After the initial outpouring of class contempt, ageism and metropolitan narcissism, political commentators have sobered up and now suggest that the EU referendum result was a response to decades of deindustrialisation and austerity; that "taking back control" means more than simple xenophobia; and that it is a protest against a remote and unsympathetic elite by the "left behind". Despite this, there appears to be little appetite to talk at length with the people who cast the votes, either to understand their motives or to clarify their expectations. The vox-pops have moved on from "Did you really mean it?" to "Are you disappointed with the ensuing political chaos". Similarly, when people are asked why they voted leave, the answer "immigration" is accepted without any further enquiry, as if no further explanation was needed, showing how the cant of "understanding people's concerns" has enshrined ignorance.
Many have noted the irony that the government might need to hire expert trade negotiators from abroad as a result of the demands of Brexit, but perhaps the interlocutors we have greater need of are ones that can respond to the referendum result by talking to the voters. As it happens, that is the job description of an MP, but the current self-absorption of the two main parties suggests that they are determined to reassert parliamentary sovereignty by performatively ignoring the demos in favour of more niche electorates. The Tories have managed to engineer a new leader, and thereby a new Prime Minister, without recourse to the opinion of party members let alone the wider electorate. Despite the appointment of David Davis as minister for Brexit, the elevation of Theresa May will look like an establishment stitch-up to many who voted leave. The appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary does not dilute the effect.
In contrast, the Labour Party has now determined that a challenge to the leadership must go to a ballot of members with the incumbent as a candidate by right, though with the proviso that the electorate be gerrymandered to try and conjure up an elusive anti-Corbyn majority. Given that one didn't exist last year, it is asking a lot to believe that the new £25 threshold for supporters is going to swing it. Corbyn may have lost the vote of some who elected him, but he may also have gained the votes of others disgusted by the manoeuvrings of the Blairites and their "centre-left" fellow-travellers. It beggars belief that the PLP seriously thought they could depose Corbyn by a procedural coup, though there has been no lack of evidence over the last year of their incompetence or capacity for self-delusion. Some are still talking about a split, which in practice means the PLP annulling the membership in their desire to preserve the purity of their idea of representative democracy.
A common response to the referendum has been to suggest that the people don't know what they want, both in the sense that we're almost evenly divided as a nation and more particularly that leavers want contradictory outcomes. That's patronising, but it is also an excuse to avoid engagement. An individual voter may be an idiot, but the collective electorate is not. Reflecting the will of the people through systems of representative government is difficult at the best of times, but trying to resolve a complex issue, even assuming it isn't misrepresented, is not best done through a binary referendum. Rather than regret Cameron's folly, that should encourage us to treat the result as the trigger for negotiation (a sort of internal Article 50), rather than the end of the process, not in the sense that we treat the referendum as "advisory", or that it be finessed to the point that the result is stood on its head, but that we should have a conversation to establish what a preferred outcome, consistent with the result, would look like.
I see little prospect of that happening. Theresa May and popular engagement do not sit easily together, and her track record at the Home Office suggests her curiosity is kept in check by her authoritarianism. Her sponsorship of the "snoopers' charter" displayed little interest in the technical or social realities of the Internet, while her attitude towards immigration has always been a depersonalised focus on process and quantification. She has vowed to be a "one nation" PM and fight for the many against the few, but then they all say that, don't they? Her government is likely to be more mercantilist and less socially liberal than Cameron's, reflecting her instincts as much as the opportunity of Brexit. Her promise on co-determination, like her promise to give "hard-working families" greater economic security, will be whittled away by that same mercantilist turn and pressure from the free-market right. This does not mean she is a committed deregulator but rather someone who sees regulation as the guarantor of markets. In other words, less neoliberal (Osborne) and more ordoliberal (Hammond).
There seems little prospect that the new government will spend much time asking people in Sunderland what they mean by "immigration" (given the paucity of immigrants in the area) or how they envisage Brexit working in practice. They certainly won't be inviting suggestions on the more fundamental issues that supposedly underlay the referendum vote, such as regional industrial policy or the desire for an English assembly outside London. No doubt opinion polls will be commissioned, but they are no less a "blunt instrument" than a referendum. As New Labour proved with its focus groups, structured questions serve to establish what people will tolerate, not what they aspire to. This incuriosity is hegemonic. The defeated candidates in last year's Labour leadership election do not appear to have spent much time talking to party members about why they voted for Jeremy Corbyn, while their discussions with the wider electorate haven't advanced beyond focus group banality: immigration is a concern; Corbyn is weird etc.
One lesson of Corbyn's success last year was that he valued engagement. His election meetings weren't packed out because he is a masterful talker or because his policy prescriptions were strikingly novel. He's a dull speaker (and thus suspected of honesty) and his platform is bog-standard social democracy with top-notes of internationalism. The attraction was that he was prepared to articulate values that appealed to members (e.g. "austerity isn't necessary") and showed respect for the members' own views. His was a victory of style as much as substance, which ironically means he was the most "Blair 97" of the candidates. Whether he can repeat the trick is moot, but there seems little reason to bet against it. Though he has received little credit from the PLP or media, his achievements over 9 months are of the sort that will appeal to party members, from forcing a reversal on welfare cuts to getting the Fire Brigades Union to affiliate.
Though some on the left harbour hopes for an extra-parliamentary movement, Corbyn is very much in the tradition of the parliamentary road to socialism in which popular engagement and public demonstration act as a buttress to support (and keep honest) the party in the legislature. This is why accountability is critical for his supporters, and why the PLP have made "bullying" the emblematic criticism of their opponents. One side sees the MP as a pure representative of party policy (and therefore the membership), the other as a mediator between the wider electorate and a cunning state. You can argue that party members are not representative of the electorate, but this is meaningless given that they self-select by party. What you can't argue is that MPs have a better understanding of the wider electorate when they spend so little time engaging with voters as political philosophers rather than as consumers of policy tat. The referendum starkly highlighted the UK's problem: too much Parliament, not enough democracy.