People’s Vote: bourgeois politics on the streets

Against referendums

Despite the TUC vote in Manchester the left should reject referendums as a matter of principle. Jack Conrad puts the Marxist case for extreme democracy

People’s Vote is a many-headed, highly coordinated, well-financed campaign, designed to keep Britain in the European Union. Ultimately the whole operation is run in the interests of big capital. Launched in April 2018 by MPs Chuka Umunna (Labour), Anna Soubry (Tory), Layla Moran (Liberal Democrat)and Caroline Lucas (Green), People’s Vote calls for a referendum on Theresa May’s final Brexit terms.

On June 23 2018 - the second anniversary of David Cameron’s unexpected referendum defeat - People’s Vote took 100,000 people down the 800 metres - an exceedingly short march - from London’s Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square. Speakers included Tony Robinson, Gina Miller, Vince Cable, David Lammy, Caroline Lucas and Anna Soubry.

Every People’s Vote turn, every People’s Vote ploy, every People’s Vote initiative is meticulously prepared, planned and plotted. Just a few days before the opening of the TUC’s Manchester congress, YouGov issued its “bombshell” poll finding.1 No surprise, members of Unite, Unison and the GMB favour a second referendum by a margin of 2:1. Ask a few thousand people a loaded question and you generally get the result you want. Though the TUC resolution was a classic fudge (if, if, if …), it will be notched up by People’s Vote as yet another brilliant success. With big business safely on board and the Lib Dems loyally serving as the - largely unrewarded - organisational core, the next strategic goal is breaking Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of ‘studied ambiguity’ at Labour’s conference in Liverpool.

People’s Vote is, of course, the flagship of an organisational armada: Labour for a People’s Vote, Best for Britain, Best for Europe, European Movement UK, In Facts, Open Britain, Our Future Our Choice, Scientists for EU and Wales for Europe. All work closely together under the overall direction of the Grassroots Coordinating Group - Chuka Umunna is registered as the official leader.

The campaign boasts plush offices in Millbank Tower and there are said to be 150 local groups and 500,000 supporters. George Soros’s Open Society Foundation has donated more than £800,000 to such anti-Brexit causes (including £400,000 to Best for Britain, £182,000 to European Movement UK and £35,000 to Scientists for EU).2 Topping that, Julian Dunkerton, co-founder of the fashion label Superdry, handed People’s Vote a cool £1 million in August 2018: he wants a polling blitz.3

Clearly no-one on the principled left should have anything to do with People’s Vote. Marching alongside the Lib Dems, the Labour hard right, Tory rebels and Green naives on June 23 2018 was to march in the interests of big capital. Ditto, promoting subsidiary organisations - eg, Labour for a People’s Vote - is to constitute oneself a junior partner. But, pathetically, that is exactly what Dave Prentis of Unison, Dave Roache of the GMB and Manuel Cortes of TSSA have done.

Hard Brexit

It is still highly unlikely that there will be a second referendum. Theresa May will not go for it … though she would be exceedingly glad if Jeremy Corbyn fell into that particular elephant trap.

Yet imagine, for one moment, that People’s Vote succeeds. What would the result be? Labour, presumably, is hammered in any subsequent general election: seven in every 10 of Labour’s constituencies voted ‘leave’ in June 2016. Meanwhile, though opinion polls show clear majorities wanting a “say” on any final Brexit deal, the actual result, if there was a second referendum, is far from certain. The last two Survation polls (September 1 and September 7) could hardly be narrower: 47% ‘remain’ and 47% ‘leave’; and then 47% ‘remain’ and 46% ‘leave’.4

Both Tony Blair and Justine Greening have, therefore, proposed a three-option referendum (obviously in order to guarantee their wanted result). Option one: agree with the government’s final Brexit terms, as negotiated with Michel Barnier and the EU 27; option two: leave the EU without an agreement; option three: remain in the EU. In other words, soft Brexit, hard Brexit and no Brexit.

Through perpetuating such a blatantly dishonest trick, argues David Jeffrey, a lecturer in politics at Liverpool university, it is theoretically possible for just 34% of voters to decide the “winning option”.5 Such a referendum would see two bitterly opposed ‘leave’ camps and a comparatively aloof ‘remain’ campaign. The calculation being that on the Brexit side issues of principle will clash and ending up in a hopeless muddle.

If a preferential vote is added into the formula, then the least popular option would be eliminated and there would be a count-off between the last two questions … and, so ‘remain’ could emerge the winner with over 50% of the vote.

