When people go to the polls on Thursday, many will for the third time be voting to leave the EU: they will also be voting to restore to Britain’s democracy and the principle on which it rests: accountability to the voters by those returned to power. Whether they succeed depends on whether the system is so ‘broken’, as some pundits predicted throughout the past two years of sabotage, that those who brought Britain’s democracy to the brink will do well enough to propel a Jeremy Corbyn led coalition into No 10, to hold Brexit up at gunpoint before summary execution. It also depends on whether people understand that this election may be the most important for a century, more so than the votes of 1923 or 1945, which established Labour as a party of government, or that of 1979, which determined that it would be the people, not the interest groups, who would govern Britain. For on this election depends the future of this country, its democracy and a system in which Labour survives as a democratic party of government under a new leader.
Much will depend on Labour’s own voters across the whole country. Not only do they see no good reason to support Jeremy Corbyn or his brand of revolutionary neo-Marxism, or to give him the 270 seats it needs to snake his way to No 10 (the Plan B of Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle) to form a minority government with Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP. Rather, they have good reason to send him packing so their party can reform under a new leader and prepare to return to mainstream politics as a party of government. That reform would begin at the ballot box, and be instigated by the will of the voters – the route of democratic politics in this country, chosen by Labour’s founders more than a century ago.
Already, it has become clear to all but the most hardline Marxists at the top and its shock troops in Momentum, that as long as things stay as they are, the party will fall apart. Labour’s shadow health secretary, John Ashworth, – with just two days to go to the election – believes that ‘outside the city seats … it’s abysmal out there’; many Labour voters ‘can’t stand Corbyn and they think Labour’s blocked Brexit.’ Mr Ashworth should take his party’s high command through the basics of Britain’s political tradition to understand that Labour voters, no less than others, are part of the democratic system their leaders want to overturn. They have seen their party under Jeremy Corbyn and the current Labour leadership deny the electorate’s will, flout the party’s own rules, threaten the conventions on which Britain’s stable democracy rests, property rights, people’s freedom, an assumption of protections and security under law. It is because of this tradition, one their party has done so much to build since 1906, that to most people including to many Labour voters, the Corbyn leadership’s apparent habit of anti-Semitism seems so menacingly alien, the wholesale confiscations by the state implied in their manifesto, so threatening, the links with revolutionary groups so worrying for people’s safety on the streets.
Yet Mr Corbyn’s inner circle even now rests its hopes on seizing power through a hung parliament, exploiting the ensuing chaos and side-stepping the rules of the stable two-party system. These plans would lead to the sort of horse-trading, power-broking and back room deals, through which voters have been treated as non-existent for the last two years, and MPs have become a law unto themselves. Britain’s liberties and people’s freedoms would again be bartered even more blatantly than in the last parliament, the most autocratic in living memory.
It may well be as true today, as it was in 1850, that this country ‘does not love coalitions’; that coalitions are now off the radar particularly after the fiasco of the Coalition’s Fixed Term Parliaments Act; that having lived through the menace of factionalism, voters have had more than enough of its consequences. They want strong, party government. For the best part of a century they backed two main parties, Labour or the Conservatives. Each competed on its own territory but made forays outside to capture the non-aligned. Each championed some of the great causes of the day, and both came together to do so in times of war and economic crisis. But they came together not through backroom deal-making factions, but as equals to serve people and country in a national government.
These two parties saw Britain through the 20th century from the inter war years onwards. Each obeyed the voters, facilitated change and accommodated themselves to be a loser or a winner at times of radical political change, through a century of mass democracy, world wars, a global economic crash and great depression. Many continental countries suffered violent unrest and fierce repression: millions of people lost their freedom to dictatorships, autocratic rule, invasion and defeat in war. Britain remained stable and free. People’s freedom was protected by law; property rights were safe; their faith, no less than their idiosyncrasies, was respected. Then as now, the electorate wielded power through the straight vote.
It has taken a classicist, Boris Johnson, to understand the potency of that tradition and pledge to honour its Brexit vote. On Thursday, if people vote, a third time for Brexit, they will also preserve all it implies, not least the country’s future, but its political and constitutional system and its democracy.