Members of the European Union parliament vote in Strasbourg, December 2013. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty.
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The EU has provided us with the best Europe we’ve ever had

Far from giving a voice to the people, the point of an EU referendum is to give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.

We hear about the tactics of a referendum on membership of the European Union but little about the points of principle and substance that it raises. We need to look at these, too, otherwise we could sleepwalk into something stupid.

Why does David Cameron want a referendum on Europe?

That is simple. It is for the same reason as Harold Wilson proposed one in 1975: to deal with his divided party by appealing to higher authority. There is no popular demand for a referendum, but if you ask people in opinion polls whether they want to have a vote on EU membership, you can get a positive answer; if you backed a poll with a media campaign, you could probably get the same answer on many questions.

We have not seen large demonstrations demanding a referendum. Indeed, most voters do not care much about the EU: it comes somewhere between tenth and 15th in the issues voters list as important. Even for Ukip voters, the EU is not the most important question.

The big demand for a referendum comes from those in the Conservative Party who want to leave the EU but can’t see a way to get a majority in parliament for it. Cameron himself probably doesn’t want to take Britain out of Europe; hence his policy of trying to put this off until after the next election, in the hope that something may turn up.

Cameron’s position, though not noble, is understandable – it reflects weakness. It is less easy to understand why some in the Labour Party want to imitate it. Is it because they are afraid of the proposition that “the British people should have the right to choose”? This leads to a second question.

Are referendums a good way to make decisions?

This is also easy to answer: no. It is shameful that few political leaders are ready to say so. Democracy is not just about voting. It is also about debate and about responsibility.

Debate is necessary to understand complex issues. We invented representative democracy because debate is time-consuming and it is not practical in a modern state to assemble the whole population in market squares to debate issues. (In Athens the people were able to do this because citizens were few and they had helots and women to do the work.) Under the system of government “by the people”, the people choose the government and then hold it accountable when they don’t like what it does. If referendums are “more democratic” than decisions by parliament, why not make decisions about taxation or electricity prices by referendum, as has been tried in California (and then the lights went out)? When bad decisions are made in this way, who takes responsibility?

For years, both parties resisted calls for  a referendum on capital punishment because they feared there would be a majority in favour of it. Over time and through long debates, parliament became convinced by the evidence that capital punishment had no deterrent value and that innocent people had been hanged. Yet they feared that, in a referendum, the debate would be shallow and voters would follow prejudice rather than the evidence.

The referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) showed how difficult it can be to generate a serious debate on matters that are important but complicated where mastery of the detail demands time.

Yes, but shouldn’t we decide constitutional questions by referendum?

We seem to be drifting towards this idea. Recently on the Today programme in a discussion about some question of British institutions (it may have been the size of the House of Lords), one of the presenters said: “But isn’t this the sort of thing we’d have to have a referendum on?” We don’t have to have a referendum on anything unless parliament decides to call one.

If we did decide that constitutional change required a referendum, we would have to start by defining what was and  what was not a constitutional question. Many laws – on race relations, capital punishment, the franchise and electoral systems, abortion – might or might not be part of a constitution.

Our present system of making no distinction between constitutional and other law gives us a flexible system. Usually constitutions are written as though they were going to last for ever; they never do. Some of the most important parts of the US constitution are in the amendments to it; yet now it seems impossible to secure further amendment. So the Supreme Court ends up doing a job that belongs in the political and not in the legal arena.

The sovereignty of parliament is a good principle because it allows maximum space for political decision-making and maximum opportunity for debate on issues  that are always complex. It is alarming  that no one, including those in the party  of Edmund Burke, seems ready to defend this principle.

In 1975 they did better. A powerful speech was made opposing the Wilson referendum by the new leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher. Since then parliament seems to have lost confidence in itself. So, we might ask:

What has gone wrong with parliament?

This is less easy to answer. There is a growing feeling of separation between the mass of the people and the so-called political class. The Conservative Party’s very obsession with the EU illustrates this. Far from giving a voice to the people, the point of a referendum is to give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.

One reason why people feel less represented by the House of Commons is that the two big parties are less representative of the people than they used to be. In the 1950s the Conservative Party had three million members and the Labour Party one million, together with an organic link to a broadly based trade union movement. Both parties were social as well as political organisations. They reflected a society more sharply divided and less diverse than today’s; but between them they were representative of the population in a way that their successors today are not.

