In assessing the left-wing case for a second EU referendum it may be useful to start with what the referendum is not about. It is not about the people’s will. It is not about legitimacy. And it is not about truth. A second referendum cannot promote any of these things for the same reason that the first referendum could not.
The will of the people (or the relevant voting subset)
Take the people’s will. Opposition to the idea of a second referendum is often voiced in the name of defending popular sovereignty. On 23 June 2016, the people spoke. The people must not be asked again. If they somehow got the decision right the first time around, there is serious reason to worry that the second time they will be confused or side-tracked. Therefore, better not try to find out. So goes the left case against a second referendum.
The truth is, we only know what the people’s will is if we know who the people are. When leftist champions of popular sovereignty celebrate the “will of the people”, what they are celebrating is merely the will of those with a British passport and a right to vote. The will of everyone else is pretty much irrelevant. Compare this to an argument about the franchise in the 19th and early 20th century. If the requirement to respect the will of the people had been invoked then in the way it is now, the will of the people would have remained the will of propertied men over a certain age. If the left then had used the same arguments about popular sovereignty that the left uses now, the workers, the poor, women and those in the colonies would have never be included in the franchise.
Historically, the radical democratic left – the left that was truly committed to the ideal of popular sovereignty – had a view of “the people” that amounted to much more than who was on the electoral register. Radical democrats, from Rousseau to Marx, thought that political decisions reflect the people’s will to the extent that the people who are affected by such decisions have a say when those decisions are made. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out exactly who is affected and how. But in the case of Brexit, who is affected and who is excluded by the decision is relatively straightforward.
There are more than three and a half million EU citizens in the UK whose lives are affected by Brexit and who were denied a say in the referendum. Short of a new suffrage revolution, they will be ignored in a second referendum too. So will the views of millions of other resident migrants. Therefore, a referendum – first, second, third or fourth – can be anything but reflective of the people’s will. If you want to ask what the people want, you first need to put them, all of them, in a position to give you an answer. A good first approximation would be to give them the right to vote.
Now take legitimacy. A decision is legitimate when those who contribute to that decision give their informed consent. In the case of the first referendum, it has become clear that consent to leave the EU was not informed. The people (or the relevant voting subset) did not know what the EU exactly was or did. They did not know what the implications of leaving it would be. And it turned out that a number of things they were told about it during the referendum campaign were lies. As things stand, there is no guarantee that we know better.
All this may sound like a reason to stick with the decision to leave. Who wants to be part of an institution that lacks transparency to such a degree that only experts can figure out what it is about? The trouble is that the capitalist state is no better. We may not know how the EU exactly works. We may not know how long it will take before it can be reformed. But we do know that we live in a capitalist system and that the United Kingdom is as much part of it as the European Union. And we also know (or should know) that in a capitalist system, business interests, the information industry, most of the political class, and much of the administrative apparatus often collude to promote particular interests at the expense of the people’s will.
The United Kingdom is every bit as neoliberal, every bit as capitalist as the EU. The very least you can do in a capitalist society where information is regularly distorted by market processes is wonder to what extent consent really is informed. We did not need to hear about campaign lies or about Cambridge Analytica to worry about the quality of voting decisions in the UK, or indeed pretty much everywhere else. Poverty, lack of education, lack of access to unbiased information, lack of representation in relevant offices and positions all contribute to opaque decisions being made by a few powerful elites and imposed on the majority of people.
There is no reason to believe that the consent produced by a second referendum will be more informed than that produced by the first. And there is reason to suspect that the legitimacy of a second referendum would be just as questionable as the legitimacy of the first. A decade of Tory austerity has not made any of this better.
In light of all this, a second referendum has as little epistemic value as the first. It is not about the truth. It is not about finding out whether to Leave or to Remain or whether to leave with a deal or no deal. If the process that leads to a particular decision is distorted, the outcome will be distorted too. A second referendum will not give us the right answer on what the people really want. The result, whichever way it goes, will be as divisive and as contested the second or third time round as it was the first.