Even barring such transparent forms of cheating, say ‘remain’ narrowly won in a straightforward two-option referendum, what do we expect the 49% (or whatever) - ie, those who vote leave - to do?

There are those on the left - many of them good people - who believe that Brexit represents an existential threat. Brexit, they say, points squarely in the direction of a low-tax, low-regulation, low-rights economy. The working class can only but suffer. Already Brexit has made Britain poorer, reduced investment and squeezed the tax revenues vital for public services. Migrants and minorities get the blame. So, runs the argument, it is vital to fall in behind Chuka Umunna, Gina Miller and Vince Cable, in order to defeat Brexit.

But will the forces of chauvinism and xenophobia easily surrender? The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun, the Tory right, Ukip, Ulster Unionists, Britain First, the Football Lads Alliance will surely bang the “grand betrayal” drum as loudly as they can.6 The leave campaign won the June 2016 referendum fair and square. The votes of 17.4 million people have been betrayed, ignored, treated with contempt. Britain remains shackled to Europe because of a dastardly conspiracy hatched jointly by Brussels bureaucrats, George Soros, Whitehall mandarins, the self-serving political elite, the City, big business, trade union bosses … and their leftwing allies.

Sinclair Lewis chose the ironic title It can’t happen here for his 1935 bestselling novel. The plotline has a charismatic and crazily ambitious American politician, Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, promoting traditional Christian values, denouncing Jews, fuelling hatred for Mexicans and promising impoverished electors instant wealth. In short, America will be made great again. Buzz easily defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president and goes on to establish a horribly plutocratic regime. Opposition is crushed with the help of the Minutemen, a ruthless paramilitary force. Many thousands are interned and many more flee north to Canada.

Could it happen here? Following the script carefully crafted by the master of the dark political arts, the election ‘guru’, Sir Lynton Crosby, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - otherwise known as Boris - has skilfully blown the anti-Muslim dog whistle: “letter box” and “bank robbers” in the context of the burka; “suicide vest” in the context of Brexit negotiations.

This year or next, Johnson is expected to launch his leadership bid against Theresa May. His narrative? Muslims as other, Brexit betrayal and the magic of free trade. If he can secure enough Tory MPs to get into the final two-horse run-off - a big ask - Johnson would be odds-on to win by a mile. He is hugely popular amongst the “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” who make up the Tory rank and file ... and, given a contest, it is they who make the final decision. Johnson will get their votes. Not Sajid Javid. Not Andrea Leadsom.

Johnson would then be driven to Buckingham Palace, where he would seek permission from the queen to form a government. The monarch, of course, retains the constitutional right to choose the prime minister.

Meanwhile, a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn - a Labour Party that has been manoeuvred, albeit against his better judgement, into a commitment to hold a second referendum - would surely find itself badly positioned and vulnerable. Prime minister Johnson would, doubtless, call a snap general election in the name of securing a hard Brexit and establishing a Global Britain.

Not that our objection to a second EU referendum is based on getting Jeremy Corbyn into number 10 or appeasing Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Ukip, etc. True, we want to win over, or at least neutralise, the popular support base the Brexiteers enjoy at this present moment in time. We do not dismiss the 51% who voted ‘leave’ in June 2016 as a single reactionary bloc. Nor, for that matter, do we consider the 49% who voted ‘remain’ enlightened, progressive and inherently internationalist.


Referendums, by their very nature, are 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 explains why Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and David Cameron have used them. Complex issues are simplified, drained of nuance, reduced to a crude choice that cuts across class loyalties. Hence, today, one half of the working class is found in the ‘leave’ camp. The other half is in the ‘remain’ camp.

Our objections to referendums are principled and long-standing. We opposed the 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 Tony Blair’s 1997 referendum in Scotland. Then the 1998 Good Friday referendum in Ireland and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. All offered a bogus choice. In June 2016 we called for an active boycott. Admittedly our results were very modest - 25,000 spoilt ballot papers. Nonetheless, David Cameron’s objective was, of course, not to give power to the people. On the contrary, he calculated on outflanking Ukip, wrong-footing Labour, satisfying his Europhobes … and hanging on as prime minister. No reason, therefore, to give him any support whatsoever.

Antonio Gramsci, writing in June 1921, can usefully be cited here:

The communists are … on principle opposed to the referendum, since they place the most advanced and active workers, who make the greatest sacrifices, on the same plane as the most lazy, ignorant and idle workers. If one wants direct, individual consultations, then this must take place in assemblies, after an organised debate, and a vote must presuppose knowledge of what is at stake and a sense of responsibility.7

However, it ought to be emphasised, this general principle does not translate into automatically refusing to call for a referendum vote under all circumstances, nor does it translate into a general principle of always responding to a referendum organised by our enemies with a corresponding call for an active boycott. To vote this way or that way, to set about an active boycott campaign, etc, is always a tactical decision.

