Political Apathy in the UK: Who’s Responsible?

I have wanted to address the problem of widespread public apathy in UK politics for a while, and prompted by frustration at comments recently given by rapper JME. JME has been tweeting about the reasons for his disengagement with the UK political system and why he will not be voting in this year’s General Election. His view that politicians are all untrustworthy, greedy replicas of one another who don’t care about serving the public interest is one that has become increasingly common since the MPs’ expenses scandal, and has become more concrete in the British political conversation since the rise of high-profile activists like Russell Brand.


At the very least it is a lazy attitude to take, and for someone with JME’s celebrity status, irresponsible to be propagating this myth. Political parties aren’t all the same, and a cursory glance at their policies and priorities will affirm this (see here for a fairly comprehensive policy guide).


Whilst reading JME’s tweets I was reminded of an article written by Alistair Campbell at the end of last month. In it, Campbell expounded his growing impatience with people who “moan and groan, and say none of them [politicians] inspire, they’re all the same, nothing ever changes…” On this I agree with Campbell strongly, and I voiced my agreement when he aired these views at a talk he gave last month at the Richmond Rose Theatre.

To say that all politicians are the same or that they’re all crooks is a total cop-out. It’s weary populist rhetoric used by the sort of people who are infatuated with the banalities of contrived ‘reality’ TV series’ but who rarely, if ever, show an active interest in matters concerning the welfare of their community or the wider topics of interest for which the government are concerned.


However, whilst I’m glad to see that revered figures like Alistair Campbell are voicing the largely unpopular opinion that we (the public) need to take more responsibility for the gross level of political apathy in this country, I take umbrage with the level of blame he expects us to be responsible for. Campbell states his belief that it is the public that are responsible for this apathy first, then the media and then the politicians. I think he’s neglected to mention a key offender: the political system.


Zac Goldsmith (Conservative MP for Richmond Park) reaffirmed this theory of mine in his expertly delivered talk at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) recently, titled ‘Transforming Politics in the UK’. During the talk Goldsmith identified three key problems with the current UK political system, which he then offered one compelling solution for.


The first problem Goldsmith identified was the prevalence of safe seats. Constituencies in which the same party gets elected in every election are a problem because these MPs are likely to get complacent. They realize that their successful candidacy does not necessarily depend on how effectively they serve their constituency; as a result, they are not as tied to their pre-election promises as they would otherwise be. This complacency is also made possible by the fact that once elected an MP has absolutely no obligation to adhere to anything that they proposed in their election campaign; they don’t have to turn up to parliament at all and could, feasibly, enjoy a four-year sabbatical.


Secondly; MPs’ conflicts of interest. MPs have a choice whether to, on the one hand, hold parliament to account on behalf of the interests of their constituency or, on the other hand, advance their own career by causing as little commotion in parliament as possible, at the expense of their constituency.


Finally, party-line voting. Most MPs have no idea about the full details of each issue they vote on; often the public are more informed on these issues than the MPs themselves. It’s the responsibility of the party whip to inform MPs which way to vote on these issues, which unsurprisingly results in mass party-line voting.


Goldsmith explained that these problems can all be solved by increased accountability for MPs, something that the current system doesn’t allow for much of. Goldsmith has long been an advocate for a ‘Recall of MPs’ bill; it’s a proposal that has been gaining traction over the last couple of years but still has a way to go in terms of parliamentary support. In fact, a bill under this name was introduced at the end of last year, however the bill extends the power to recall an MP up (in the hierarchy of society) to parliamentary commissions rather than down towards the people and thus this version of the bill resolves nothing.

If the public were granted the right to propose a referendum to recall MPs who have not even attempted to fulfill promises made during election campaigns then I believe, as Goldsmith does, that MPs would become a lot more diligent in serving the people that elected them and thus the general public would, in turn, become more appreciative of these mostly hard-working people. It’s not entirely the fault of MPs that the public doesn’t trust them, nor is it entirely the fault of the public that MPs become disengaged. The responsibility lies primarily with an archaic system that allows for broken promises and lax accountability. Goldsmith’s idea for a ‘Recall of MPs’ bill has real potential to breathe new life into UK politics and our appreciation for those at the apex of it. Let’s make it a key issue this election.

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