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Is a Referendum a Valid Tool for Democracy?

Roberto Savio is founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.

ROME, Jul 7 2016 (IPS) - William Shakespeare would have loved to witness the Brexit. Many of his themes are evidently present: friendship and treason; truth and lies; deception and betrayal.

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

David Cameron invents a referendum as a trick to get more power from the EU, and unify the Tory party under his leadership. He ends up instead out of Europe, with a possible Scottish cessation, and problems with North Ireland. His friend Boris Johnson, who turns anti EU to get Cameron’s job, has betrayed him. But Johnson does not wish to run for Prime Minister because his friend Michael Gove has betrayed him. And the Brexit has as a collateral damage – the leader of the other party, the Labour, with the majority of its parliamentarians asking Jeremy Corbin to go. He rejects, claiming that the majority of the party members are with him. But then, do not the parliamentarians represent the electorate?

The Brexit provides a strange show of the British political system, considered always the best example of parliamentarian democracy. A referendum is not the basis of a parliamentarian system, where elections are based on parties, with a strong identity and history. Labour electors vote Labour. But a referendum becomes a transversal issue, and in Brexit one third of them voted against the position of the Trade Unions and of the party, which stood for the Remain.

The same has happened with the Tories. At least 35% voted against the Cameron campaign for the Remain. In fact, people voted according to what they felt was their identity. So London along with other cosmopolitan citizens, voted for Remain. Those from the rural world, those who felt left out, voted massively for the Brexit.

Enough has been written about this. And how this kind of neoliberal globalization has failed, creating a growing angry and destitute population . What should we now debate: is referendum a tool for democracy? Let us examine what were the arguments for the Brexit that brought 17 million people to vote to leave the EU. Well, they were false, as the main campaigners for the Brexit themselves, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson have admitted.

The argument that the UK was giving Brussels 350 million pounds per week, and this money could instead go to the National Health System, was a fraud. The net contribution to the EU of 150 million pounds a year is net of what the UK receives from the EU. Brussels’s silence on this issue mainly to avoid meddling in internal politics, was a grave mistake .

Also the argument that by leaving EU, the UK would recover “its independence”, as Johnson said in his closing speech, and the control of its borders was also clearly false. Any future relations with the EU, that would keep UK exports to Europe without customs duty (that is 44% of total British exports), will entail free circulation of European citizens (180.000 in 2015, out of a total of 330.000). Britain already has control over the extra Europeans.

To make tall his credible, the tabloids, which are the real winners of Brexit, launched a campaign indicating that 70 million Turks could invade Britain. This was yet another fraud. Turkey is not a member of the EU, and just one vote from any member country could block an admission request. This was the usual Germany line, until Merkel asked the Turkish leader, Recep Erdogan to help block migrants, by giving the EU the responsibility to pay 3 billion euro.

At the time of the vote, 45% thought it was imminent. Tabloids also announced that after the Brexit, criminals and terrorists would be immediately deported to their country of origin, and of course nobody talks about this any longer. And it was also a fraud to assure that all the subsidies coming from the EU would be substituted by government funds. So for instance, voters from the small town of 18.000 people, Ebbw Vale in Wales, had the highest vote for Brexit: 63%. With an unemployment rate of 40%, the only real income was from the EU development fund. Ebbw Vale received 420 million euro for its industrial development; 40.5 millions for a professional institute, with 29.000 students; 36 million for a new train line; 96 million for upgrading roads: and 14.7 million that citizens did receive at different times. There were very few immigrants. EU did commit to Wales 2.200 million euro within 2020. Will now the government replace these ?

In fact, the referendum has created a dramatic inter-generational problem. The people over 55 years did vote at nearly 70% for the Brexit. Those under 25, voted 75 % for Remain. But only 50% of them went to vote, vis a vis 68% of the older citizens. Therefore, the older people have decided the future of the younger ones. In a progressively ageing world, with fewer young people, this should have us all thinking.

So the question is: with poorly informed people, manipulated by a campaign of fear and lies, is a yes or no referendum a tool of democracy?

But things are more complicated. We live in an era of post ideologies and post parties. To be on the left or on the right is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Without ideologies, discarded with the collapse of Berlin’s wall, politics is becoming just an act of administrative action, where differences disappear. Parties without ideologies carry little motivation and identity. Gone are the times when they were based on strong membership, with a vibrant youth wing. Parties are becoming just movements of opinions, which mobilizes citizens only to vote in a temporary campaign, where hired experts of marketing tools and other instruments of mass communication, have replaced debates on visions and values.

This costs more money than volunteers and corrupts politics. More important yet, Internet and new technologies have changed how people relate to politics. The relation between the parties and voters is not any longer direct, and vertical, as it was at the time of the radio and TV. Let us take the last important elections in Europe: those for electing mayors in Italy. A tide of young and untested mayors took over from an older generation.

