7 July 2016
If I were participating in a TV vox pop, I might say something like: my name is Cathy, I live in London and I voted Remain. I might add that I am heartbroken not only because of the dire consequences coming our way, but also because I feel that a crucial element of my identity has been torn away from me. I feel like a European, but my European citizenship is in question. I also feel bereft and cast adrift because I voted differently from my hometown, Bury, and from the type of Northern working class voters that I had always felt were part of my coalition, as a Northern English Labour voter. Not to mention the way my party is in a state of collapse. A Leave voter, or Corbyn supporter, might then remind me that the people have spoken and the democratic mandate of their side is legitimate and must be respected. After all, isn’t democracy the best and most peaceful way of resolving our disputes in a world of profound and irresolvable difference?
There are some assumptions in all this that are not often put into question, but which we might want to give a second look. First, that elections and referenda are a way of expressing and giving voice to identities and allegiances. Second, that the outcome of a referendum or election is sacrosanct because it is democratic. And third, that democracy is a peaceful way of resolving difference. Let’s look at them in turn.
Voting your identity
In a liberal democracy where governments are expected to promote the economic and social flourishing of the population, information is required. The government needs to know what the people want, need and prefer. Elections, referenda, opinion polling and focus groups all act as technologies that enable governments to get that information; elections are widely understood to reveal the preferences of voters. However, have you considered how much more European you felt after you put your cross in that “Remain” box or how much more proud you felt as Brit after voting “Leave”? We need to take seriously the idea that elections don’t just reveal preferences and identities: they also produce them. Could you imagine a huge march of young people waving EU flags even a couple of weeks ago? Decanting all your beliefs, ideas, commitments and social ties into one box both creates and solidifies the identity that box comes to represent. And you don’t necessarily get to decide what the box means.
An example from history might best illuminate what I mean by this. In 1945, the British government had determined to quit India, but didn’t know who to hand over power to. As Yasmin Khan has explained, the way of determining an answer that seemed most legitimate and efficient was to hold an Indian general election. At stake, particularly in Punjab, was the crucial question of whether India would be divided into two countries or remain united on independence. The outcome was by no means inevitable: as recently as 1937 the Punjab Unionist Party which appealed across Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communal divides had won convincingly in the seats reserved for Muslims and the Muslim League had fielded just seven candidates and won two seats. What changed in the elections in 1945/6 when they won a landslide 75 out of 85 seats? Well, it’s complicated, but David Gilmartin has shown that the logic of quantification, of having to boil down all their conflicting allegiances, preferences, friendships, hopes, beliefs and interests into one cross in a box was crucial to the Muslim League’s victory. Voters were inspired and encouraged to vote “for Pakistan” as a way of kicking back against the local power of both the wealthy, elite British and their Hindu neighbours. Khan suggests that no-one really knew what they were voting for when they voted “for Pakistan”: rather than an independent and separate nation state, many were simply voting for Muslim dignity, representation and equal esteem. Nevertheless, the result was read off by India’s British rulers, encouraged by the winner Mohammed Ali Jinnah, to mean that India should be divided in two – an irreversible decision that now has the false aura of inevitability about it.
Just as a set of separate and novel Pakistani identities were produced and strengthened by that vote, so we now have new categories of people in our electorate: the Remainers and the Brexiteers. We have started finding common cause and identity with one another because our range of dreams, aspirations and desires have been channelled into that one common cross in a box, even though in 2015 we might well have belonged to quite different tribes with quite other kinds of co-voters. This represents an existential risk to the Labour Party, as the identities that it used to articulate start to divide and fragment.
Another lesson from that Indian election is that new coalitions for “Pakistan” were founded through appeals to the imagination, to stories about history and time, to deeply held religious faith. This is what we need right now: on the left we are great at quoting facts and statistics, but the great art of story-telling – which might include making people laugh as well as well up in tears with empathy or pride – is falling into disrepair. We Remainers never managed to craft a story about what it means to be European. The Labour Party needs now to focus on developing narratives – maybe inspiring, maybe humorous, maybe just heartbreaking accounts of the Gove/May alternative – that prod us into action, lift spirits or gladden hearts. As Patrick Jackson of the American University in Washington rightly tweeted:
what we are doing is narrating the world into existence, emplotting things that matter in ways that make them accessible to political solutions. It’s not like politics was ever non-rhetorical and purely “fact-based” anyway; that claim is *itself* a piece of political rhetoric!
Rehearsing dry facts in the most boring and beige manner possible because you are absolutely convinced you are right is not going to change the world; showing through story that the ending might be different is the only thing that ever has.
