Against a second referendum

Some on the ‘left’ insist on tailing John Major and Tony Blair and their call for a second referendum. However, argues Jack Conrad, Marxists are right to distrust referendums as a method of political decision-making. We champion working class political independence and representative democracy

The lead article in last week’s Solidarity, ‘Open borders for people’, boasts of supporting those who “defend the existing free movement within Europe” and the “campaign to stop Brexit and support a referendum” on the Tory terms for leaving the European Union.1 Solidarity is, of course, the paper of the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - an organisation notorious on the left for providing ‘socialist’ excuses for US-UK wars of intervention, the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt in the Labour Party and big business opposition to Brexit. The article comes unsigned and is, one presumes, authoritative (in other words, either the exclusive work of editor Cathy Nugent or that of the entire editorial board as a collective: ie, Cathy Nugent, plus Michael Elms, Simon Nelson, Gemma Short and Martin Thomas).

The reasoning employed in ‘Open borders for people’ is thoroughly bourgeois. Apparently, population growth “coming from migration” is “essential” for making much needed investments in schools, housing and the national health service. The NHS “in particular” depends “heavily on migrant workers and would shrink without them”. Moreover, funding for pensions and benefits likewise “depends on migrants”: they are of “young, working, heavy tax-paying, low benefit-claiming age”. In other words the migrants coming to Britain are a vital source of exploitable labour-power and tax-revenue.

Logically, that should mean that migrants leaving Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, etc represent a net loss for those countries. After all, for every Polish nurse who makes the wrenching move to Britain, there is one less available for Poland’s health system. The narrow focus on British interests certainly belies the AWL’s claim to stand for “global solidarity”. It also overlooks the salient fact that an influx of people coming from other countries - many of them desperate for any kind of employment and hence willing to work for longer hours and less pay - increases competition amongst workers and tends therefore to drive down the price of labour-power. Note, over the last decade real wages in Britain have stagnated or fallen.

In the short term, a growth of anti-migrant sentiments is almost inevitable. And branding such sentiments as a manifestation of ingrained racism or being the result of poor educational attainments is smug, easy … and politically useless. In fact, in the absence of a viable left alternative to capitalist rule, what we see is a deflected form of the class struggle.

No, Marxists consider open borders - and not only within Europe - as objectively progressive, not because we wish to boost investment in Britain or increase the government’s tax take. Open borders allow workers from different countries to mix, overcome national parochialisms, organise together and eventually come to recognise the common interest in the fight for global communism.

The AWL’s campaign to “stop Brexit and support a referendum” is no less bourgeois. Echoing big business, the AWL warns that Brexit will be bad for investment, bad for public services and bad for Britain. Hence, along with the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and the Financial Times, the AWL gives a cautious welcome to Jeremy’s Corbyn’s recent announcement that Labour wants “a customs union” with the EU. Another cautious welcome is given to Keir Starmer’s commitment that Labour will demand a parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal.

However, it is the AWL’s pledge to campaign in “support” of a second referendum “over whatever deal the Tories come up with” that surely exposes the sheer depths of pro-capitalist opportunism being plumbed.

The call for a second referendum unites a whole swathe of the great and good: Tony Blair, John Major, Peter Mandelson, Vince Cable, etc. A campaign aided by a generous £400,000 courtesy of George Soros.

The AWL offers its rather more modest services. Like a modern snake-oil salesman, Solidarity peddles the carefully manufactured story that a 68%-19% majority of Labour voters want a referendum on whatever Brexit deal the Tories produce. We are told in the same dumb spirit, that there is a 50%-34% majority of the “whole electorate” who would support a referendum before any deal can go ahead. By asking the ‘right’ question, those who pay for opinion polls can always get the ‘right’ result.

Despite the AWL’s implied claim that public opinion is swinging against Brexit, there are good reasons for scepticism. David Cameron’s 2016 referendum campaign began the year with a 53%-47% ‘remain’ opinion poll lead. However, he ended up with a 51.9%-48.1% ‘leave’ vote where it counts - in the ballot box. And, frankly, in terms of where we are today, there is no compelling reason to believe that a second referendum would go the way of the ‘remainers’. Polls show that the gap between those who think the UK took the ‘wrong’ decision and those who think it was ‘right’ to be incredibly narrow. On February 27 YouGov reported 44% opting for ‘right’ and 45% for ‘wrong’ (there were 11% ‘don’t knows’).2 And, when it comes to ‘How would you vote in a second referendum?’, it seems that we would still get Brexit. A March 2 ComRes poll puts ‘remain’ on 43% and ‘leave’ on 46% (there were 12% ‘don’t knows).3 That despite the cabinet divisions, the Irish border, EU intransigence, numerous UK climbdowns and Theresa May’s adoption of the softest version of a ‘hard’ Brexit.


Of course, our objection to a second EU referendum is exactly the same as our objection to the first one - and it has nothing to do with opinion polls. Referendums are by their very nature undemocratic. They bypass representative institutions and serve, in general, to fool enough of the people, enough of the time. And yet referendums have the great virtue of appearing to be the epitome of democracy. That is exactly why Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and David Cameron used them when it came to controversial constitutional issues. Complex questions are simplified, drained of nuance, reduced to a binary choice that cuts across previous party and class solidarities and therefore produces radically false alignments. Hence, one half of the working class finds itself aligned with Jacob Rees-Mogg; the other half behind John Major and Tony Blair.

