how she is trying to bring that to political life in Catalonia, but is not yet succeeding. 

Meantime, on the very day that the Brexit deal was due to be voted on but cancelled, something else was happening in the Houses of Parliament that beautifully demonstrated how much better it could be. Make Votes Matter– the campaign for proportional representation (PR) led by Klina Jordan– was holding a Parliamentary Lobby for PR. Hundreds of MVM members invited their MPs to meet them in the Lobby of the House of Commons to discuss why our first past the post system is inherently undemocratic and how to push for change.

At the evening reception, Rory Bremner (see above) was handing out awards to people who were doing a great job promoting PR. In his words, parties are now so fragmented that there might as well be 10 parties contesting each vote. But more importantly, those internal splits do not begin to represent the huge diversity of people outside of Parliament. It’s possible that the 98% of people not members of parties – the stats we are always referring to here - are not represented at all in the current divide between the official parties.

Klina pointed out the simple consequence that when we are split in this way, we only develop our competitive muscles for “zero-sum games”, in which the winner takes all, a win or a lose. Whereas if we had PR - structured to enable a much larger number of parties, more representative of our diverse society taking part - politicians would have to develop their collaborative muscles. Learn how to work in coalition. 

This is not necessarily about compromise – as in conflict resolution. But it’s more about the craft of conflict transformation, where many parties have to work harder to move on from their original goals and formulate new ones. Appealing to more people without harming any of them. 

In that world, a 52% / 48 % result could never be allowed to stand, for the simple reason that it makes nearly half the country unhappy. And that half will make it very hard for the winners to prosecute their goal successfully. Instead, why not invest the time and patience to run multiple Citizens Assemblies across the nation? 

CAs engage with people and allow them to deliberate carefully, with access to any information they need. Why not bring them to bear on the problems with Europe and the best possible ways to remedy them?

Only this kind of shift away from the simple, failing mechanisms now on show in Westminster, will constitute a genuine step forward for democracy in the UK.