Brexit Highlights How Broken British Democracy Really Is

30/06/2016 14:05 | Updated 30 June 2016

The leadership meltdown in Westminster shows we have a malfunctioning democracy. There's no two ways about it. There were only two outcomes listed on the referendum ballot paper. Or did I miss the box marked "Westminster goes berserk"? It's easy to be smug about it and say this was always going to happen, however that's beside the point. It's looking like millions of people are waking up, every day since the results, to discover they're not getting what they voted for. Not yet at least. And if they voted Leave to curb EU immigration or spend our EU subs on the NHS instead, they might never get it, Brexit or not. That's Great British democracy for you.


The numbers tell the story: Last week 72.2% of voters made their choice, 51.9% choosing to leave the EU. That's about 37.5% of the electorate. Just over a year ago, 66.1% of voters turned out for the general election, and 36.9% of them got the government they voted for. That's about 24.5% of the electorate. Five years ago, we held a referendum on changing the electoral system to make Westminster more representative of the national vote. 42.2% of electors turned out for that one, and 67.9% of them voted to keep things as they are. That's about 28.6% of the electorate.

Consider how those numbers explain the current leadership mess: More people supported Brexit than have supported most postwar British Prime Minsters, with few exceptions. There was Clement Atlee in 1950 where turnout was extremely high (83.9%) and Labour took just over 38% of the vote. Churchill's 1951 win was even bigger (over 39%) but in that election over 40% of voters backed Labour. Labour won 1% more of the vote but 8% fewer seats in 1951. In the last general election, the Liberal Democrats received 42% fewer votes than UKIP but won 800% more seats. We accept this as though it's normal.

The point here is, unlike our EU neighbours, UK governments are defined by the strange notion that our democracy is best served by a system where more people vote against the winning government than for it. And when you factor in the AV referendum result, more people would rather keep things that way than voted for the winning party in the last 4 general elections. We've only got ourselves to blame.

It should hardly be surprising that, when the Great British electorate shows a lot more interest than usual and speaks up, the politicians charged with carrying out the results do something else instead.

What they are doing right now is, numerically speaking, astonishing. Here's an example of what I mean: If Theresa May becomes PM, we'll have a leader that was elected in national terms by about 0.1% of the 2015 electorate. That's not a mandate to lead the country, is it? And beyond that, what of the policies that Tory voters backed last time around? Many will be undone by the Brexit. Surely that's grounds for another general election, isn't it? Apparently not.

It's no better at Labour. As they collapse in a frenzy of backstabbing it is worth noting that 59.5% of the voter turnout backed the man that Labour MPs (who are also members) are trying to remove. That's a man elected by roughly 45% of the party members (excluding affiliates) being challenged by about 0.07% of the membership (no confidence motion MPs). When commentators describe the Brexit result as a protest by people fed-up with political elites, this is what they mean.

The arcane nature of British democracy has, over the last 60 years, delivered one electoral minority after another into the corridors of power. It's led to a situation where no matter how many of us vote, we get a result that rewards people who wouldn't win in any other situation where the principle of "we'll do what the majority of people want" applies.

So we shouldn't be surprised that when the nation says "Brexit" the politicians hear "Get a bigger office and more perks". I didn't vote to leave the EU, but I'm not going to throw my toys out of the pram because Remain didn't win, or take it as an opportunity to shaft my colleagues and the people who placed their trust in me. Neither would most people, regardless of where they put their cross last Thursday. When the chips are down for most communities, they pull together. But when the chips are down in Westminster, the knives come out.

And for Brexit voters who were laughing when the results came in, as MEP Nigel Farage would so ineloquently put it, you're not laughing now. Are you?