openDemocracyUK

My 350 on BREXIT: tackling the democratic deficit

The UK parliament requires a radical overhaul if it is to address public discontent.

Matthew Teller
7 July 2016

Two things could start the process of fixing the democratic deficit highlighted by the referendum result.

First, parliament must move out of London. The Palace of Westminster is crumbling – literally and metaphorically. Shortly before the referendum, there was a suggestion to move parliament to Bristol, in what’s been termed a “full decant”. Bristol would be the top choice of few – perhaps not even Bristolians – but what could send a clearer message than the establishment packing its bags and clearing out of the capital? 'Bursting the Westminster bubble' – the headlines write themselves. Not to mention the regular sight of ministers and mandarins having to change trains at Swindon and Reading.

The mood in the country – win or lose, Remain or Leave – is ugly, and likely to turn uglier, as recession and the lack of effective government start to bite and as it becomes ever more apparent to Leave voters that Brexit is unlikely to happen, at least not in the way that many imagined. Parliament should act now, and move.

As it does so, the first bill it should consider in its new home is the introduction of proportional representation. First-past-the-post has advantages – above all, the link between an MP and a constituency – but it also fosters confrontational politics. FPTP creates a democratic deficit: governments take power on minority mandates, and votes are unequal: mine, in a safe seat, counts less than yours, in a marginal. Boundary changes also move the goalposts.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some people were voting Leave as a protest. Perhaps they didn’t realise that the EU referendum wasn’t just another of our opaque FPTP elections, where protest votes might make some kind of sense. Some people voted Leave because they didn’t think Leave would win: that’s a “safe seat” mentality. Parliament must demonstrate that every vote, at every polling station, in every election, has an impact.

PR also means the breakup of the two-party system. That will be hard for many to stomach, but it has become critically important, now, for politics to be more responsive. Something has to give, and I would rather it were party institutions than the state itself. The irony is that Leave voters, in their desire for exceptionalism, may end up making British politics more ‘continental’. But they have delivered an imperative for fundamental change that the political establishment ignores at its peril.

In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here.

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