The biggest challenge for politics is disinterest. Forget the spurts in popularity of the Liberal Democrats or UKIP. The fastest growing political party in the UK is the apathy party– but they can’t even be bothered to vote, never mind form a party.
In 1950, 84% of the registered electorate voted. By 1997 it was down to 59%, though it rose a few percentage points in 2010 as you might expect in a very close fought election with the outcome anything but certain.
The overall trend is decidedly down and indeed the standard Excel polynomial regression analysis in the graph above would suggest that turnout will be below 50% by 2025, and by 2080 whatever remains of political parties will be fighting wildly over the 5% of the population who still vote. The end of UK democracy comes in 2085.
Of course that’s not going to happen. Indeed it’s an excellent example of bad data, drawing sensational conclusions from a limited data set. Something politicians and the media do all too often I’m afraid.
But it does rather vividly illustrate what is at stake if people don’t engage with politics. We need to make sure that democracy doesn’t end in 2085, that the next generation and the one after that know politics matters, their vote makes a difference and the issues that matter to them are on the top of the political agenda.
That is one of the reasons why every weekend I go out doorknocking as it is called, in Newcastle. That means literally going up to someone’s front door, knocking on it, saying who I am and asking them if they have any concerns, or just anything they want to say to me.
It is of course a very traditional way of engaging with constituents, one which hasn’t changed since the days of the soapbox. But it is still the best way of actually hearing from my constituents. Not everyone can or would email me.
If I went by the content of my inbox then I would say that badgers and lobbying were the number one issues in Newcastle Central.
I know that is not the case. Because I go doorknocking and hold surgeries I know the issues people talk about are jobs, benefits and housing. I publish my casework online as you can see here, and those are also the personal, as opposed to policy, issues that people contact me about. So there is a real difference between the issues people email me about – often organised by social media – and those they talk to me or write to me about.
The communications revolution has yet to impact politics to the degree some assert – or want. Douglas Carswell MP and others of more libertarian persuasion believe digital technology can make Government redundant. But the people I meet on the doorstep want Government – but one that’s on their side, not the privileged few.
As shadow minister for digital democracy I have to bear that in mind when I think about how the internet can change politics for the better.
It can promote more democratic, horizontal relationships, as opposed to old school vertical ones, between Government and citizens – and between big business and citizens for that matter.
But we need to make sure we understand who has access to this technology and who does not.
For example, Ofcom figures show just over one tenth of the over 65s have smartphones but almost one fifth of 11-15 year olds do. And that’s before they can earn the money to buy one!
At our Party Conference last month, Ed Miliband committed the party to giving the vote to 16 and 17 year olds to ‘make them part of our democracy,’ so that politicians ‘hear the voices of people that haven’t been heard for a long time’.
Sixteen and seventeen year olds are literally and metaphorically the future of democracy. And they are digital. Digital democracy must be a key part of engaging them with politics.
The fact that they will be voting whilst still at school means we have an opportunity to enshrine digital citizenship in the educational environment - if both students and teachers have the right skills.
I am of course not the first to suggest this. There are already games and aps on the market to make politics more engaging for young people. None of them have taken off, as yet.
But these aps aren’t generally being designed by young people themselves. So they are not necessarily about what matters to them, what their issues are.
As teenagers increasingly become creators of code not just consumers of it – and I welcome the changes to the computer science curriculum to enable that – then that should change and we, the old school political parties, must be ready for it.
That’s a real opportunity to reboot our democracy and start reversing our democratic downward trend.
By Chi Onwurah
Labour Shadow Cabinet Office Minister