Actually, the true nature of referendums can be usefully illustrated by the mini-me example of Jon Lansman. Not only was his Momentum coup carried out through a referendum (disgracefully backed by Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Clive Lewis, Christine Shawcroft, Paul Mason, etc). Now Lansman says he wants to see the Labour Party general secretary elected through a referendum too. With the method comes the message. The Momentum coup was justified by a nasty ‘red scare’ campaign, amplified through generous publicity provided by the capitalist media. Now, it is Jennie Formby who stands accused of being a dangerous red, an anti-Semite, a pawn in Len McCluskey’s sinister bid to take over the Labour Party ...

It is surely in the nature of things that human beings will have disagreements. Assuming that there is a straightforwardly ‘right thing to do’, it is rarely obvious what that right thing is. Very frequently, there is not only a choice to be made between option 1 or 2, but between options 1 to 7 and within these, 1 (a) (i), 1 (a) (ii), 1 (b), … and so on. To reach a decision, then, it is necessary to reduce the range of options. That is, of course, why British governments have a vast civil service producing green papers, white papers and bills, and why there are three parliamentary readings, a committee stage, numerous amendments and hours of debate before a final vote. The ruling class knows that such a drawn-out process is vital: ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’. Before the Blair ascendancy, Labour Party rules (1) recognised the right of Constituency Labour Parties to introduce amendments to proposed conference motions, (2) had compositing procedures, and (3) allowed space for debate at conference before the final vote was taken. Unless such basic democratic rights are restored (and radically extended), we should not be surprised if we get a Corbynite version of manipulation, demagoguery and backroom fixes.


We did not conclude that referendums were undemocratic, fraudulent, a means of mass deception, etc because of sour grapes over the result of the June 2016 Brexit vote. On the contrary, we called for an active boycott of Cameron’s referendum. His objective was not to give power to the mass of the people, but to outflank Ukip, wrong-foot Labour, satisfy his Europhobes … and hang on as prime minister. There was no reason for the authentic left to give him any support whatsoever.

Our objections to referendums are principled and long-standing. We opposed the Bonapartist operation in relation to the ‘Vote for the crook, not for the fascist’ presidential election in France in 2002. Before that we urged an active boycott of Blair’s 1997 referendum in Scotland.4 Then the 1998 Good Friday referendum in Ireland, and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. All offered, from an elementary working class viewpoint, a bogus choice.

Nor is this position a CPGB novelty. The background to the labour movement’s historic rejection of referendums lies with the resistible rise of Louis Bonaparte (directly elected as French president for 1848-52 and then elevated to emperor over the years 1852-1870). His 1851 anti-parliamentary coup was endorsed by a rapidly called referendum, followed by a second referendum in 1852 which made him emperor.

Needless to say, Marxists condemned this ‘democratic despotism’. And Marx and his co-thinkers - Jules Guesde, Paul Lafargue and Friedrich Engels - presented their alternative in the ‘minimum’ section of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. Here it was argued that the building of a mass workers’ party “must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”.5 The emperor’s constitution had to be abolished and in its place there had to be universal suffrage and representative democracy.

Similarly, socialists in the United States took it for granted in the 1890s that they had to “abolish the presidency” (and the Senate). The only question was how. Engels countenanced comrades in America standing presidential and senatorial candidates … provided they were committed to the abolition of the post of president and the Senate.6

Karl Kautsky’s Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy (1893) is worth commenting upon too.7 Kautsky’s arguments against legislation by referendum are still persuasive. In an age of class-based parties, from the standpoint of revolutionary change it is, he said, far preferable for the population to think about, organise around and vote for competing party outlooks. Referendums serve to blur and override the fundamental dividing lines between classes and their respective parties: precisely the opposite of what any Marxist wants to see.

Usefully, Kautsky makes a more general point about ‘direct democracy’ in the form of referendum. Marxism strives, particularly through its emphasis on the necessity of a mass workers’ party, to bring about a situation in which the state is as weak - and the people are as strong and organised - as possible. He draws a vital distinction between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ as an isolated, unorganised mass, who are not thinking about national or global politics and not organised into, or by, social democratic parties with a national focus, and, on the other, ‘the people’ as a politically educated, coherent and militant force led by social democracy.

To press home the point, Kautsky refers to contemporary studies about the conservative effects of referendums in Switzerland. Louis Blanc had already made a similar point back in 1851 (ie, in the midst of Louis Bonaparte’s power grab). Blanc highlighted the Girondist roots of proposals for political decision-making by referendum. When in 1792 Louis XVI was condemned to death by the French convention, the Girondists demanded a referendum (in vain, true). They were convinced that this was the only the way to stop the revolution falling into the hands of Robespierre and the Montagnard extremists.

