Politicians and political analysts seized on the result of the 2016 EU referendum in the UK, acknowledging that many communities across the countries and regions of the United Kingdom were sending a message to the political establishment.
In essence, the message was that individual citizens felt disconnected with the political and policy-making processes that affected their daily lives. The large turnout of those eligible to vote in the referendum (72.2% of all eligible voters cast their vote for ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’), suggested that many voters used the referendum to ‘kick-back’ at the establishment. What the ‘establishment’ actually is, at least in the perception of voters, was summarised by politicians after the referendum as comprising parliament and politicians.
The change of Prime Minister, following the referendum result, followed by a general election that resulted in a hung parliament – with no political party being elected with an overall majority in the House of Commons – suggests something more profound that unease, on the part of the electorate with politics and politicians.
A number of researchers have started to look in-depth at the relationship between policy-making, communities affected by policy developed in London and the future relationship between parliament and the citizen.
Among them is Alex Prior. There are two interesting aspects to Alex’s research. The first is that he has embarked on six months of qualitative research involving visits to communities where the leave vote in the EU referendum was at its highest. For example, Alex has already spent time in Boston in Lincolnshire, where 76% of voters cast their vote in favour of leaving the European Union. The second interesting aspect of Alex’s research is that his day-to-day job is in investment banking in the City of London. The result of the UK general election has underlined the need for researchers like Alex to examine, in detail, the nature of a politically divided society in Britain and the relationship between policy-making and communities affected by policies. His early research has already uncovered a deep unease that ‘London’ is disconnected from the realities of communities adversely affected by the economic impact of UK and EU policy-making.
The broader picture for policy-making, following the UK general election, is the limitations placed on any political party seeking to deliver a policy programme with a minority government.
A period of policy stagnation, in which new legislation needed to enact policy is delayed, diluted or abandoned because of the difficulties in securing parliamentary approval is unlikely to enhance the reputation of policy-makers in communities across the country.
This is a profound challenge for politicians and the policy-making process. Despite devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the role of central government in London, notably in relation to funding and the overarching direction of UK government policy makes it difficult for the devolved administrations to operate in isolation.
The suspension of the devolved government in Northern Ireland will not help this process, faced with direct rule from Westminster and the involvement of one of the main political parties in Northern Ireland in an agreement to support the UK government to secure a majority in parliament.
Political uncertainty at Westminster does not provide a platform for the political parties in parliament to focus on reconnecting policy-making with the communities affected by policies.
Research being conducted in the wake of the EU referendum on the disconnection between policy-makers and the citizen will contribute to advancing understanding on the part of policy-makers at Westminster. In the short-term, policy-makers will have little time to consider research evidence developed by studies undertaken by researchers such as Alex Prior, given the political realities facing the new parliament. In the longer-term, further research will help to address the complex relationship between government, parliament, policy-making and the citizen.