The Will of the People

ballot box

Vimes had spent his life on the streets, and had met decent men and fools and people who’d steal a penny from a blind beggar and people who performed silent miracles or desperate crimes every day behind the grubby windows of little houses, but he’d never met The People.

Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Sometimes we need a strong and stable leader to do whatever they think is best (so long as it matches what we think is best, of course…) with as little oversight as possible.

Me (sorry), Democracy When Convenient

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We’re hearing a lot of talk about ‘the will of the people’ these days. I think it’s very important to be critical about who gets to interpret what that is.

Societies are big, complex things. One binary vote may give a mandate not for a single specific thing, but for the wide range of potential policies under that umbrella.

It’s in the interest of the Tory-right/Farageists to conflate the 52% leave result with their specific vision of Brexit, and whatever else they wish to package along with that. It’s a useful narrative for them to unilaterally dismiss options as not Brexity enough, and hence against the will of the people.

Remember that before the referendum, Farage said a 52% win for remain ‘would have been unfinished business by a long way. If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.’ He’s not a good-faith democrat.

A reasonable argument could be made that the overall will averages out as some form of soft Brexit. In any case, I see little evidence that the majority of the populace want to scrap the Working Time Directive, or to have many of the other things the right will seek to exploit Brexit for.

Various commentators warn of the adverse consequences for workers’ health and well-being if the directive is axed. Doing so would remove legal rights to paid holidays, maximum working hours and rest breaks – potentially opening the door to further employer exploitation of workers who have weak bargaining power and/or no collective trade union representation. […]

It seems doubtful that many who voted for Brexit voted to remove legal rights to paid holidays, rest breaks, and maximum hours, hence the spinning of facts by right-wing politicians and media. Many workers may be unaware that these rights originated from EU employment legislation, and what they will lose if they are removed.

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Proroguing parliament for an extended period to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny represents an attack on principles of representative democracy, as Ash Sarkar says. If this happened in another country, we’d be calling it corrupt and find the excuses for it patently absurd.

People saying that this isn’t weird or undemocratic, but actually an assertion of the voice of The People over slimy politicians, are, implicitly or explicitly, stating a support for direct over representative democracy.

I quite like the idea of having more direct democracy in some form, actually. Millions of people feel distant from the levers of power, out of control of their lives, and they’re not wrong to do so. But any meaningful vision of direct democracy would involve The People being the ones actually holding sovereignty, no?

Giving Boris Johnson – a slimy politician! – a blank check to pursue a particular, highly debatable version of what he argues the will of the people is, is merely a less representative form of representative democracy – particularly as he was chosen by only 0.13% of the population.

Besides, the question of how to interpret the will of the people doesn’t disappear in direct democracy. When does a simple majority win outright, and when is compromise called for? How are the questions framed? I’ve yet to see a good argument that No Deal would genuinely represent the will of the people.

Even if channeling sovereignty to a forceful executive happens to lead to the public getting some of what they want, it’s a risky strategy and a dangerous precedent. It doesn’t actually invest people with more control over their lives or communities. Reducing the role of elected representatives doesn’t necessarily increase the voice of the people: it might just empower someone to pursue their agenda in your name.

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There are issues where it’s obvious the public doesn’t have what it wants. For example, there’s strong support for rail nationalisation. Would a well-oiled British democracy still let companies like Virgin or Deutsche Bahn rip off an irritated public that’s already subsidised them with taxes?

First Past the Post has various problems as an electoral system:

Even if millions of voters support the same party, if they are thinly spread out they may only get the largest number of votes in a couple of these contests. Tens of thousands of voters supporting the same party and living in the same area will end up with more MPs.

This means the number of MPs a party has in parliament rarely matches their popularity with the public. […]

With a geographical base, parties that are small UK-wide can still do very well. This tends to mean that Westminster’s electoral system benefits nationalist parties. For instance, half of Scottish voters voted for the SNP in 2015, but the SNP won 95 percent of Scotland’s seats. […]

In 2015 a candidate won the Belfast South election with only 9,560 votes, or 24.5% of the total, a record low.

And people like Prof. Richard Wolff argue for expanding democracy into the workplace. Co-ops (or to a lesser extent, reviving unionisation; or Mariana Mazzucato’s ideas about employee representation on boards and ‘stakeholders>shareholders’) would genuinely give the masses more control in their lives, and shift the balance of economic power.

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I think some liberals are wrong to glibly dismiss ‘the will of the people’ as ‘populist’ rhetoric. That strikes an authoritarian tone to me. But I agree with them that it’s not a great idea to outsource thinking on democracy or how nations should be run to inane tabloid slogans. This stuff is complicated!

The will of the people matters. It’s a legitimate subject. But I don’t trust Boris Johnson or tabloid slogans to tell me what it is.

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