Progress. A word used all too frequently by politicians. Everything is seen in terms of progress, from the economy, to welfare, to the purple tie Ed Miliband opts to wear, all actions lead to progression it seems. In fact, the concept has been banded around with such carefree zealous that it has merely come to denote the future, regardless of whether a positive change has been incurred or not. However, more equally as damaging as making the term virtually incomprehensible and meaningless, this political proliferation of progress has also brought to light a deep and fundamental irony which exists in our current political system. The irony that UK politics has failed to progress as society has progressed, causing the augmentation of apathy and a democratic decay within the UK.
To understand this, it is first necessary to recognise the underlying issue the UK has in terms of popular political participation, a lingering illness which is breezily ignored by the majority of politicians through temporary pain killers and the distractions of party politics. Beginning at a basic level, and one which the majority of the aforementioned do not usually progress too far beyond, it is worth identifying the most straightforward participation trend- general election turnout. In 1979, the election year of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, election turnout was 76%. Thirteen years later, two years after she was driven out of office, general election turnout peaked at 77.7%. Nine years later however, in 2001, turnout fell to an all-time low of 59.4%; before rising over the next two elections to 65.1% in 2010, still more than 10% less than in 1979.
Now, superficially, it appears as if a participation problem was in existence but has begun resolve itself- that our democracy is pulling itself out of the apathetic malaise seen in 2001. But, when we inspect more recent turnout figures, questions are raised as to what extent this hypothesis is correct. For example, PCC election turnout in November 2012 was less than 15% and although, admittedly, turnout was not expected to be high by any means, it was certainly not expected to be that abysmally low. In the recent Eastleigh by-election also, a marginal constituency with a clear protest vote in the form of the relentless UKIP, turnout was 52.7%; with nearly half of all constituents having abstained.
Equally, when one inspects the membership figures to the three leading political parties, a similar story of growing disengagement is told. In the mid-1990s Conservative Party membership was at 400,000, a peak figure which subsequently halved between 2000 and 2010. Likewise, Labour Party membership climbed in the 1990s before falling from 1997 until 2010 during their time in government. And finally, membership to the Conservatives’principled cousin; the Liberal Democrats, stood at around 100,000 in the early 1990s, dropping to 70,000 a decade later and then to a mere 49,000 in 2010. Consequently, this suggests a contrary contention- that popular political participation is still regressively deteriorating. But is the cause? Simply. The fact that politics has failed to change. Our modern society has progressed and altered at a rapid pace, something which has not been understood and reflected by our political system.
This regressive participation is linked to a lack of engagement and understanding in politics, inherently related to the lack of political education in our 21st century society. In terms of the concept of education though, here I am not merely referring to political education in schools, as this has never been widespread in the UK, but also to political education passed on also through the network of society. Indeed, there has been a fall in the level of political discussion in the external classroom of society in recent times, especially within the working classes, although not solely reserved to them, as consistent economic growth and rising standards of living since 1997 have meant that political discussions have become unnecessary in day-to-day conversations within most social classes. As a result, the general level of political understanding within the population has fallen since the turn of the century; a situation compounded by the inaction of governments to counter this developing problem, specifically as no form of universal political education in schools has been introduced. The soonest point at which young people can receive an adequate form of political education in our current system is at A-level, where most are shut-off from the subject, either because of an ingrained stigma, or due to their other option choices. Consequently, only 1.7% of students who sat their A-level exams in 2011 chose to study Politics, a figure 0.9% less than those who chose to study Religious Studies. This basic lack of education has meant that the majority of people have been marching through our education system and their early lives with no contact to any substantial form of political information or discussion, excluding them from popular political participation and compounding their adverse feelings towards politics through common obliviousness and disempowerment.
Nevertheless, this situation has also not been helped by the fact that even when people know about the political parties, they have been increasingly disinclined to vote for, or join, any of them; once again illustrating a way in which politics has failed to change as society has developed. Indeed, it seems a new age of spin, incomprehensible rhetoric and internal party games has cultivated in a time where we are commonly experiencing and celebrating the open and easily accessible nature of information, facts and debate, primarily through the unrelenting proliferation of the World Wide Web. It has therefore not been a good advent for UK politics that one can find out the results of New Zealand Pop Idol (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjJDX5W0lnQ) in just two clicks, and yet can’t comprehend the persistent prattling of politicians no matter how many links one clicks on.
Moreover, politics has also been unchanging in the face of growing social mobility and social awareness, as if it has been unable to find the exit to the country club. Out of all MPs elected at the 2010 general election, 34% attended fee paying private schools (compared to the national average of 7%), twenty of whom attended Eton. 24% of these MPs also went to Oxford or Cambridge, which, although may not seem too shocking or undesirable to many, it is the proportion of these who are our leading politicians which reveals more about our antiquated political system. To name a few names for example: David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband (also Harvard), Ed Balls (also Harvard), David Miliband (also MIT), George Osborne, Michael Gove, Theresa May and Boris Johnson all attended either Oxford or Cambridge. But the privilege of our political leaders has always been evident, why has it created common political disillusionment only during the past ten to fifteen years?
Well, previously, it was certainly more on-par with social norms, with those coming from high backgrounds much more likely to gain high occupations- propagating the declining but still prominent idea that there were those who were ‘born to govern’. Correspondingly, what is a great deal more established in current society is a rejection of the privilege of private education through wealth, and of the elitist, isolated nature of the Oxbridge system. Indeed, in one of our Backbench polls, 95% of people have voted that an Oxbridge education is not a requirement for a political leader. With this perception of privilege evidently not reserved for one party either, it has compounded the suggestion that the parties are ‘all the same’, all run by out of touch posh boys with no sense of what it is like to be an ordinary, honest citizen. As a result, in an opinion poll conducted in 2004, 81% of participants stated that they thought all the main political parties were ‘much of a muchness’. Displaying the clear disillusionment of the general public towards modern party politics, surely the most significant reason why party membership has dropped over the past decade and a half, and also why it is accurate to posit that UK politics has not matched the progression of UK society as a whole.
UK politics needs to evolve. Politicians need to become more transparent and understandable, satisfying our desire for easily accessible information and opinion. Politics also needs to become more socially balanced, with cabinet ministers from a range of educational and occupational backgrounds emerging to sit on the front benches of the Commons. But finally, and most vitally, politics must become an essential part of our education system, halting political ignorance and consequent marginalisation to ensure that every citizen has the tools necessary to make a well-informed choice on Election Day. Then, after all this is achieved, maybe we will be able to listen to the pronouncement of “progress” without the undermining irony of our progression paradox.
By Sam Bright