There was a time when the radical left’s approach to the question of what to do about the state was a strategic-pragmatic one. There were no illusions about what the state is and does, and about the constraints of democracy in a capitalist society. The same goes for any network of international cooperation between states. Popular sovereignty was an ideal rather than a reality. Self-government could be fully realised with radically transformed political and economic structures. Of course, many people are sceptical of these claims. For those that take them seriously, the task is to build a democratic, pluralistic and unitary movement that challenges the dominant orthodoxy. It is unfortunate that the Brexit debate has divided the left between lovers and haters of the European Union. The EU is not an ideal and it is not an end in itself: it is a means to an end. The question of whether to stay or leave is not really a question of principle but a question of context, alliances, timing and strategy. This is what the debate should be about, not whether to respect or ignore the first referendum’s result.
But what can the left do in a context where the people’s will is unknown, the legitimacy of decisions is distorted, and the right answer unlikely to emerge? What is left to the Labour Party? Should it support a second referendum? Should it endorse a no-deal Brexit?
What remains for the Labour Party to do is to work within politics as it is, and to envisage society as it should be. The answer to isolation, exclusion, disenfranchisement, political apathy, ideological distortion and lack of trust in politics is collective mobilisation. It is political practice under conditions of imperfect representation, uncertainty, risk of instrumentalisation and potential manipulation by those with different principles and aims.
The key to Labour’s success so far is not that it has discovered the magic ingredient to the election-winning recipe – it has not. What has set Labour apart from the other mainstream social-democratic parties in Europe has been its clear anti-austerity message promoted through a notable expansion in membership. All that has been achieved, despite the hostility of mainstream media, the scaremongering about electoral wipe-out and despite having campaigned to remain and reform in the first referendum (something that Lexiteers are often inclined to forget).
The majority of Labour members and supporters are committed to social equality and international solidarity. They want to end the hostile environment towards immigrants. They are opposed to a no-deal Brexit. Their views are at the source of a hugely important and unprecedented revival of democratic activism. The party leadership has obligations to its members, and promoting their political commitments is arguably one of the most important. It is true that during the 2017 election Labour campaigned to deliver Brexit. But Labour lost that election. In light of current events, the priority must be how to take the matter forward in a way that promotes the party’s goals while preserving the unity and strength of the movement.
During its 2018 general conference, it was agreed that Labour would seek to trigger a confidence vote in the government, press for a general election and, short of that, ask for a second referendum. It was also agreed that the party would do all it could to avert a no-deal Brexit. The party has delivered on the first two and it needs to do the same with the third. It must do that regardless of the risks of the proposal being turned down in parliament, regardless of what the polls say on any given day, and regardless of the threat of its claims being instrumentalised or distorted by centrist elites with very different aims. Every political decision runs the risk of being manipulated by one’s political adversaries. Every political decision is likely to backfire. The right way to limit the damage is to make the process leading up to that decision as open and inclusive, as democratic as possible. It is to involve members at every stage of the process, not just when it comes to distributing leaflets and knocking on doors.
Labour Party members have already discussed whether to have a second referendum. The overwhelming response was that in the event of a possible no-deal Brexit all options were on the table. Other options are quickly being exhausted, and the time and venue for debate was the party conference. It is the commitment to the outcome of that debate that must be honoured now.
In line with conference resolutions, it would be rather disingenuous to put the referendum question off the table, pretending it was never meant seriously. The question to ask is not whether to have a referendum but how to make it work. For that, the party must go back to its members and thoroughly involve them in the process. It must consult with the base on all key issues: when to hold the referendum, what the question on the ballot should be, and how to develop the party’s response and strategy in an eventual campaign.
The leadership has no claim to know better than members, and when the stakes are so high it must share responsibility with them. If there is a case for a second referendum, this is the only plausible argument for it.
Lea Ypi is a professor in political theory at the London School of Economics.
This piece first appeared as a blog post on the London School of Economics’ British Politics and Policy Blog.