Voting as the highest form of democracy
Despite the ebb and flow of hopes about Breversal and Bredemption, most politicians and leaders now seem to claim that this democratic vote should be the end of the matter: the people have spoken. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are likewise adamant that their ability to get Labour Party members, if not voters, to put their cross in a box for him settles the question. It is the democratic nature of the outcome that makes it seem so final.
However, it is worth noting that liberal electoral democracy is one model of democracy – one of the most contested ideas in political history. Even in liberal democracies, the wisdom of referenda is much contested and for constitutional matters a much higher threshold than a simple majority of whoever turns out is often required. Referenda are in any case highly majoritarian: if you lose, you lose everything with no chance of recourse. This is the opposite logic to the general election which offers any option able to win 48% a significant institutional role in opposition and a chance to fight again.
Furthermore, liberal democracies have various different rules: if we had a proportional electoral system which denied the Conservatives an absolute majority in Parliament on a 37% share of the vote, we might assume that this referendum would never have been called. Moreover, as experiments with deliberative institutions and citizens’ juries have shown, a change in the rules of game, the information available, the amount of time set aside to talk to other people and reflect on your decision, can all decisively change the outcome.
The discourse of democracy is attractive and as a matter of practical politics, perhaps the result of this referendum does set us on an inevitable path to Brexit. Similarly, the contending forces of the party and general electorate might make a Labour split inevitable. However, the idea that a democratic majoritarian vote makes this decision final because of its unquestionable legitimacy ignores the many forms that democracy can take and perhaps gives liberal electoral politics more credit than it seems to deserve. The future is not written yet and there is much that democratic discussion and debate might still achieve. The Labour Party might play a role in questioning the deadening grip of electoral politics, drawing on its old co-operative tradition to work out ways of involving people in more discursive democracy and encouraging genuine engagement in debate through an immersion in communities, local problems, lived experience and ongoing relationships. That’s also something we could tell stories about.
Democracy as quintessentially peaceful
It is a truism of democratic theory that democracy is a peaceful way of resolving intractable differences that might otherwise erupt into violence. Liberal electoral democracy is therefore put forward as the solution to all violence. This cliché is what Nigel Farage was alluding to when he said that the UK had gained “independence” “without a bullet being fired”, just a week after MP Jo Cox was killed with a gun.
As the spate of racist attacks in the past few days have demonstrated, there is more to the story of the democracy than perpetual peace. I argued above that the quantification of preferences produces and solidifies identities. Not only this, but it also produces and solidifies “the other” or indeed others. A mass of carefully crafted relationships, compromises and shared stories are disrupted by the narrative that you are “Leave” or “Remain”, British or foreigner, EU or Commonwealth citizen (in which only the latter had the right to vote), Blairite or Corbynista. Suddenly we are tied to identities that perhaps we scarcely knew we had and torn from others that we thought we were linked to inextricably. We are given to understand ourselves not as subjects with multiple relationships, communities and sometimes contradictory ties, but as voters whose preferences can be read off from the ballot paper and tallied up. This creation of division from others is exactly what can provoke and not solve violence.
For hundreds of years, Hindus and Muslims in Punjab had lived peacefully alongside each other, taking part in one another’s festivals, borrowing from one another’s legal traditions, with religious commitments only one set of ties amongst a range of class, linguistic and spatial communities held together by intricate ties of patronage and loyalty. It was a quantifying logic that drove the British, with help from Indian elites, to institute separate canteens and drinking taps, official calendars with separate holidays and festivals, censuses, maps, rule-books and laws that all relied on a notion of completely separate religious communities. The invention of these sociological categories also created the possibility not only for separate electorates but also for the very idea of a vote “for Pakistan”, and the very notion of a Muslim voter.
As India and Pakistan celebrated their independence on 15 August 1947, Lord and Lady Mountbatten – the last white posh English rulers of British India who had called the Punjab election– flew between celebrations in Karachi and Delhi. As their plane went over Punjab, they looked out over the fires already breaking out below. I am not someone who believes that history inevitably repeats itself or that Brexit will necessarily create conflict with our next door, or our European, neighbours. However, we will need a better, more discursive, more relational, more imaginative conception of democracy to ensure we avoid it.
Cathy Elliott is Senior Teaching Fellow in Political Science at University College London. Her new book Democracy Promotion as Foreign Policy: Temporal Othering in International Relations will be published by Routledge in the autumn.
To support Renewal’s work promoting productive debate across the British left and get the whole journal every quarter, please subscribe.