THE BLOG

Time For Parliament To Switch To Listening Mode

27/01/2017 11:44

Will the Supreme Court ruling on Parliamentary sovereignty help restore trust in democracy, or will we just see politics-as-usual?

In recent years - and certainly since the expenses scandals - the public, especially younger people, have increasingly come to view our elected representatives as an out-of-touch, self-preserving elite who spend their days guffawing at each other across antiquated green benches. This is an opinion of both Parliament and Government like - and no doubt contributes to the findings of Common Vision's poll with Opinium that only six in ten (57%) 18-34 year olds say they are either not very confident or not at all confident that the UK's exit from the European Union is being negotiated in a way that best suits their interests, compared to just 28% who say they are either somewhat or very confident.

In response to the Supreme Court's decision, Ministers have today introduced the "Brexit bill", legislation that asks for agreement from the House of Commons and the House of Lords that the Prime Minister can proceed with the withdrawal process (via invoking Article 50). The bill in itself won't change much as it is unlikely that the majority of MPs and Peers will vote to overturn the referendum decision to leave the EU (to do so would guarantee a surge of UKIP voters in the next general election). However the decision sends a clear national message about "Parliamentary sovereignty" - the constitutional principle in the UK that decisions must ultimately be made by Parliament (all elected representatives and peers), not Government (the leading members of the political party with the most seats in Parliament).

It is Parliament who voted to hold the referendum in the first place, who signed off on the terms of the vote (and failed to clarify what exactly would happen in the case of a Leave vote) and who decided not to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds - and so while in many ways Parliament already exercised its sovereignty, it did so whilst both its members and many of the electorate were sleep-walking.

It is a common misunderstanding that leaving the EU will lead to the abolition of all EU laws in the UK. What will actually happen, through the Great Repeal Bill, is that current EU rules and regulations - covering things like environmental law, workers' rights, and the regulation of financial services - will be carried over into UK law. The idea is that in time these will be reviewed, amended and potentially scrapped by UK politicians. But those changes, when the time comes, will be subject to agreement from Westminster or the devolved Parliaments. Thus the vote on Article 50 will be just the first in a long train of decisions which Parliament will have to scrutinise in the coming months and years.

Also this week, Theresa May has confirmed the Government's plans to publish a White Paper - a formal policy document which sets out the Government's negotiating aims and invites responses. Many have suggested that this White Paper will rearticulate the twelve-point plan which the PM set out in last week's eagerly anticipated "Lancaster House" speech. While the content of the speech may have disappointed many people, particularly former Remain voters who hoped for a "soft Brexit" in which the UK remained in the Single Market, the clarity provided by Theresa May gives way to numerous opportunities for "rigorous forecasting", "firm negotiations" or a "battle plan" depending on what type of organisation or community is engaging. The point is there are now terms on which to engage and plans to discuss.

Many MPs will undoubtedly face a crisis of conscience between the views their hold dear and the votes of their constituents. Today Tulip Siddiq MP resigned from the front bench in protest at being forced to vote for triggering Article 50, when 75% of her North London constituents voted Remain. The reverse will be true for many other MPs, 74% of whom favoured staying in the EU before the referendum but who now find themselves representing a Leave constituency.

After the High Court first ruled on Article 50 in November, I bumped into an MP who jubilantly told me how thrilled they were. I was puzzled, because their constituency was a prominent Leave area. "Yes," they explained, "but I will tell them why I'm voting down Brexit and they'll have to understand". There are numerous other examples of Brexiteer politicians who have told me (without pausing for breath let alone solicit a response) their detailed, step-by-step hypothecation for the entire type, form and timescales of Brexit "which now has been given a mandate by the will of the people". It is these sorts of closed-minded attitudes that are exactly why some Leave voters chose to challenge the complacency of the status quo - but also why some Remainers (particularly young people who have higher levels of distrust in politicians) favoured the "safety net" of European institutions over the proclivities of their national politicians.

MPs have a duty to represent the views of their constituents - regardless of whether they voted for them. This includes constituents who didn't vote at all, or who were too young to vote. Understanding he views of younger age groups is crucial in this regard. It is now a commonly known fact that this is the age group which voted more strongly for Remain in the referendum than older cohorts - and of course the group who will live longest with the policies and changes set in motion by Brexit. However often there is less understanding about the reasons and drivers behind the attitudes and preferences of younger people, which must be given due attention in the Brexit process if the decisions are to stand the test of time.

For millennials, many of the priorities which influenced the older vote (and therefore the overall outcome) do not hold as much sway. A prime example is immigration - which was very influential for deciding which way to vote in the referendum amongst over 55s, as well as the issue which attracted the most media coverage in the weeks and months leading to the vote. However, when we asked 18-34s to reflect on 22 potential priorities for Brexit negotiations moving forward, 'reducing the number of people immigrating to the UK' was rated the least important for this age group. This is in stark contrast to the focus on immigration from politicians and commentators alike, and highlights the danger that the government will pursue a Brexit strategy based on the perceived priorities of older people, ignoring the needs and preferences of future generations. The availability of well paid jobs, protection of human rights, public services, education and protecting the environment are all key concerns for millennials. Parliamentarians must champion these - but more importantly understand them. The outdated models of "representation" - asking for views from people and then telling them what will happen next - must give way to a more participative, two-way conversation if we really are to reinvigorate politics.

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