Eg, we urged a ‘yes’ vote in Ireland’s May 2015 referendum on gay marriage, the same with Ireland’s May 2018 referendum on abortion. And, in the UK, while being critical of the Liberal Democrat proposal for reforming the parliamentary voting system, the CPGB called for a ‘yes’ vote in the May 5 2011 referendum. Despite the glaring inadequacies, our judgment was that, on balance, getting rid of the ‘wasted vote’ syndrome would be a “small gain” and provide better conditions for the left to develop than the first-past-the-post system.8 Needless to say, we are programmatically committed to a thorough-going proportional representation system, party lists and the right of the party to recall MPs, MEPs, councillors, etc.

The Lib Dems wanted an alternative vote system. Voters would be asked not to opt for a single candidate, but tick candidates off in an order of preference - 1, 2, 3, etc. If standing under such a system we would advise voting: (1) for the CPGB candidate, (2) for the Labour candidate … but no vote for bourgeois or out-and-out reactionary parties. True, calling for a ‘yes’ vote lined us up with the Lib Dems, the Greens, Ukip, Sinn Féin and Plaid Cymru. Labour adopted no official position, while Respect, the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain supported the Tory ‘no’ campaign.

However, our principled opposition to referendums stands. They are not a higher form of democracy than the election of well-tested working class representatives, communist politics and extensive public debate. Referendums, on the contrary, tend to divide the working class, weaken its party spirit and produce the strangest of bedfellows: eg, in 2011, the CPGB with Ukip; the SWP with the Tories.

In terms of our tradition, things unmistakably date back to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The Marx-Engels team knew all about the undemocratic nature of referendums, given the bitter experience of Louis Bonaparte and his ‘self-coup d’état’ in 1851, and then his self-elevation to emperor in 1852 (each autocratic power-grab being legitimised by a referendum). Bonaparte went on to impose press censorship, restrict public gatherings, savagely repress political opponents (mainly red republicans) and force thousands to flee into exile - amongst them the celebrated writer, Victor Hugo. Initially a supporter, Hugo furiously denounced Bonaparte’s referendums as a means to “smother men’s minds”.9 In the same defiant spirit, George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), damned them as “an infamous snare”.10

Marx and Engels, along with their co-thinkers, Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, presented their alternative to the post-1871 third republic - in essence a reformed version of Bonapartism - in the minimum section of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. Here it is explained that the creation of a 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”. The party will fight for the confiscation of church wealth; remove restrictions on the press, meetings, organisations, etc; and abolish the standing army and replace it with the “general arming of the people”.11

The Marx-Engels position opposing referendums became the common sense of the Second International, including both its far left and its far right. Arturo Labriola, the Italian syndicalist, wrote his Contro il referendum in 1897. He castigated referendums as a cruel trick. In 1911 Ramsay MacDonald, Labour leader and future prime minister, came out in similar terms: referendums are “a clumsy and ineffective weapon, which the reaction can always use more effectively than democracy, because it, being the power to say ‘no’, is far more useful to the few than the many”.12

Note that the - still widely venerated - constitutional theorist, AV Dicey, promoted an-all UK referendum in the 1890s as a means to scupper Irish home rule; Ulster Unionists ran with his referendum proposal and demanded that it be integrated into the constitution; in 1910 Stanley Baldwin included the promise of a referendum over tariff reform in the Tory manifesto, and challenged the Liberals do the same with Irish home rule; in 1911 Lord Balfour tabled his ‘people bill’ in the House of Lords, allowing 200 MPs to petition the crown for a referendum and thereby potentially block unwelcome government legislation; in 1913 Lord Curzon floated a referendum as a democratic way to prevent the extension of the franchise to women; and, as the reform bill giving women over 30 the vote was passing through parliament in 1918, 53 peers wrote to The Times urging a referendum.13

However, there were those useful idiots on the left who were attracted by the idea of referendums and the right of the people to initiate referendums. Karl Kautsky, the celebrated pope of Marxism, chose Moritz Rittinghausen, a German social democrat, as his main polemical target over the issue.14

Kautsky’s Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy (1893) was designed to shoot down referenda nostrums and uphold the strategic perspective he outlined in his hugely influential commentary on the Erfurt programme, known in English as The class struggle. Even if referendums could replace existing representative institutions, as extreme ‘against elections’ advocates still want, this would represent not a step forward for democracy, but a step backward.

