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Brexit saga has wilted confidence in democracy

Politicians need to renew efforts to reach out to their constituents, if only to hold at bay the allure of fringe politics.

Prime Minister Theresa May herself has warned about the dangers of the "potential failure of centre-ground politics", unless it tackles tough issues, and responds to public concerns.

FORMER Conservative leader Ian Duncan Smith on Sunday called for Prime Minister Theresa May to resign immediately, after the party lost more than 1,200 Council seats in the UK local elections. The Tories probably also face very difficult European Parliament elections on May 23, which could potentially be the trigger for a leadership contest bringing to an end her premiership.

Some three years after entering Downing Street, even many of Mrs May's own allies now concede she is in the "endgame" of a premiership that has been defined by Brexit. Yet given the failure - at least to date - to deliver a UK exit withdrawal deal, many voters punished the party late last week, with it losing that many seats in councils across the nation, the worst local election results for the Tories since the 1990s.

In this sense, the vote turned on its head the results of the 2017 general election to elect MPs to the Westminster Parliament. In this ballot, both main parties won more than 80 per cent of all votes, their biggest combined share since 1970.

The clear winners, with a distinctive anti-Brexit stance, were the Liberal Democrats, which had their best night in local elections for a generation, picking up over 700 seats. The Liberals, the third largest UK party in the post-war era, may now be recovering after slumping in the polls following its entry into a coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster from 2010-15.

Yet, non-Brexit issues were also a factor in Thursday's elections - from micro-issues like local planning controversies to bigger national policies. When she entered 10 Downing Street in 2016, Mrs May inherited many long-standing, contentious, policy decisions ranging from pensions reform and the country's housing crisis to big multi-billion pound infrastructure and transport issues.

To be sure, she has moved forward with some of this agenda. However, many key decisions have stalled with the government's political energy consumed almost entirely by the EU referendum aftermath since 2016.

Only last week, she announced she is postponing the "Queen's Speech" outlining legislative priorities over the next one to two years. And this decision has been taken because of the political weakness of the prime minister who instead wants to focus her remaining time and capital on trying to get an EU withdrawal deal through Parliament.

With no obvious path way to achieving this objective, Mrs May must decide in the coming days how best to try to move forward before the May 23 European Parliament elections. It is a huge political embarrassment to her that these ballots now look likely to move ahead three years after the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the Conservatives will likely again perform very badly.

With her own withdrawal deal potentially dead, there appear two main immediate options: continuing the current cross-party talks with Labour, or to go for a further round of indicative votes, albeit potentially this time on a preferential "knock-out" basis to try to forge a parliamentary compromise. Neither of these, however, are appealing for her as she could well be forced to compromise on one of her previous "red lines". This includes the United Kingdom remaining in a customs union with the EU, which would further antagonise much of her Conservative base before the May 23 ballot.

With EU exit issues still centre stage in UK politics, it is not just problematic for the Conservatives, but also the country at large, that so many key non-Brexit decisions have been kicked out into the political "long grass" during Mrs May's premiership. Whereas she promised three years ago that they would be prioritised, and sensibly addressed in the best interests of the country, this has simply not happened.

And, with trust among voters in politics already at historic lows, the failures of the last three years also have the potential to further undermine confidence in the democratic process. For especially after the Brexit vote, which underlined widespread disillusionment with UK elites, elected politicians must now show themselves capable of building consensus to overcome more key, long-term policy challenges like pensions and housing, and also building public confidence in major issues flagged in the referendum, including migration.

The danger, if not, is that the rise of populist politicians and parties, such as the hard-right, anti-Islam United Kingdom Independence Party, will grow with the often half-baked, damaging agendas they champion. Mrs May herself has highlighted this risk in what she has called the "potential failure of centre-ground politics" unless it tackles tough issues, and responds to public concerns to prevent what she called "fringe politics".

Meeting these tough-to-solve, first-order challenges is a significant hurdle that democratic institutions and politicians must do better. For if too many first-order policy problems fester without resolution, it can even give the perception of a broken process and that democracy itself has failed.

A key part of the solution is promoting longer-term political outlooks and sensible, cross-party discussion rather than the increasing tendency toward short-termism. There is also a pressing need for wider democratic renewal.

The challenge is particularly pressing in the United Kingdom in the wake of the Brexit vote. The referendum revealed a deeply divided nation with many feeling disconnected from the political process, with a range of long-standing concerns from immigration to stagnant living standards.

Contrary to what some populist and nationalist politicians assert, there is no "silver bullet" agenda that can address these challenges overnight. Instead, a long-term, concerted effort is needed to better address these issues through a range of educational, home affairs, economic and other policies.

And alongside this, politicians must try to find new ways of engaging with people. This should be both directly and indirectly, including through the possibilities offered by new technologies.

Collectively, such an agenda can move towards demonstrating more effectively how fair and inclusive democratic politics can help overcome or ameliorate the challenges that many people are experiencing in a world changing fast in the face of globalisation. Failure to do so, and better demonstrate the positive impact that politics can make in key policy areas from immigration to housing, energy and pensions, may only lead to growing support for "fringe politics" with its often ill-considered, ineffective policy platforms.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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