Referendums: Power to the People?

I’m having problems sleeping. I never have problems sleeping. A nearly four- year-old is a perfect remedy for sleeplessness. But still I’m tossing and turning in my bed in the mountains of the Algarve, worried. I have a German friend who is an expert in electoral law in Bremen and works for Mehr Demokratie. He is a great advocator of referendums. He had almost convinced me that this was real democracy at work. I even gave him the subtitle of a book he wrote about the subject: ‘Power to the People’. Switzerland, of course, is a Direct Democracy. All citizens have to vote for decisions pertaining to the governing of their country. It is law.

The first time I’d ever heard the word ‘Referendum’ was in the early nineties when I was in the collapsing Soviet Union and suddenly referendums started sprouting out of the cracked concrete. I didn’t quite understand them then. I had always thought it was the job of MPs to represent the people. I was indignant. How dare they shift the blame of society collapsing to the people? To the Russians I knew at the time they simply couldn’t keep up. They were groaning under the weight of them.

Now, largely thanks to having a friend who can talk on the subject for hours, I am much better informed about referendums but it has never really been part of the UK’s democracy. As a result of our ‘first-past-the-post’ system many of us have never had votes that really count. If you vote Labour in a Conservative county it is unlikely that your vote will change anything. And vice versa. And with Lib Dems. If you know Lib Dems are winning over Labour chances are (if you are more left-wing) you will, most likely, vote Lib Dems to give them a chance. Tactical voting. Also, many people when they are cross with a government will vote the opposite or for a party that they know will have little chance simply as a protest vote. It sometimes works. But, mostly, our votes don’t count for much.

A referendum is very different. All votes count. Even protest votes.

I try to try to explain this to my friend without crying. He is non-plussed.

‘To me, it is clear,’ he says. ‘The people have spoken to leave the EU. There’s no more to it.’

‘But it was a campaign based on lies and racism,’ I say. ‘So many people who voted Leave are regretting their decision!’

‘The Government had months to campaign.’ His voice is cold, unemotional. ‘Both sides had equal time and opportunity to explain their positions.’

‘But people believed the lies that Farage was going to spend 350 million allocated to the EU on the NHS. Did you not see the posters of refugees queuing in to come in to Britain? It was shameful.’

He shrugs.

‘People didn’t really understand that their vote would count,’ I continue even though I don’t know how to translate ‘first-past-the-post’. Elections in the UK are different, it’s a first past… We are not used to referendums.’

‘There was one a few years ago about the electoral system.’

It’s true. There was one in 2011 about an Alternative Voting system which was defeated. Forty-two percent voted in it. The campaign was described in retrospect by political scientist Iain McLean as a “bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate.”

‘You are being an anti-democrat,’ my friend swiftly concludes.

‘And you are letting fascism rise!’ I cry.

Maybe he’s right. But.

Racism is ugly. I have lived in many different countries and I have experienced racism. It is not nice. Fortunately, I live in a tolerant society in Portugal and have never had ‘Fuck off back to England’ spayed on my wall. Yet. Racism is not genetic. It is taught. By other unhappy people, and taken advantage of by people who want power to define themselves.

Of course, if all the UK citizens did have to fuck off back to Britain imagine what would happen. Up to five million Brits coming back. The drain on the NHS (most of us are older) and many don’t work that much so we wouldn’t be paying into society (not like the Polish anyway). That’s not clever.

I am not an expert. I am only one person. But I am not an anti-democrat. I accept the result. That won’t stop me, however, from democratically reeling against it. It seems to me that we need to think very carefully about holding referendums until we, as a society, are ready. There is a lot more groundwork to be done. We need rules. We need to decide what percentage needs to vote for a result to be acted upon. What does abstention mean? We need to decide if it has any constitutional hold (it doesn’t at the moment). We need campaigns based on truth, not lies – and we need an independent body to regulate this. We could practise with something like, ‘should voting rights be extended to UK citizens living in the EU and other countries’ – people who have been excluded from voting about their future. We should make sure that everyone really understands the power of the people before risking another fiasco such as Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. But I guess we know all that now. For me, my first referendum was a baptism in fire.

Sickles and Stars, Borovets – Monchique, Spring 2016

 

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Time is on a black run these last few months since my mother, Leo and I got back from skiing in Borovets, Bulgaria in April. As if it has ticked to the top of the mountain and someone has given it a big push downhill on skis and it is whooshing along. But there was a moment when we got off the plane in Sofia when I slid back in time. Back to East Berlin, mid 1980s. Back to Moscow, early 1990s. I smelt it immediately.