A research in Rome conducted by Pragma Sociometrica has found that 36% of voters still use the TV as their primary instrument of information, but 26% use the net. Friends and relatives account for just 5%. And for deciding the vote, 46% made their own judgment via Internet on Virginia Raggi, the new young lady mayor of Rome, and only 18% used Internet and voted the oldest candidate, Giachetti. Dialogue with the candidates on Internet is preferred by 58% of the voters; followed by 48% for videos and 33 % by Facebook. And finally, 30 % by photos. Clearly, the great popular meetings filling public squares are something of the past…

The American website “Vox technology” has published an article: “How Internet is destroying politics”. Web Amazon has decimated libraries ITunes and Pandora with on line music and have uprooted the power of recording houses. On the transportation side, Uber is challenging the taxi’s monopoly. Now is the time of the political system, is the article’s thesis.

The net is progressively reducing the power of the traditional system of information, and cites the progressive candidate Bertie Sanders as an example. No media or any Democrat guru, like Paul Krugman, supported Sanders policies and denounced these as unrealistic. Yet Sanders has been immune to this campaign. Why? Because Sanders supporters did not read papers, but went on the net and created their own circle, immune to the traditional information’s system, where Clinton was overwhelming.

According to the pollster from El Pais, the Brexit in the recent Spanish elections, pushed people to take less risks, reinforcing the governing Popular Party (regardless of a string of corruption cases) and reducing the appeal of Podemos, the party of alternative. Yet Marine Le Pen, the French rightist leader, called a press conference to welcome Brexit, as did Donald Trump, Gehert Wilders and all the leaders of the xenophobic, nationalist and populist parties which are growing everywhere. They are already in power in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia…and if Brexit has a domino effect (as many fear), the future is not going to be helpful for democracy. Already several of them has been calling for their national referendum, convinced that they would all be like Brexit…Campaign of fear will run through all Europe….

We now have an unexpected observatory coming up soon. Austrian elections, where the extreme right wing lost by only 30.000 votes, have been annulled for irregularities, and new ones are due. This time victory should be clearer. If the extreme right wing wins, this will have a strong impact on the coming elections in France and Germany. And then, the destiny of Europe as a political project will be sealed.

Will the traditional political elite be able to take lessons from the reality, and change austerity for growth, banks as a priority of youth, come back to a debate of ideas and visions, values and ideals? Begin to discuss at least social remedies in the face of the disasters of an unregulated globalization? Or will it repeat the Byzantines discussing about the angel’s sex, while the Turks were entering Costantipolis?

 
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  • Albeniz

    I think you mean £150 million/ week not /year.
    I like the Shakespearean analogies. Evidently Gove thought Johnson like Prince Hal, who would quickly sober up and take the mantle of king – he realized at the 11th hour that he was only the fool.

    I think most people gave up on the claims of the campaign – on both sides – and voted with their gut. We have been lied to so often about so much that you end up going on instinct.
    I voted out because the EU is stagnant and incapable of reform from within. The Greek crisis is a clear confirmation of Rodrik’s Trilemma.

  • Philip Ward

    There is a mistake in the figures: the number of Tory voters who went against Cameron’s remain position wasn’t 35%: it was 58% (according to Ashcroft’s polling) and was decisive in the Brexit decision.

  • ProsperityForRI

    I used to live in a place with frequent referendums. Sometimes the big money won, sometimes the people won. But the results for the people were at least as good, and probably better, than what legislators did. Politics is changing. the internet, but also becasue politiicians refuse to recognize and talk about the end of growth and the need for a steady state economy,. As long as politicians promise growthm, but find it nearly impossible to deliver except when creating bubbles, you are going to get nativist votes like Brexit.

    The place I live in now does not normally let the people vote to prevent bad things from being b uilt. A bill came to the legislature asking for the people to be able to vote on a project. The politicians said we do not want the people to vote. That tells me how important referendums are. And how unlikely we are to get good results from the politicians.

  • Roberto Savio

    Well, this is a later gallup…I used the one immediately after the vote…thous new one makes things even worst for Cameron…

  • Roberto Savio

    The issue of contribution is very complicate, albeniz
    1. UK is paying less that its due, because of Thatchier negotiations: I want my money back”.
    2. the Uk gives an amount to UK, under various titles ( development of poor areas, agriculture, culture, infrastructure, research, etc). Fro the 350 per week, it went dow immediately after the referendum to 150, according the very Nigel Farage. Not so, says Bruxelles: the neat result is just 150 millions per year. Now, today, the last figure is 500 million per year as net british contribution. I find unbelievable that this remains an elusive issue…But the point is that the figure was exaggerated knowingly…
    3. 3)No doubt that people vote with gut. Now we have the austrian elections: then the dutch; then the French; then the german; plus an hungarian referendum, and a Slovak referendum, and possibly one from Prague and an ochre from Warsaw. Which kind of Europe will emerge?