Notwithstanding that, Kautsky claims that referendum might be useful in the weaker, less autocratic states (“Maybe in the US, England and the English colonies, even under circumstances in France”). However, far more importantly, he stresses the expansion and deepening of existing representative democracy. In terms of Britain, for example, this would involve the election of judges, the abolition of the House of Lords, short parliamentary terms and the abolition of extortionate electoral deposits, which effectively debarred working class representatives (the experience of Chartism was in the forefront of his mind).

The rise of social democracy - which Kautsky is convinced will also spread to Britain with time - not only counters the capitalist monopoly over the press and its systematic corruption of public opinion, but through the establishment of a workers’ press, leaders, speakers and parliamentarians would be trained to take the social democratic message to ever wider sections of the masses. Indeed, through party organisation the working class learns how to impose its agenda on society ... and thereby prepares itself to rule.

Despite its undoubted shortcomings, Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy retains its worth - not least because we have seen the entirely negative effects of referendum campaigns over recent years. In Northern Ireland the left fell in behind the 1998 Good Friday agreement, even though it constitutionally institutionalised the sectarian divide of the working class; in Scotland the working class split into two hostile camps over independence and the non-Labour left collapsed into petty nationalism; and throughout the UK the question of Europe effectively cleaves the working class into bitterly opposed ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’.

Memory loss

The reason why the left has largely forgotten the history of opposing referendums in the name of extending representative democracy stems from two sets of ideas.

The first is the tradition of the early Communist International, which in 1919-22 declared in one thesis and one resolution after another that revolution in the west was an immediate prospect. Communists had to prepare the working class for a frontal assault on the citadels of bourgeois power. Under such circumstances the constitutional demands of the minimum programme seemed to be of secondary importance - even a barrier for some. Such an assessment doubtless appeared well founded amidst the storms and turmoil that immediately followed World War I. However, that had already become a nonsense by 1923. The entirely artificial attempt to make revolution in Germany ended in a predictable fiasco.

The second set of ideas is commonly called ‘transitional method’, a strategy developed by post-1945 Trotskyites. Its antecedents are claimed to go back to Comintern’s 1922 Fourth Congress and the resolution to include “transitional demands” in the envisaged programme for world revolution.8 Examples of such demands were the call for a workers’ government and workers’ control over production. Then, of course, there is the Transitional programme written by Trotsky and presented to the founding congress of the Fourth International in 1938. It too was based on the conviction of capitalism undergoing its “final death agony” and that therefore the world socialist revolution would triumph within the next few years.

While some of the key transitional demands of 1922 have an appropriate place in the modern communist programme, the post-1945 ‘transitional method’ turns out to be merely an attempt to trick the working class into taking power by defending existing constitutional arrangements and narrowly focusing on everyday economic demands. Difficult constitutional questions are shunned: eg, in Britain abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords, replacing the standing army with a popular militia, and achieving a federal republic (all compatible with the continuation of capitalism).

In other words, the post-1945 ‘transitional method’ is a mere variation of the line advocated by the Russian economists of the early 1900s. Publications such as Credo and Rabochaya Mysl argued that Russian workers were far from ready for the sophisticated social democratic politics that had become so popular in Germany. No, before that, social democrats would have to help organise Russian workers around their immediate economic interests: eg, building trade unions and taking strike action against the capitalist employer. Iskra’s insistence on placing the demand for the overthrow of tsarism and a democratic republic at the centre of its message would find no mass hearing. Furthermore, Iskra stood accused of ignoring “the enormous educational significance” of economic struggles (vehemently denied by Lenin, its leading editor). Rabochaya Mysl could, however, adopt a sneering leftist pose, when it suited. The end of tsarism and achieving a democratic republic was long off ... and was anyway a “bourgeois task” that ought to be left to the bourgeoisie.

Modern leftwingers too often denounce immediate constitutional demands as not being revolutionary enough. Meanwhile they give a revolutionary gloss to routine pay disputes, pacifistic protest marches, liberal anti-racism campaigns and the nationalist project of breaking up Britain. Hence the immediate demand for a federal republic is counterposed to the maximum demand for a socialist republic. The result, in programmatic terms, is a combination of tailism and a refusal to even countenance an independent working class challenge to the existing constitutional order.

Hence we have groups such as Socialist Resistance, Left Unity and the AWL howling over Donald Trump and Brexit and to all intents and purposes aping the enraged wing of the liberal bourgeoisie.


1. Solidarity February 28 2018.

2. See whatukthinks.org/eu/questions/in-highsight-do-you-think-britain-was-right-or-wrong-to-vote-to-leave-the-eu.

3. whatukthinks.org/eu/questions/if-a-second-eu-referendum-were-held-today-how-would-you-vote.

4. See J Conrad Blair’s rigged referendum and Scotland's right to self-determination London 1997.

5. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.

6. F Engels to F Wiesen (in Texas) in K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 50, New York NY 2004, p119.

7. See B Lewis, ‘Referenda and direct democracy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014; K Kautsky, ‘Direct legislation by the people and the class struggle’ Weekly Worker March 31 2016.

8. J Riddell (editor and translator) Toward the united front: proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 Chicago IL 2012, p632.