Communism smells. It smells of damp concrete and rank cabbage, cold birch forests and watery red berry juice. With just a drop of fear and aggression. A fist. Cold eyes. Maybe that’s my memory playing tricks but my nostrils flared as we walked into the airport and queued up to a uniformed man encased in a glass box with black eyes who stamped various pieces of paper that ominously disappeared.

Alex, the taxi driver, waited for us. I had ordered a car seat for Leo but there was no car seat. An hour later we were in the suburbs of Sofia, near the old pre-fabricated blocks of apartments to borrow a child seat from a friend of his. Nothing had changed since the days I lived in one of those almost enclosed spaces with paper-thin walls that the locals used to joke about leaning on and knocking over. The city was dark, cold and the streets empty. And that smell. The only difference between now and then was graffiti. The usual names and one lone hammer and sickle. Graffiti would never have been allowed in East Berlin or Moscow. Punishment was physical and usually severe.

I found a few Russian words in my mouth as we left the city and began to climb up the mountains. Alex told me that he thought life was hard for Bulgarians but he’d never left Sofia so he had nothing to compare with. We hit a pothole. And another. He wasn’t friendly or unfriendly. Matter-of-fact. When they opened the first McDonalds in Moscow they had to spend months retraining the staff to get them to smile and be nice. They had done a good job in the hotel in Borovets. Except for several unsmiling waitresses, the staff were kind and helpful – as long as you didn’t ask for anything that wasn’t on the menu. I once took a night-time tea down to the lobby and tried to ask for some hot water but hot water wasn’t on the menu. In 1989 I was in a restaurant (a seat bribed by a Russian friend) in Moscow and asked for something without meat and a very grumpy waitress pointed to the menu and wrote something down. Ten minutes later she came back and slammed a chicken salad in front of me.

‘But it is meat,’ I cried.

‘It is not meat, it is chicken,’ she screamed at me, and started flapping her arms in case I hadn’t understood. Then she thrust the menu at me again. I ate the chicken salad. We didn’t eat at the restaurant in the hotel in Borovets. It smelled of greasy kolbasa and watery red berry juice.

But once on the pistes the smell was forgotten.

‘I don’t want to go to a lesson,’ screamed Leo, the first, second, fourth and fifth day. ‘My legs hurt!’

‘Leo, listen to me,’ I began (always a bad start). ‘Just try. George will take you on the drag lift and go down with you. I will wait here. And you will get a star! And then when we get enough stars we will buy the Playdoh cookie monster.Okay?’ I got my iPhone out and prepared to tap in a star to his Reward App.

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He went. Reluctantly. I watched him, smiling. I knew I was bribing him. I was teaching him that if he did something he didn’t necessarily want to do he would receive a monetary reward – namely, a toy of some sort or a trip. Stars were a symbol of capitalism. I felt uncomfortable doing it. It was working. And surely it was better than hammers and sickles? I wondered what capitalism smelled of. Burgers, chewing gum and coca-cola in one nostril but fresh orange juice, pizzas and juicy sun-kissed tomatoes in the other, I decided. In Russia in 1990 a tomato cost more than a bottle of Soviet Champagne. The state shops were empty – except for cabbages, onions, potatoes and an occasional delivery of peppers.

Later, while Leo was making pizzas and burgers in playdoh with my mother in the hotel, I glided between the pine trees on a chair lift, my skis resting on the runners below, ski poles on my lap, the sun glistening on the melting snow, and worried again about the forces of capitalism and the power of stars. But then I remembered that stink of fear.

The chairlift swung across a valley and I found myself high above the trees. A bear had been sighted recently but not near this piste. Even so. I found my heart crawl up my throat and try to jump out. I swallowed it down. Soon I was at the top. I slid off the chair and straight down to the piste, looping my hands through the pole handles. It was colder up here and a piercing wind blew. I set off. The snow was ploughed and perfect. I relaxed onto my thighs and touched the pole into the snow and half-mooned around it, then again the other side, sometimes curving more deeply, sometimes less, leaving behind the trail of a large snake. This was it, I thought. I’d waited twenty years to do this again, but here I was, faster and faster snaking down the mountain. The failed attempt at Serra da Estela, the journey from Portugal to England, juggling work, tantrums, the cost of a second-hand cookie monster on Ebay, the smells of Communism and an almost forgotten era: it was all worth it for this one ski down a mountain. I skied down through the clouds and the sun came out and lit up a million stars in the snow. I swooshed through them. By the time I got to the bottom I could smell only pine cones and big, juicy tomatoes. We would go for a pizza tonight and Leo would get a star if he ate it all up.

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