Having parties that are dominant (because of the electoral system) but weak (because they are disconnected from society) together with a chamber strong on party discipline and adversarial politics is not an attractive combination. It is only on the rare occasions when this breaks down – as recently over Syria – that we get a little of the thrill of democracy in action.

And so what is to be done?

We ought to understand democracy as an evolutionary process. We are lucky to have a constitution that makes change easy. Constitutions need to keep in step with an evolving society.

In the 65 years between 1880 and 1945 we went through several constitutional revolutions. In the 65-plus years since 1945, however, not much has changed, at least not compared to the vast and sweeping changes in British society.

An open debate is needed. My own answers would be to effect a change in the electoral system to make politics more competitive, and to make parties more open to influence from the voters. Add a House of Lords chosen by lottery, as juries are. This would require some thought and reorganisation. But it would give us two houses, each representing the people in a different sense of the term “represent”.

Churchill’s remark that the best argument against democracy is a three-minute conversation with the average voter is apposite as an argument against referendums: three minutes of conversation or consideration is no way to make sense of anything. But a representative sample of the electorate, free from party whips and debating issues that matter to ordinary people, would breathe new life into parliament.

While we are at it we should do something about the funding of political parties. The present non-system brings unhealthy relations with the few, and the distrust of the many. How about a system in which all taxpayers could allocate a tiny part of their taxes, either to the government budget of their choice – health, education, development, defence – or to a political party? Plus strict limits on donations.

The chances of such a radical programme are not great. Those in power often think that the arrangements which got them there must, ipso facto, be a good thing. Yet the renewal of states very often begins with renewal of institutions.

Such changes would be experiments. Put them in place for ten years, with a sunset clause; then debate them again. In the end, democracy is one long experiment.

But this is straying from the main subject.

Wouldn’t a referendum settle the question of the EU once and for all?

No. If that were the case, it would have been settled by the 1975 referendum – when two-thirds of the British voters elected to remain in the EU.

Those who want to leave now argue that we were tricked, or that Britain has changed since then, or that the EU has changed. These arguments will be available again whenever anyone wants to use them.

Is that all? No. We should also fear  the referendum because it might end in Britain leaving the European Union.

Probably some of those who tell opinion pollsters that they would vote to leave would think again if the question became real. But the conditions are different from those of 1975. The leading figures opposing membership then were from the fringes (Peter Shore, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn) and the media were almost unanimously in favour. Now we have had ten years of the drumbeat of media opposition.

Referendums are unpredictable – never a good way to govern a country – and we might end up out. That would be stupid.


In broad terms there are three ways of looking at the EU. On a practical level, the main product of the EU is regulation. There is good regulation and bad regulation; but there is no escape. No one is going to buy British products that do not meet inter­national standards. Those standards are set mostly by the EU or the US. If the UK wants to be at the table when the standards are  set it has to belong to the EU; otherwise it will have to follow regulations that someone else has made.

From the point of view of realpolitik, which is the usual British way of thinking about foreign policy, a permanent coalition of European states to which we did not belong is the nightmare of British policymakers through all the ages, as I think Douglas Hurd once said. Happily, today this would not be a coalition that would threaten British security, but it might be tempted from time to time to take economic advantage of the UK’s absence to organise things in ways that suited their interests and not ours. In fact, it would be a surprise if it didn’t. Ask Norway; or look at how the EU developed in Britain’s absence from 1956 to 1973.

Or, if you believe (as I do) that international politics does not always have to be about the balance of power, the EU (with its twin, Nato) is, for all its faults, a kind of political miracle: the most successful collaboration among sovereign states ever achieved. In spite of the mess of the euro, it is still admired and imitated on other continents. This is the best Europe we have ever had; and Britain, as an influential member, has been a force for good in it. Both altruism and self-interest tell us to remain.

These three perspectives – which are not contradictory – all point to one conclusion. Much in the EU needs to be fixed. With 28 sovereign states around the table, that will be a slow and clumsy process. But the euro crisis has brought a more sober mood and the advocates of unending integration in every area are a dying breed.

There could not be a better moment to work with others for a programme of reform. That would make sense. A referendum makes none. l

Robert Cooper worked for Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton at the EU until last year. He is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror