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Regardless of which side of the Brexit debate one supports, it is undeniable that respect for and confidence in our elected politicians is at an all-time low in modern history since universal suffrage was established
Yes, there are a few exceptions but overall the polls tell a sorry story. According to the latest ComRes “Pollwatch” only 6% think that our MPs are handling Brexit well. Only 10% think that our politicians are “in touch with the mood of the country” whilst 75% think they are “not up to the job”.
The roots of this disaffection lie in the 2016 referendum and how our politicians have handled its outcome. There is no majority in the House of Commons for the complete break with the EU that 52% of the electorate voted for in the 2016 referendum. The ComRes poll records that 53% think that the referendum vote should be respected and that includes some who voted to Remain in 2016. That is notwithstanding that 49% think the voters were wrong in 2016, compared with 38% who thought it was the right decision. The implication is that if MPs decide that we should remain in a customs union and maintain regulatory alignment with the EU for economic reasons, they will be going against the wishes of a majority of voters and democracy will be damaged.
This conclusion is not as fair as the numbers suggest. Whilst some MPs are undoubtedly voting on the basis of their personal views there are others who are voting in line with the way their constituencies voted in 2016 despite their personal views to the contrary. However, disillusioned voters on both sides of the Brexit debate might consider whether MPs are there to do what their constituents want or to vote according to what they think is in their constituents’ best interests. They hear the Bank of England Governor, the Treasury economists, the CBI and other business voices warning of the potential dire economic consequences of a ‘no deal’ Brexit and they say these warnings were not made in 2016 and they cannot ignore them now.
Whatever one makes of that, there is no doubt that many citizens are disenchanted with the way the Government and Opposition are handling Brexit and that is bad for democracy. There are no quick fixes but there are steps that should be seriously considered. Polls suggest that more than half of voters support reducing the number of MPs. Devolving more decisions away from Parliament is also backed by a majority of those polled. Other more radical suggestions include making voting compulsory. 22 countries, including Australia, do this. Changing the voting system to some form of proportional representation is another. The aim of these measures is to make the nation’s political culture genuinely participative.
One interesting idea is the creation of Citizens’ Assemblies to inform decision-making and citizen participation. They would complement not replace representative systems. The aspiration behind them is that they might help to build consensus rather than adversarial politics leading to majority decisions.
Essential to that objective is the need to ensure that voters understand the issues on which they or their representatives have to make decisions. How well, for example, were voters informed about the likely consequences of leaving the EU? How many MPs held briefing meetings in their constituencies before the referendum? Only 1.6% of the electorate belong to a political party so the task of equipping voters cannot be left to the parties. How well were television and other media used to inform voters about the pros and cons of leaving? Underlying these questions will be others about the role of schools educating young people for citizenship.
This is not an argument about who was right or wrong about Brexit. It is about how we learn from the mistakes that were made that have deeply divided the nation and find ways of developing a more healthy and respected form of democracy for the good of all. Christians in Politics, an all-party, non-denominational organisation seeks to do this. It exists to make a biblical case for Christian political involvement. It seeks to connect Christians to people and organisations that can help us to engage politically and provides resources to equip us to do this. Its aims are to build relationships across party lines and to encourage participation in decision-making rather than criticising from the side lines. If that helps us to overcome our disenchantment with politics and politicians it is surely worth our support.