It is one of the great unhelpful myths of the referendum that the vote represented a clear political statement by a definable socioeconomic group: it did not. It split classes as effectively as it split families. Leave would not have prevailed without the support of affluent boomers in the southeast، whose anger was not about austerity but sovereignty. Both sound as though they occupy the political space of the “high concept”، yet one is a concrete set of policies creating measurable deprivation، while the other is an infinitely interpretable quality which people now prepared to die in a ditch for hadn’t mentioned in any of the previous five decades.
So let’s park the Surrey Leavers for now، whose anguished call for the world as it was cannot really be met by democratic means. Undoubtedly، the votes to leave the European Union in the north and northeast mapped closely onto those areas hit hardest by the conservative policy of fiscal contraction.
It suits MPs to lay that dissatisfaction all at the feet of “concerns about immigration”; the reality is broader. The EU became the symbol of an unresponsive and undemocratic political centre، and all the ire that had collected against the policies coming out of Westminster – and more importantly، its blank unresponsiveness when the damage of those policies was revealed – became attached to institutional politics per se.
Let’s recap on those policies، leaving aside the cuts to public services and the public sector pay freeze simply for want of space: local councils had had their budgets cut by 40 per cent، while their statutory duties remained unchanged.
The result was a complete breakdown in the relationship between citizens and their first layer of democratic representation. Councils fell short; children’s centres closed; libraries shut down; social care packages were pared down to the minimum.
All the old systems of redress – petitions، appeals، activism – hit the brick wall of incapacity. Meanwhile، sanctions and reassessments in the benefits system subjected the unemployed، the underemployed and disabled people to punitive penury which was declared unjust in the courts، at an individual level، time and again، and found to be inefficient at the level of public finances (which is to say، it cost more to administer these new systems than they saved)، and yet persisted.
Whatever the strength of the arguments made against the government، nothing changed.
If، therefore، the referendum were to be rerun، and Remain were to prevail، democratic mechanisms would have to be rebuilt; otherwise none of this animus toward the political centre would disappear. This may، in the long run، mean renewal of political parties so they’re more responsive to members; it may mean open primaries، or a fresh challenge to first past the post.
But in the first instance، it means an end to this destructive belt-tightening، powered by nothing but its own Thatcherite logic that there is no alternative.
Democracy is not abstract: it is a living، breathing thing with connective tissue، legal and civic، and if you starve its institutions، it cannot thrive.
Democratic renewal will begin with a state whose highest value is the wellbeing of its citizens.