Opinion Articles

The EU Referendum result in historical perspective: the need for reform of Westminster

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What lessons can we draw from the Referendum vote of June 2016? Clearly there are many.

Some are obvious. With six years of austerity policy pushing already-poor communities to the margins, inequality has been allowed to rise to the point where the justifiably disaffected were ready to seize on anything to express their protest and their pain, and in the Referendum they finally found something they thought they could vote for, or rather against. These communities have been cruelly misled into believing that reduced immigration will somehow solve their problems. The truth is those problems have been sharply exacerbated since 2008 by the stealthy refusal of financial institutions and wealthy individuals to take their fair share of the responsibility for the financial meltdown. It has been used instead as an excuse to starve the public services that the poor use and need.      

But what of the less obvious underlying lessons here? Does this much-vaunted exercise in “direct democracy” really have the overwhelming legitimacy the Leave campaign have been triumphantly claiming?

Several senior politicians of different political parties have said that the will of the electorate must be respected and that the people of the UK have clearly voted to leave the EU. Yet that is so far from the truth as to be an utter travesty. Let us be clear: fewer than 3 out of every 8 electors voted to leave the EU last Thursday. Over 62.5% of those eligible to vote did NOT vote to leave the EU, and we know that the proportion is even higher among younger voters, who are the country’s future. That is nothing like a clear majority. Why are leading politicians so keen to endorse rather than question the validity of this result as a mandate to leave?

For constitutional changes with profound consequences, such as the EU vote, it is conventional under many voting systems to require a much greater majority than a simple 50% of votes cast (often two-thirds) to be explicitly in favour of the change proposed. A mere 37.47% of the electorate voting for such momentous change is an awfully long way from the real majority needed to give democratic legitimacy for a change as momentous as leaving the EU, with all the disruption that this entails for literally millions of people’s lives and of major, productive businesses built up over four decades of patient industry and enterprise

Everybody seems impressed with the 72.2% turnout, but that is only because the British people and its political establishment have been lulled over decades of self-congratulation about their mother-of-parliaments into the complacent belief that the UK and its voting arrangements are a paradigm of representative democracy. On a matter such as this, anything short of a full turnout of 85-90% is to be regretted and should be cause for concern, and in many other nations would be. Australia and three other EU countries address this very straightforwardly: voting is a compulsory responsibility of citizenship (turning up to register a spoiled vote is of course permitted; it’s just apathy that is not accepted).    

The fact is, Britain’s current constitutional and political arrangements are an historical anachronism that is increasingly bending the whole of society out of shape, and its perverse outcomes are now risking breaking up the United Kingdom itself. There is clear historical evidence that the first-past-the-post system of two opposed parties, which may have served Britain tolerably well for a century before it became a full democracy in 1928 and for half a century thereafter, has been attracting fewer and fewer voters for several decades. Voter turnout in general elections was consistently well above 70% for the whole period from 1922 until 1997 but has since averaged only 63% with the proportion of votes cast for the two main parties also falling consistently.

The British people have in fact been increasingly voting for several decades for a more pluralistic politics, which would require a form of Proportional Representation to express their diverse preferences. The proportion of votes for the two main parties has been falling since the 1970s. The pressure on their leaders to maintain the unity of their two anachronistic blocs has been building and is now becoming intolerable. Labour has visibly fractured with the rise of the SNP. It was also that pressure which David Cameron finally buckled under in offering the Referendum vote on Europe. It was an electoral gamble to keep the Conservative Party together and to ward off the threat from UKIP to get them through the general election in 2015. The ploy initially appeared to work spectacularly, producing a surprise outright majority for Mr Cameron. But now it has produced a disaster for Mr Cameron, his party and, indeed, for the whole country’s economy.    

So, one important underlying historical lesson of the UK 2016 Referendum fiasco is that rampant inequality must be reversed. A second lesson - not unrelated to the failure to halt that rise in inequality- is that our society’s capacity to adapt sensibly and rationally to wider challenges is being systematically impeded by an out-dated form of representative democracy. It lacks an obligatory voting mechanism; it offers no votes to our younger adults, aged 16-18; and the refusal to introduce proportional representation means that it lies at the mercy of the sectional needs and the capricious and clandestine internecine feuds within the two incumbent political dinosaurs, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. These two parties and their powerful backers will not agree to change the two-party system, despite all the evidence of its electoral decline, because they cannot imagine their own survival without it. Consequently they appear to be capable of literally dying in a ditch to retain it, while causing untold damage to the economy, the poor and the next generation.

So why are our leading politicians so silent on the inadequacy of the 37.47% vote? Many disaffected people who voted Leave last Thursday thought they were at least voting for some kind of significant change in their lives. They have been directed by the political establishment and the compliant media to look in the wrong place for that change. Brussels may need reform but not as much as Westminster does. It is the floundering two-party system, propped up by self-regarding financial elites, with its low turnouts and persistent, proven incapacity to address the greatest political challenge of our society - inexorably widening inequality - that has brought us to this constitutional and political pass.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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