As Parliament prepares for the summer recess, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on a tumultuous last year – the referendum, a new prime minister and a general election has provided a unique reset in the relationship between politicians and the public. What should we take from two vast democratic exercises?
There are obviously more lessons than this short article can cover, but as a starter I’d begin with the simple observation that the United Kingdom, or even solely England, is a more diverse, if not divided, place than any had previously suspected.
Constituencies in London voted just as strongly to remain in the EU as Boston and Skegness voted to leave; the same places voted for Jeremy Corbyn just as strongly as others voted to reject him.
The capital, albeit not many other big cities, can feel to some constituents in Lincolnshire like it is almost another country.
Those of us elected to work in it on behalf of others lose sight of that difference at our peril.
That disconnect also sometimes results in a contempt for politicians that is corrosive for democracy – I don’t mean the disgraceful abuse of parliamentary candidates or the other side in the referendum campaign.
Just as football hooligans had little interest in football, so those issuing death threats to politicians are simply criminals looking for a target.
But there is a growing sense that politicians risk losing sight of the public through lack of contact.
I’ve sought, through public meetings, significant use of social media, frequent surgeries, events such as ‘Pub Politics’ or ‘Chat with Matt’ to meet all sorts of voters and to be genuinely accessible.
In person people are unfailingly polite even in disagreement; online, I expect Lincolnshire Reporter will post this article on Facebook and a few people will think it’s acceptable simply to be obnoxious in the comments underneath in a way they wouldn’t be in person.
In my experience, engaging with people who disagree is an almost universally positive experience, but it has become normal to take a very different approach online.
We will be a better society the faster that changes.
In among those debates of various levels of politeness, there are nonetheless two further observations: the public accept the results of referendums or elections as a reflection of the country and want politicians to simply deal with it as best they can.
In a hung parliament that may be hard, but it is what it is.
I’ve not found a single person who wants a further general election, and many who ask for the stability of decisive government.
That’s just one reason I hope to see Theresa May in Downing Street for as long as she wants to be there.
Finally, politicians seem to be self-serving if they get caught up in leadership shenanigans.
No business owner or manager would put up with endlessly scheming workers.
The public are in many senses the owners of their politicians – they shouldn’t have to put up with it either.