Democratic Britain? We have some way to go

1 May 2015

“Satisfaction with democracy in Britain appears to derive in part from engagement with politics.” (Clarke et al, 2004).

 

Democratic deficit it is argued, is as a result of low voter turnout. I am led to believe however, that there is a larger problem at hand that underpins the lack of participation in elections in the last decade. The veracity of the idea that democracy is not of interest to the British public is dubious, the ideal of democracy is one greatly treasured in the Western hemisphere and although routinely taken for granted by majority of us, lack of interest in it is not viable. The electorate haven’t given up on democracy but rather on party politics, unfortunately the two are popularly perceived to be inextricably linked, proliferating disillusioned electors and catalysing growth in amounts of isolated youth.

 

To begin we must first operationalise the term democracy. Despite its broad definition, Merriam Webster simply defines it as: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. Another more commonly accepted definition is ‘governance by the people’. A core feature of democracy is elections. Thus it can be simplistically stated that if the British public show low levels of engagement with them, they are indeed becoming less interested. But how does this claim fare in the face of the faults presented by the FPTP electoral system?

 

The current electoral system of first-past-the-post is inherently erroneous and dissatisfaction with it, in my opinion, has a bearing on turnout. Firstly, a seat/vote skew disadvantages second or third parties, as well as independent candidates because, despite the fact they may have substantial national support, they are not awarded a proportional number of seats as their support isn’t ‘constituency concentrated’ enough. For example, in 2010, Lib Dems gained 23% of the vote but only 8.8% of seats, contrasting with Tories who gained 36.1% of the vote but 47.5% seats. This defect makes it harder for smaller parties to gain representation (although this can be beneficial in the case of fringe or extremist parties), which is why in 2005, 85% of MP’s were either Labour or Conservative.

 

In addition to this, the idea that votes for a second or third party are wasted, as they’d lose to a safe seat are perpetuated by cases such as 2010, where 33-34,000 votes were needed to elect a Tory or Labour MP comparing to a staggering 120,000 to elect a LibDem. In 2015, despite the popularity the Green Party have garnered amongst the youth, the idea that “my vote for them won’t count” sadly rings loudly. This indifference surrounding elections can act as a deterrent from voting; however it is not concomitant with a lack of interest in the notion of democracy as people still wish to engage through other methods as to be detailed.

 

Although low local, European, and general electoral turnout is the most obvious reason to suggest a lack of interest in democracy amongst the British electorate, voting is only one method of participating in politics, and this decline is being supplemented for by growing activity outside the ballot box, as has been the case for the last decade. The demonstrations against the Iraq war in February 2003 involved an estimated 4% of people in Britain. And more recently, the student protests of 2010 involved between 30,000 and 50,000 demonstrators in London alone.

 

People do not seem disengaged altogether from the ideal of democracy being governance by the people, and electoral decline has not been coupled with decline in other methods of political participation (for example, there has been a rise in people signing petitions, contacting MP’s and contacting governmental departments since the 80’s). The porous nature of the British political system has created numerous channels of engagement and political protest activity which has given birth to a new sphere of participation through pressure groups and grassroot movements such as Occupy. Individuals can get involved not just through electoral activities but activism (such as protest, boycotting and petitions), civic activities (charity or community service) and lifestyle politics (awareness raising and ‘boycotting’) to attract attention to their cause.

 

We can also look at social media to dispute the idea that democracy is no longer of interest! Social media is peer directed, stimulating youth political engagement and can be used to bring politicians and parties closer to their potential votes without the mass media ‘middle man’. In addition, it raises awareness of what’s going on at home and abroad providing a forum for political discussion. Citizens can now circulate, create, collaborate, and connect on a political issue they see on their feeds or timelines. New media politicises the already disengaged generation of youth and provides much needed alternative forms of engagement as a result of lack of access to or scepticism surrounding many governmental or institutionalised forms of participation, which then magnetises them to more accessible or informal forms of engagement. The familiarity of new media to my generation has restructured methods of political communication by influencing how politicians interact with citizens and has enabled youth to understand which elements of democracy they find satisfactory, personalising it to themselves.

 

Briefly put, Robert Putnam argues people are less willing to trust one another because less time is spent getting to know each other in local surroundings, and if we are less willing to trust those around us, then this could lead us to becoming less trusting of those that take decisions on our behalf. A 2012 poll saw 51% of 1000 adults asked state they do not think Nick Clegg is trustworthy contrasting with 24% before he went into office, whilst 54% thought the same of David Cameron. There has been a disillusionment surrounding party politics, the two main parties often go at loggerheads and engage in personal attacks as seen throughout the 2015 general election debates, spew ‘broken promises’, and are vilified by the media’s focus on Westminster sleaze and scandals. These negatives coupled with pursuit for transparency, have produced a decrease in trust (and possibly like) of government or party leaders, which is damaging to turnout levels. For example, in December 2000, Blair’s 1997 satisfaction rating of 82% plummeted to 49%. This coupled with the 61% who found him not trustworthy in April 2005 could explain the 47 seat decrease Labour suffered in the next general election.

 

Socioeconomic disparities within Parliament, especially the Commons, , can leave minority groups feeling severed and unrepresented by the chamber that is supposed to be most representative, when compared to the electorate. For example, differences in education; with 90% of MPs being university graduates, compared with 20% across the adult population or over a third having attended fee paying schools, compared with less than 10% of the adult population. Ethnic minorities make up a low 4% of the House, whilst women make up 22%. Democracy inherently disadvantages minorities, placing the will of the majority supreme, resulting in tyranny. Although this could deter groups from participating in elections, it does not deter other political activity despite how disruptive it may be, e.g. the London Riots of 2011. Those on the edges of society, who felt unheard vented their frustration as a “riot is the voice of the unheard.”

 

So finally, I say that the British public cannot be deemed to be increasingly uninterested in democracy as a result of low turnout, despite democracy being reliant on the mechanism of regular free and fair elections. Ills within the political infrastructure such as electoral disproportionality or HoC/HoL socioeconomic disparities heavily discourage involvement. Yet activity external to the ballot box is on the rise signaling the desire to take democracy into one’s own hands exhibiting that democracy is still much sought after and the British public does indeed remain interested.

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