On 'Bregret': Political Engagement After the Referendum

30/06/2016 15:11 | Updated 30 June 2016

"I voted Leave as a protest. I didn't think it would actually happen."

Versions of this statement have been repeated on news broadcasts, social media and anecdotally ever since the referendum result became clear. One poll suggests that over a million people now want to take back their decision to vote Leave. This phenomenon has even been given a name. We are talking about 'Bregret'.

My own father claims he doesn't regret his vote to leave Europe. But I sense he has been caught flat-footed by this referendum. He said he voted Leave because he thinks younger generations shouldn't be so cowardly; they should just 'give it a whirl'. This is a man who is so risk-averse he winces before putting a quid each way on the second-favourite at the Grand National every year.

I don't believe his professed reason. I think he, along with many others, simply - and understandably - forgot what it was like to have a vote that meant something; a vote that could make a difference. So he voted with the flippancy of someone who did not believe his action would have any consequence. While it's no doubt a small minority of Leave supporters who voted this way, it says a lot about how powerless many people feel at the ballot box.

Here's one of the reasons for that sense of powerlessness: for the last 30-odd years, general elections in the UK have offered a somewhat limited choice. Yes, there have been differences - some of them stark - between the two main parties in that time. And yes, it matters greatly which party or parties form the government. It changes people's lives. But it is in the nature of representative democracy - particularly the majoritarian, two-party kind - that those differences are more limited than they might be.

A potter uses a spinning wheel in order to 'centre' the clay and form a level, functional pot. In politics as in pottery, centrifugal forces offer (temporary) stability. By drifting to the centre to attract as many votes as possible, parties help to create something approaching political consensus. That consensus may hold for 30 years or more, before everything falls apart. But in these periods of relative calm, voters start to feel powerless.

After all, they think, what difference does it make which way they vote? If you add the stultifying effects of our winner-takes-all electoral system to the mix (safe seats, wasted votes etc) then that culture of powerlessness really beds in.

But when it all falls apart, it does so messily and at speed - again, like pottery. This happened in Scotland in 2014-15, when the independence referendum led to a complete collapse of the traditionally dominant Scottish Labour Party; and in the UK in the early 1980s, when the fallout from early Thatcherism split the Labour Party in two. The centrifugal pressure builds and builds until the consensus breaks down. Suddenly, the way people vote has a vast material impact. The clay flies off the wheel in different directions. Soon, another lump of clay will be slapped on to form a new consensus. But in that moment of chaos, the way people vote really matters.

Stories of buyer's remorse are everywhere. From BBC vox pops on high streets around the UK to Kelvin Mackenzie of The Sun, many people appear to have been surprised by the sheer power of their vote. They are used to their decision at the polling station not making any difference.

This time, they voted - and big things started to happen. Over the coming weeks and months, we will have to ask a lot of questions about the nature of referendums and their place in our democracy. But this particular referendum may at least have had the effect of reminding people of the power they can wield at the ballot box.

As well as those taken aback by this power, there are those who are so overwhelmed by the impact of this referendum that they have been inspired to take a new interest in politics. Again, this happened in Scotland in recent years where the SNP massively increased its membership.

Now, many people are considering how they can help influence what happens in the coming months. And they are turning to political parties. The Liberal Democrats are reporting over 10,000 new members since the referendum, and as both the two main parties face leadership contests, people who usually steer clear of party politics are wondering how they can play a role. Expect to see a raft of stories about entryism, 'values' and the purpose of political parties in the coming weeks.

So, even as Britain goes through this tumultuous period, we can take heart that the basic appeal of democratic politics - that citizens, at some level at least, are in charge - could be making a bit of a comeback. Clearly this referendum has stirred up serious divisions in the UK, based on age, gender, geography, class and more. But it has also awoken our democratic spirit.

When people start to feel empowered to take part in politics, many different futures become possible. It may be a bit volatile, and it may be a bit scary - but we should not forget to celebrate democracy when we see it.