British democracy has been hollowed out by neoliberalism – and Brexit will make it a whole lot worse

Labour's offer on the economy would give agency back to forgotten parts of the UK. But leaving the EU could jeopardise their programme

Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan discusses Brexit issues with Tooting constituents

The Leave campaign slogan “Take Back Control” turns out to mean control by Boris Johnson and the majority of the 160,000 members of the Conservative Party who elected him. He is threatening to prorogue parliament and crash out of the European Union despite widespread opposition and despite everything we know about the dangerous economic and social consequences and the years of negotiations and political polarisation that will follow. On his watch, Brexit will never be over.

If Labour is to develop an effective opposition to Johnson and his ilk, it needs to reclaim the slogan “take back control” and show that the message can only be achieved in actuality through a strategy of remaining inside the EU and transforming democracy in both Britain and Europe. The Brexit vote, at least in areas hardest hit by the decline of manufacturing and mining in the south as well as the north, was a howl of protest about not being heard in either Westminster or Brussels.

In a project about the local impact of Brexit undertaken at LSE, people expressed concerns about skills, infrastructure, jobs and to a lesser degree immigration but their most salient demand was political empowerment.

In discussions in Pendle, for example, people talked about the need for regional devolution, while in Mansfield, those involved in the discussions felt the need for a local political forum. Four decades of neoliberalism has hugely eroded what political theorists call substantive democracy – the ability to participate in the decisions that affect your life. “We have a vote not a voice” said the Spanish indignados.

The reasons are partly to do with globalisation – the decisions that affect our lives are no longer taken at local levels nor even in Westminster – they are taken in the headquarters of multinational corporations, on the laptops of financial speculators, or in Brussels, New York, Beijing or Washington DC.

But it also has to do with developments at the national level including the ever increasing centralisation of power and the way the technology of elections and the monopolisation of the media has constructed politicians who only say what they think the so-called floating voter wants to hear, thereby creating a sort of political echo chamber.

But perhaps most importantly, the rise of finance as a share of GDP and source of state of revenue, combined with the contracting out culture, has produced a new sort of money-based politics in which access to power is an end in itself and has more to do with rewarding supporters than with the future of the country.

Brexit will not address any of these obstacles to substantive democracy. It will only make them worse as Johnson’s behaviour vividly illustrates. Trade deals nowadays are more about regulation than quotas and tariffs.

A soft Brexit, remaining in the customs union and perhaps also the single market will leave us subject to EU rules without any participation; actually up to now, the UK has been responsible for a large proportion of EU regulations and only a very tiny share (less than 4 per cent) of rules opposed by Britain have been adopted.

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A hard Brexit would mean seeking deals with the US and being subject to US regulation or non-regulation. A hard Brexit would mean we become much poorer, are much more vulnerable to globalisation, and less able to devolve power.

So how could we take back control? First we would need to stay in the European Union and, together with our socialist and green allies, push for measures to restrain the worst aspects of globalisation – controlling financial speculation, closing down multinational tax havens, or reducing carbon emissions.

Actually the European parliament does have the power to amend legislation, approve appointments and approve the budgets. It’s just up to now these powers have not been used sufficiently for progressive purposes. The European Citizens Initiative is another mechanism for democratic accountability; it was the use of this mechanism that stopped the neoliberal TTIP (Transatlantic, Trade and Investment Partnership).

Such measures would open up the possibilities for devolving power to local and regional levels, creating democratic space in which decisions could be made nearer to the citizen and hence could be more participatory.

Labour would need to take advantage of these spaces and promote a nationwide debate about devolution along with building a participatory/power-sharing approach to local planning, the running of public companies and services, and the workplace – policies that are being designed by John McDonnell and his team through extensive consultation. Labour needs to be able to show that an ambitious programme of green investment could be shaped by people for people and not just according to the vagaries of big business.

Labour has become the party of Remain despite the endless wobbles. If an election is called this autumn, which is highly likely, Labour needs to be able to forward a strong and inspiring campaign that could bring Remainers on board as the best way to beat Johnson and prevent Brexit and show Labour Leavers that this is the real route to taking back control.

Mary Kaldor is a politics professor at the London School of Economics

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