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We don't live in a world in which post-truth politics is inevitable

Democracy requires a citizenship that meets, deliberates and interacts without fear and hatred. Only in this way can we work together as a diverse community.

“Take back control” has been an intoxicating rallying call to voters, not just in Britain but in the United States and many other parts of the world. People are “making themselves heard” in elections and referendums. Their votes are signalling that they no longer trust or feel linked to establishment politicians and institutions. For politicians, the quick fixes of direct democracy and nativism are proving difficult to resist. Yet these will erode democracy. The necessary alternative is to renovate democratic politics, and fast.

On 23 January 2013, when David Cameron announced a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, he declared, “It is time for the British people to have their say.” Likewise, across the world, other leaders who have to take difficult ­decisions are referring issues to the public. In Colombia, it was the peace deal that took four years to negotiate; in Hungary, it was immigration policy; in Italy, constitutional reform. In the United States, “ballot propositions” are continually put to the electorate. As a voter in California remarked, “Along with my vote for president, I had to answer 41 ballots.”

When elected politicians hold referendums to give people a say, it is surely a sign that the foundations of democracy are weak. In Britain, as in many other democracies, people have their say in various ways. They form associations or join political parties or unions; they lobby; they write to newspapers; they take part in television discussions; they write to the Prime Minister; they vote in local, regional and national elections. They badger their local MP, church or school. If these no longer work, the solution is not to offer citizens the chance to answer a one-off question.

Referendum results are seldom a reliable indication of voters’ specific preferences in response to the one-off question. When in March this year New Zealand offered its citizens a chance to choose between two national flags, many voted for or against the design as a way of voting either for or against the prime minister (who had made his preference clear), or they voted for or against the process by which the selection was made.

Referendums, however, have more pernicious effects. They tempt politicians to replace their duty to make decisions carefully with a crude majoritarianism. Demo­cracies have derived ways to avoid this. Representative democracy requires politicians to balance competing interests and to take minorities into account. In Colombia, a tiny majority of half a percentage point was opposed to the peace agreement. “The six million of us who voted Yes also should be heard,” said Freddy León, a 25-year-old engineer who marched after the outcome, holding a candle in his fist. “This is a way for us to show the impotence we feel.”

Worst of all, referendums permit politicians to avoid responsibility. When Cameron launched the 2016 referendum, he said, “It is time for us to settle this question about Britain and Europe.” But who is the “us” who should settle such questions? The word “referendum” means to refer something. And politicians – as we are seeing all over the world – love to refer things, particularly to avoid consequences that would be detrimental to their career or party.

When Britain’s first referendum, on the European Economic Community, was held in 1975, Margaret Thatcher made a staunch argument against it. Without the protections and definition afforded by a written constitution, she argued, referendums sacrifice parliamentary sovereignty to political expediency. They might seem “democratically” to give people a voice but, in practice, they permit a difficult decision to be made without anyone being held to account.

Direct democracy is not a good solution to failures of representative politics. Representative democracy recognises that good decisions are not the result of simply aggregating individual preferences. Someone has to take responsibility for bringing together the interests, information and institutions required to decide. If politicians do the job badly, voters can throw them out of office.

Direct democracy is not the only corrosive force at work. The other is nativism, blaming foreigners – at home and abroad – for the things that people most fear: the loss of their job, their house, their security. It is astonishing how quickly nativism has crept into mainstream debate and media. In 2016, a presidential candidate in France suggested locking up (without judicial authorisation) Muslims suspected of extremist tendencies; the US president-elect implied that the foreign heritage of an American judge gave reason to question his impartiality; and the British Home Secretary has proposed publicly that UK firms be required to publish lists of the foreigners working for them.

When politicians stoke fear and resentment between groups in their society, the result can be a vicious circle of conflict and violence. People become more scared to go to the same school or to live in the same area as those deemed the other. Yet it is precisely this mixing that reduces fear and makes social cohesion possible. When the lives of different groups are separate, their fears grow. In societies as diverse as Britain, the US and France, this is dangerous stuff.

As well as the risks of nativist rhetoric by politicians, social media and online interactions are reinforcing separation, creating echo chambers in which like-minded people endorse each other’s views.

Democracy requires a citizenship that meets, deliberates and interacts without fear and hatred. It requires organisations that give people a “voice” and a feeling that they have a stake and some influence in the system, just as early steps in political enfranchisement and organisation helped the US and the UK to preserve democracy in the 1930s. It also needs public spaces and debates in which people interact and discover communalities and differences that they would otherwise ignore.

Renovating democracy can take place by innovating how communities engage with political challenges and decisions. We do not live in a world where “post-truth politics” is inevitable. My academic colleagues in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford have demonstrated the positive effects of getting citizens to engage and deliberate on substantive issues, and how this shifts voting away from personality politics – in locations from West Africa to the Philippines.

Equally importantly, democracy needs online innovation. Technologists, media companies and entrepreneurs must rethink the online spaces and social media that they have created and start reshaping them to help diverse societies cohere. When Microsoft created Windows, it created the possibility of multiple lenses or views of any issue. Why not build on that? A renovation of  democracy should permit people genuinely to take back control as a diverse community, and to participate in a society and political system that holds together, rather than cracking apart.

Ngaire Woods is the Professor of Global Economic Governance at Oxford

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.