Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A new deficit

David Miliband is right – there is a growing democratic vacuum at the heart of Brexit that needs to be filled, writes Conor Pope

It is easy to forget that the prospect of a two-part referendum was not the brainchild of proselytising Europhiles. Back in 2015, the two main proponents of a ‘second referendum’ were Dominic Cummings, who had already signed up to work on the putative ‘Leave’ campaign, and Boris Johnson, who was so taken by the notion that he eventually signed up himself.

Initially, those supporting a Leave vote who trumpeted the idea wanted to make the first referendum appear a less drastic measure, and reduce some of the risk associated with leaving.

Following the result, however, it felt as though the idea was only supported by people who want to stay in at all cost, and damn to the first referendum.

The problem with both of those was that they appeared – fairly or unfairly – purely political positions adopted to increase the chances of them getting their way.

It is an unattractive reason to come to any conclusion. You only need to look at the standard of political discourse right now to see that. No one seems capable of taking anyone else’s views at face value; whether it be Venezuela, the single market, or opposing fascism, everyone is seen to possess an ulterior motive, and their public opinion is simply a Potemkin village to disguise their ugly true feelings.

Some clearly believe that everyone who still raises the subject of a second vote falls into the latter camp: a centrist, establishment ‘Remoaner’, who bristles at the thought public opinion may be considered more important than their own.

However, there has now been a genuine shift in the democratic nature of Brexit. The prime minister who promised to deliver on the result of the referendum resigned as soon as the verdict was delivered, and the one who replaced him went to the country looking for a mandate, only to be stripped of one. She will not now fight another election from Downing Street, and may even be out before the two-year timer on article 50 runs out.

That, then, does leave a democratic deficit in forthcoming negotiations that needs to be filled somehow. Otherwise, as former foreign secretary David Miliband identified this weekend, the whole thing becomes a ‘stitch-up’ towards the agenda of whichever Tory happens to be in the negotiating hot seat at the time. Miliband is now coming under fire for his conclusion that ‘it is essential that parliament or the public are given the chance to have a straight vote between EU membership and the negotiated alternative. That is a democratic demand, not just a prudent one.’ The Express was particularly unhappy yesterday, asking: not the right result first time Dave?’

But ‘Dave’, as I suspect no one as ever called him, is right. I supported a referendum for years. Not because I thought that ‘Remain’ would win (although I did), but because there was a real democratic disconnect between our political institutions and electorate that, if left unchecked, could cause ruptures in our politics. There was real, tangible changes to the Europe we had voted to join in 1975 and the one that existed in 2016. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a growing democratic gap between last year’s vote for action and the end result.

Britain is not taking back control; it is losing it.


Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope


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Conor Pope

is deputy editor at Progress


  • But Britain never had any control when Mr Miliband was Foreign Secretary: for it was he who, along with a Labour government, rammed an EU constitution down our throats.

    But that’s the problem, isn’t it – a political class that doesn’t give a fig about the people of the UK, or what they want of democracy.

    Mr Miliband is typical of a corrupted political/NGO/corporate class that despises real democracy.

  • But what is “real democracy”. The expression of British Democracy, up until the common market referendum of 1975, was by means of representative democracy expressed by universal adult suffrage through the House of Commons. that referendum and more recent ones have now changed this. David Milliband has recognised that there is a clear democratic deficit as the EU referendum result seems to trump the sovereignty of parliament. Who knows what the will of the people is on this issue as the referendum was mainly an expression of national xenophobia with little debate on issues such as a single market and the customs union. These issues were probably only understood by a very small section of the electorate. Maybe a second referendum is the only way to close this circle.

  • How can ‘the people’ have any real democracy on the issue of the EU when there is a three-party stitch-up?

    Free of political tribalism the British public were able – finally – to express their views on the EU.

    I would suggest that the result of the referendum had more legitimacy than the election of most of this country’s governments.

  • So there is now a Lab/Con stitch up.

    What about the 48%?

    Clear majorities voted remain in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London as well as many other cities and areas of the UK.

    Now we have to leave the single market and the customs union without any further say.

    There must be a second referendum on the terms.

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