Unrepresentative Politics and the Subversion of Democracy

27/07/2016 13:17 | Updated 27 July 2016

The unprecedented political turmoil in the month following the EU referendum has yielded, in the eyes of more optimistic observers, an unexpected silver-lining. For all its uncertainty, for all its potentially destructive consequences both at home and abroad, Brexit has been heralded as a triumph of democracy, one that has managed to mobilise voters on all sides of the divide in a way not seen in years. The swift, peaceful transition from one government to another, the surging numbers in party membership, the millions now engaging with a process that, until recently, chronically excluded the silent majority on the margins of society, are, in quintessentially British terms, case in point that the political system is healthy and robust.

Yet, as the frenzy subsides and the country begins to come to terms with its new political order, reality would indicate otherwise. Far from a celebration of the virtues of civic participation, the events of the last few weeks, from the reckless brandishing of vacuous populist platitudes, coupled with the willful undermining of core democratic principles, exemplify the very worst side of unrepresentative politics.

Disregarding the fact that the UK remains one of the only advanced democracies with an entirely unelected upper chamber, or that the first past the post system is woefully lopsided, or that most referenda require a minimum threshold to have any real validity, the post-Brexit mayhem has revealed the true democratic deficit that lay at the very heart of British politics. If one thing is clear it's that business as usual is no longer sustainable. People demanded change, presenting an opportunity for a new electoral contract in which democratic accountability would inspire reinvigorated political participation. Votes would have to be earned, and loyalty at the polls would require more than a few handshakes and photo-ops come election time. And yet, the political class has proved wholly incapable, or worse, obstinate in their unwillingness to deliver, all the while extoling the courage of those who "made their voices heard."

What on the surface appeared to be selfless deference to the power of the people, the new era of Britain outside the EU steered by the historic ascension of the country's second female Prime Minister is tainted by its complete lack of electoral mandate - admittedly hardly a novel criticism. The rather prosaic defense that the country enjoys a rich history of similarly unelected governments only highlights the urgency of the problem, as its justification is embedded within elements of the national psyche, leading to what has become passive resignation in most circles. Nor does the suggestion that a "Brexit government" is in place bring any solace. A fundamental tenet of democracy - one officiously demanded of others - is free, fair, and competitive elections. That this government, whose firmly established vision for the future contrasts markedly with its predecessor, will likely not be subject to the rigours of the ballot box anytime soon demonstrates an abject failure to uphold a core principle of what it means to be a truly representative government beholden to the will of its constituents.

Across the dispatch box, the picture is no more flattering. The aftermath of Brexit saw hundreds of thousands rally in opposition to the vote, seeking refuge under the protective banner of like-minded parties that ostensibly espouse similar ideals to those who joined them. Yet, as the Conservatives visibly enjoy the spoils of near absolute-power, Labour's greatest contribution to the post-referendum pandemonium has been its unflinching support for a fledgling one-party state. Rather than accept the responsibility entrusted to them, Labour has been intent on fratricidal self-destruction. The suggestion that challenges to their embattled leader would continue until he is eventually ousted, no matter how long it takes, shows the depths of the party's disdain for the very people from whom its power is derived, and a complete disinterest in actually offering credible opposition at a time when it is most needed. Restrictions on voting eligibility in the contest and the deception that has gripped the party at every turn threaten to disenfranchise those motivated by the referendum outcome to engage with the institutions that define British democracy.

The betrayal of the people by the political establishment continues, albeit with new faces at the helm, purposefully indifferent to the anger and discontent that nearly brought it to its knees only a month ago. The tantalising charm of opportunism, as is so often the case in politics, has supplanted the promise of democratic engagement proffered by the referendum vote. Its lessons have been ignored, as the fallout has led once again to the exclusion of the people from the political process, further reinforcing the disaffection that led to Brexit in the first place. Far from a triumph, the referendum has been a grievous subversion of democracy.