Kautsky fields three main arguments.

Firstly, Kautsky stresses that there are very few situations where there is a simple binary choice in politics. Eg, even assuming that there is a straightforwardly ‘right thing to do’, it is rarely obvious what the right thing to do is. Very frequently, there is not a choice to be made between option 1 or 2, but options 1 to 7 and within these options, 1 (a) (i), 1 (a) (ii), 1 (b) … and so on and so forth. To reach a decision, then, it is necessary to reduce the range of options. That is, of course, why Kautsky advocates extending representative democracy and the process of debate, motions, detailed votes and binding legislation.

Secondly - and this is no less important - Kautsky wanted to strengthen the system of party politics. In the transition period between capitalism and communism, it is, he said, vital for the broad mass of the population to think about, to organise around and to vote for competing party outlooks. That has the advantage of bringing to the fore class divisions. Referendums, on the other hand, have the disadvantage of blurring, overriding, deflecting, the fundamental conflict in society between class and class, and the respective conflict between party and party: precisely the opposite of what Marxists want to see.

Thirdly, Kautsky stresses the point that Marxists strive - particularly through their emphasis on a working class 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 unorganised mass who do not think about national or global issues in a coherent fashion, and ‘the people’ organised into, or by, a workers’ party. One is to be perpetual victim of lies, fraud and humbug. The other readies itself as the future ruling class.

Memory loss

The reason why the left has largely forgotten the history of opposing referendums in the name of extending representative democracy results from a number of factors. Above all, though, it is the decline in our political culture. A working knowledge of Marxist theory and socialist history can no longer be taken for granted. There is certainly no common understanding of the necessity of a minimum programme and emphasising the battle to win democracy.

Once there were mass parties; now we have confessional sects. They produce little or nothing worthwhile in terms of ideas. Sharp arguments, open polemics and drawing clear lines of factional demarcation are viewed as a danger to be avoided at all cost. Instead there is a fixation on economic strikes and the next demonstration. Identity politics and an obsession with gender and race ‘representation’ fills the vacuum. Then there is the claim that a Labour government can deliver full employment, an equal society and an economy that works for all. All that without ending the system of capitalist wage-slavery. And, of course, some on the left call it ‘socialism’. A testament to complete disorientation.

The less addled claim justification with reference to 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. The constitutional demands of the minimum programme therefore seemed to be of secondary importance. Even a barrier. Such an assessment doubtless appeared well-founded amidst the storms and turmoil that accompanied the immediate aftermath of World War I. However, such perspectives had become a nonsense even by 1923. The entirely artificial attempt to make revolution in Germany ended in a predictable fiasco.

And yet today we find the more excitable sects - inside and outside the Labour Party - telling their members and supporters that we in Britain live on the cusp of our version of the October revolution. A violently distorted view of reality, which ultimately stems from the so-called ‘transitional method’ developed by post-1945 Trotskyists.

While many of the ‘transitional demands’ hammered out by Comintern’s 4th Congress in 1922 might well have their appropriate place in the modern communist programme - eg, the call for a workers’ government and workers’ control over production - 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 taking up everyday economic demands.

In other words, the ‘transitional method’ is a mere variation of the line advocated by the Russian economists of the early 1900s. Journals 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 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 and criminally it ignored “the enormous educational significance” of economic struggles. Getting rid of tsarism and achieving a democratic republic were long-term goals and were anyway mere bourgeois tasks.

Modern leftwingers too often denounce constitutional demands and the patient work of transforming the Labour Party into a united front of a special kind as not being revolutionary enough. Meanwhile, they give a revolutionary gloss to routine pay disputes, pacifist 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.


1. The Guardian September 8 2018.

2. The Guardian February 11 2018.

3. The Guardian August 18 2018.

4. https://whatukthinks.org/eu/questions/should-the-united-kingdom-remain-a-member-of-the-european-union-or-leave-the-european-union-asked-after-the-referendum.

5. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44847404.

6. www.ukipdaily.com/the-grand-betrayal.

7. A Gramsci Selections from political writings 1921-1926 London 1978, p50.

8. ‘Monarchist system must goWeekly Worker April 27 2011.

9. V Hugo Napoleon the little London 1852, p144.

10. G Sand The letters of George Sand Vol 3, New York NY 2009, p192.

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

12. See L Morel and M Qvortrup (eds) The Routledge handbook to referendums and direct democracy Abingdon 2018.

13. See V Bogdanor The people and the party system: the referendum and electoral reform in British politics Cambridge 1981, pp9-94.

14. 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.