A revolution of democracy

13 Jul 2014

As we hurtle towards the 2015 general election, our democracy and what it means in modern Britain will receive much attention over coming months. But what is clear is that the modern interpretation of democracy; a growing distrust, a lack of accessibility of representatives and a stagnated view of the ‘formal’ ways of participating have led to a breakdown of the old democratic processes. A ‘new’ democracy – how people engage with politics and what they expect of their representatives - is emerging.


So, are young people apathetic or merely disengaged? There is the perception they think: ‘politics doesn’t matter to me’. But this belief that young people are apathetic may be somewhat of a misnomer; there is a difference between apathy and disengagement. Indeed, this is the key and there should be cause for optimism. Apathy suggests lack of interest, but disengagement suggests distrust and alienation. The 2010 British Electoral Survey found that older people do show more interest in politics, but the difference isn’t huge. In fact, before the 2010 election, 84% of young men and 74% of young women indicated they were ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ interested in the outcome (even though turn-out was only 44%). Political disengagement doesn’t mean young people don’t care about the world around them.

What is significant is that young people’s political knowledge is lacking and has been on the decline for the past 20 years. The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement (APE) 10 (2013) showed that young people’s knowledge dropped significantly in a year from 36% to 24%, and their knowledge about Parliament was even lower. A 2013 LSE report directly linked this lack of knowledge and disengagement in ‘formal’ political action, while the percentage of those aged 18-24 ‘certain to vote’ was a mere 12%, another symptom of a break-down in communication between the electorate and those representing them. 

There are, of course, a number of factors which make for disengagement. Negative campaigning at election time may also be having a damaging effect. In an age when much campaigning is on television, people are more ‘passive’ than they once were, feeling disconnected from national politics. Elections were once more about ‘meeting the people’ and less about the sound-bites and party political broadcasts of today’s electioneering.

Opinions about Prime Minister's Questions - that it is seen as ‘noisy and aggressive’ and that it does not deal with important issues - provide an interesting snapshot perception of Parliament. Only 50% of 18-24 year olds agreed that Parliament 'is essential to our democracy' and a mere 36% felt it makes decisions about issues that matter to them. On the back of APE 11’s findings, Mumsnet has produced a petition to overhaul the way MPs conduct themselves and the ‘old boy’s network’.

Although politicians have never been absolved of the view that they are ‘out for themselves’ (as a poll from the 1940s demonstrates), trust is one of the biggest factors for general disengagement. Not just scandals like MPs expenses have eroded trust. 64% of young people think politicians ‘don’t keep their promises’, while 67% overall say they ‘don’t understand the daily lives of people like me’. Young people themselves acknowledge that their generation expects more out of life than they get and in 2011 52% felt they were not treated fairly by government. Not surprisingly, manifesto pledges are remembered and the electorate put a lot of faith in these promises.

APE 11 reports that the right of recall of representatives would go some way to restore trust. Although the reasons for recall may be laudable and – to an extent - understandable, it is difficult to see how successful it would be in practice. It doesn’t, of course, mean because an MP votes a certain way you can kick them out, as some pressure groups would wish; it is for gross misconduct. Contrary to the belief of some, we live in a ‘Burkean’ representative not a direct democracy. 

While on the one hand it is assumed that politicians are corrupt and don’t understand ordinary struggles, on the other people have high expectations. A recent MORI poll found that 59% agreed ‘we expect more of government than of God’. This may be due to a drop in religious belief more than the fault of government, but the sentiment is still obvious. MPs’ postbags and inboxes are bulging more than ever before.

There has been an international shift in how people, young people especially, engage in political participation through informal political action rather than more traditional routes. Online campaigning has revolutionised informal action at a time when people are feeling increasingly isolated from the mainstream political system. Although political party membership has declined sharply (only 30% of people can identify with one), membership of charities and pressure groups have increased since the 1970s. People can now get online to register their disaffection, but this provides a new headache for Parliamentarians – distinguishing between those who are active and passionate about an issue and those who have more of a ‘I may as well’ attitude.

This is the rub: it can encourage a new type of ‘lazy’ informal participation which is neither productive nor informative. No longer do you have to get up and go on a demonstration or go into the high street to sign a petition - you can do it all from the comfort of your own home with the click of a button then sit back and feel good that you’ve contributed to political debate. But surely there should be more to it than that? At the risk of sounding anti-democratic, is there a danger that contacting your MP in this way can be ‘too easy’? A hundred emails may give a skewed impression of an engaged electorate, when more often than not they are from the same pool of constituents. It may foster simmering resentment between a disaffected electorate which feels they’re not being listened to and MPs being bombarded over and over by the same email but with a different (familiar) name attached. Maybe this assessment is too harsh, but it is difficult to distinguish real concern and such a situation cannot be helpful for the policy-making process. There is no doubt that this sort of campaigning is here to stay however, emphasizing that a fresh look at modern democracy is needed. 

Whether you believe mass mail-outs to MPs are productive or not, it is significant that people are using such ways of contacting their representative. There is an obvious need for a new definition of what political participation is in the modern world. ‘Campaigning’ should have a wider definition and the political classes need to begin acknowledging that signing a Facebook petition, buying particular products or even providing an extra hit on a political activist’s blog is just as participatory as leafleting for a political party.

Although, re-definition alone won’t be enough to make people feel more engaged in the decision-making process. Only 51% of those questioned inAPE 10 agreed that Parliament made decisions which affect them directly. This is an appalling statistic. Education of the importance of Parliament (rather than a dry account of the legislative process) is crucial. And it may sound obvious, but sticking to manifesto pledges could work wonders to improve trust in government. The power of recall may help – but the definition needs to be presented more clearly and may make distrust between MPs and the public greater and not less if it is mishandled.

Accessibility of politicians, both at a national and local level, would also make a difference. The bi-annual Question Time open meetings for the London Mayor are very popular and APE 11 suggests that similar meetings for MPs and their constituents would be a positive move with the electorate.  

Compulsory voting has been mooted but remains unlikely. Turn-out at elections is high, as one would expect, in countries with compulsory voting. The Institute for Public Policy Research published a report in 2006 advocating compulsory suffrage to stimulate debate and education and to turn voting into a civic duty. But in Australia, which can boast a rather ruthless approach to party politics, disenchantment is still high and a third of the overall number of eligible voters not enrolled are - as in the UK without compulsory voting - between 18 and 24. It is possible that compulsory voting may merely mask the symptoms of a disillusioned electorate; during recent Labor in-fighting there was a growing sense of anger with politicians simply navel-gazing rather than tackling the real issues. There has only been talk about abolishing it as nobody is quite sure what it might mean for their democracy. 

The Hansard Society’s approach to a reengagement with politics should be studied closely by decision makers. Once there is better communication between the electorate and elected, once there is more education about the decisions made not just in Parliament but at a local council level and once people feel their representatives are more accountable, people may begin to feel more engaged, membership of political parties may once again begin to rise, or at least level, and voter turnout will increase. But there is a long way to go.

By Emma Gray

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