How can you protest for democracy, when your cause is to ignore democracy?

How can you protest for democracy, when your cause is to ignore democracy?

Whether outside Parliament, the Supreme Court, or with Emily Thornberry at the Labour Party Conference, how is it possible that people can protest against the referendum in the name of democracy? How too is it possible that within the Commons itself, upholding the constitutional decision to leave the EU could be branded hate?

I suspect that we have arrived at a point where identity politics has seeped into our understanding of electoral politics – to the point that there are now two competing versions of democracy at play.

Identity politics emerged from the same tree of life as Tony Blair’s multiculturalism project whose architect, Bhikhu Parekh, believed politics based on the Western idea of the individual (such as one-person, one-vote) failed to accommodate immigrant communities because they saw themselves as a ‘community’.

Within two decades, British politics has been undone by the need to accommodate different concepts of humanity. Wider identity politics has created a direct challenge to our previous conception of electoral politics.

It is great that rights have been established for different groups, but at what cost? Identity politics pushes traditional democratic processes such as elections and political parties aside, opting for protest and campaigns, usually motivated by a need for protection not from the state but from other citizens.

So now there is a generation of voters who have grown up with identity politics who are suspicious of first-past-the-post or, what they might call, ‘binary’ politics.

They ask: how is it possible that a majority could wipe out the rights of a minority through electoral competition? The referendum result is populism and so they must demonstrate in the name of democracy – meaning they must protest outside of the electoral cycle to demand the state secure their rights. For hardcore Remainers, this benign state finds its bodily form not in the British Government but rather in the EU – bureaucratic, undemocratic and offshore.

It is a far cry from what most Leave voters believe to be democracy (and those Remain voters who want the referendum to be honoured). Here, the polling booth is precisely the location where the differing opinions of millions of people can be sifted, the majority view established around a winning manifesto, and a government formed with a programme of action based on that result. Losers accept the result because regular elections, not the state, are the source of fairness in a country.

It also explains two outlooks on the role of Parliament. Leavers want hard-working conscientious representatives making laws whose consequences they are responsible for, constantly mindful of the electorate. For those who view the state as paramount, which appears to be most MPs themselves desperate to stay in the EU, Parliament is there simply as a sitting commentariat with no responsibility for laws – an extension of the protest campaign to secure various rights from the state, bemoaning the Government’s hostility to the state. To them, breaking for party conference season is the Government out to ‘silence’ this ongoing hand-wringing.

These MPs, Remainer QCs and the rest see themselves as aligned with the state and its values – and do not need the censure of the majority voter. Protesters are willing to surrender their agency to the state because they trust it more than themselves and their fellow citizens who are no so aligned.

None can see a day when what they want and what the state wants will differ.

But that day will come. As it did for those Catalan separatist politicians who sit imprisoned for wanting to celebrate EU regional diversity. As it yet might for Premier Corbyn whose vision for a British socialist paradise would be frustrated by free movement of goods, the Common Agricultural Policy or the EU’s growing appetite to run domestic social security, tax and defence.

The power of the vote has waned in British politics while identity politics protest has waxed. Yet with the referendum both groups have seen democracy fail in their lifetime. The only way to protect both the majority and the minority is to respect the referendum result – and with it to reassert the radical power to protect everyone’s rights when we make a mark in the ballot box.