Published on June 24, 2016

Leave promised more democracy – now the government must deliver

People & participation

By Harry Farmer

Harry Farmer is a policy researcher at Involve. He is fascinated by the power of deliberative processes to enable governments to negotiate controversial policy decisions - particularly those presented by emerging technologies and demographic change. He currently works primarily on the Citizens for Public Service programme.

The result of yesterday’s referendum is potentially the most significant political decision the British public have ever decided in a single vote. In addition to the delight, anger and disbelief felt today and over the next few weeks, there will now be huge expectations for change.

This is particularly the case in terms of our democracy. While economics and immigration dominated the debate, the other key framing for Leave was the mantra of taking back control, and the idea that the UK would be more democratic outside the EU.

This framing perhaps had particular appeal for the vast numbers of people voting for Leave in protest against ‘the establishment’ – and a political system they perceived as at best disregarding, and at worst working against, their interests. The promise was that, free from purported European constraints, government would once again be able to deliver for them.

Like many claims made over the course of the campaign, this was a gross oversimplification.

While the democratic nature of the EU is complex, contested and far beyond the scope of this post, it’s clear that there is no straightforward connection between leaving the EU and the UK’s democratic structures improving. The grievances expressed by Leave voters about a political system that doesn’t work for them are grievances with our native politics: they are grievances about our antiquated structures of decision-making, the tone, content and personnel of our politics, our voting system, our overreliance on elections, and the increasingly toxic relationship between politics and the print media.

As will rapidly become apparent, finding solutions to these problems will be no easier outside of the EU than inside of it.

England expects

Nonetheless, the Leave campaign has written a cheque, and there will be huge pressure on the government to cash it in. Though improving the UK’s democracy will no easier than it was yesterday, the public will now expect changes, and the government is going to have to deliver.

It is necessary to see that the resentment and alienation that fuelled the Leave vote was a product of the UK’s poor democratic health, and subsequent inability to represent large swathes of its population. Rather than excluding the public from decision-making, we should be thinking hard about how better democratic structures might enable governments to serve the communities that felt abandoned enough to vote to leave the EU. Ultimately, Leave was the product of too little democracy, rather than too much.

Image credit: Succo

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