EU Referendum

The EU referendum once again shows democracy needs a serious upgrade

By Adam Westbrook 27 June 2016
Summary

Democracy rebooted.

“This is a great day for democracy”.

So went the sentiment of prominent politicians on Thursday night as they reflected on a well-run polling day with record voter turnout. After a knife-edge week, the polls had closed and it looked like Remain would edge a victory in the EU Referendum.  The pound was at a new high. Even Nigel Farage had all but conceded victory.

What a difference seven hours makes. We woke on Friday to see Farage grinning and billions of pounds wiped off the markets. Within hours David Cameron had resigned, forcing a leadership contest which will result in a Prime Minister who – for the second time in ten years – was not elected by the people.

Not such a great day for democracy after all.

The EU Referendum result – among many things – exposes a democratic system that is no longer fit for purpose.

To be clear, I wouldn’t choose anything other than democracy, history has shown it is far better than the alternatives. But we must accept that our version of democracy is desperately in need of an upgrade.

The case for democracy 2.0

The leave campaigners argued the European Union was undemocratic.

But consider this: the United Kingdom consists of a hereditary monarchy and an unelected House of Lords. The MPs who are chosen by the people are elected using the First Past the Post system which often sees politicians win with a minority vote. The current Conservative government won just 37% of the popular vote last year (in other words, 63% of Britons didn’t want David Cameron to be their Prime Minister).

And that’s just the start.

For most of our democratic history, British politics has consisted of just two parties. In America (the other “great” democracy) they still have just two parties, currently so divided they are managing little more than protest sit-ins.

Meanwhile, in the last 50 years the UK population has diversified immensely in a whole host of ways. Why are we still expected to choose from a mere handful of political groups? The inevitable result is the parties themselves beginning to fragment as these divisions increase. It was David Cameron’s cynical attempt to heal this fragmentation that forced him into calling the referendum.

Finally, a healthy democracy requires an informed populace and Friday’s result is partly the outcome a poisoned and weakened fourth estate. It’s likely, once again, that it’s “the Sun wot won it”, along with the Telegraph, Express and Mail, all newspapers owned by people or companies with ulterior motives and almost utterly unaccountable.

It was striking too, to see some leave voters admit they didn’t even know what they were doing:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” Thomas Jefferson once said. This is what happens when we let our guard down.

Bug fixes

Young people are the sector of society who are most royally screwed by this referendum result. We will live with the effects of this for the rest of our lives – despite not voting for it.  Personally, I hope that from the shock and grief of yesterday’s result, emerges a new movement where young people do more than tweet their frustrations.

But our generation must also demand a better democracy. An alternative vote system, dismissed in a referendum 5 years ago, must be reconsidered. We need more parties, and independent, accountable, journalism.

Technology is well placed to help reinvent democracy for the 21st century. Voting online, a guarantee of higher engagement, is easily dismissed as vulnerable to hacking. But for a nation that does its banking online without major calamity, this is not an insurmountable idea.

A final note: the leave campaign won with 17 million votes. That’s a mandate of just 24% of the total population – and our country is irreversibly changed as a result.

In the UK we – like much of the western world – tout our democratic values as something to aspire to. We criticise non-democracies, we export and sometimes even enforce democracy on other countries.

That superiority’s looking pretty hypocritical today.