There is a need for profound reform to make sure that those often left out of politics—including the young and non-university educated—are given a voiceby David Runciman / March 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
The Brexit referendum poses a double challenge to parliamentary democracy. First, how to reconcile the brute fact of a majoritarian plebiscitary decision with the complex process of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. Rival claims to speak for “the people” during this ongoing process—from the government, parliamentarians and unelected Brexiters—have made this question acute. Second, though, there is the problem of how to bridge the divisions between different sections of the voting public that the referendum revealed and reinforced. The problem our parliamentary democracy struggles with is that these divisions cut across traditional party divides.
These divisions include those between generational cohorts—older voters were much more likely to back Brexit than younger voters—and educational cohorts—voters who had been to university were much more likely to back Remain than those who had not. Left/right politics does not capture either the generational or the educational divide. There is no conventional party of the university educated nor a party for the old. Although Labour does its best to be the former and the Tories the latter, neither can afford to present itself in those terms. Moreover, parliament is made up overwhelmingly of university-educated and middle-aged or older representatives. So, the UK’s political institutions stand on one side of these divides rather than straddling them. Who represents the less educated? Who represents the young?
This second challenge to parliamentary democracy is the deeper-seated one, because the divisions will endure long after the formal process of negotiating Brexit is complete. In that context, the relative unrepresentativeness of parliament has been exposed in the period since the referendum. Take university education. More than 90 per cent of current members of parliament went to university, so having a degree has become close to a job requirement. All the members of The Independent Group have a higher education qualification, as do all current Liberal Democrat MPs. University-educated voters favoured Remain by a 70:30 margin, which helps to explain why the Commons is a predominantly Remain-leaning body.
That does not mean, of course, that MPs have felt empowered to block Brexit. Instead, it has left them increasingly unsure about their role as representatives: do they speak for the people like them or for the people who have no one else to speak for them? More than three million individuals voted in the referendum who…