National politics: are people turning away?

A report from the Hansard Society suggests citizens are ‘disgruntled, disillusioned, and disengaged.’ Daniel Devine asks how much of this apparently widespread belief is justified.

Picture Credit: Mark J P

There is a general belief that British democracy is ‘broken’. Those who make the claim rely on a range of factors: voter turnout has plummeted, for example, with 2001 being the lowest turnout recorded.

According to a Hansard Society audit of political engagement, 73 per cent of people are dissatisfied with the political system and only 23 per cent of people are happy with Members of Parliaments’ performance.

And although there are some encouraging signs – more faith in the effectiveness of Parliament, for instance – the report still concludes that this is ‘a more severe form of disengagement than anything previously seen during the audit lifecycle.’ The Hansard Society paints a grim picture of the present and future of British political life.

A report by the British Academy illuminates the problems further, highlighting that 70 per cent do not trust politicians and that 60 per cent want major reform of the political system. This has led to a ‘stable and stubborn alienation from politics,’ it says. Both this report and other research have indicated that this disengagement undermines the capacity for governments to make the right policy choices for problems in the present and future.

For a system that relies on the legitimacy of its institutions, and particularly of Parliament, distrust and disengagement with the system is a cause for critical concern.

Whilst these reports consider unconventional participation, they focus on conventional participation and primary, formal institutions without giving other forms of engagement a full appraisal. The problem with this is that it leaves a crucial area of politics and democracy untouched. More specifically, by defining the political purely in terms of citizens’ connections with the institutions that make up our democracy, we exclude more encouraging aspects of modern political life.

For instance, there has been a rise in ‘cause-oriented activism’, where activities are not necessarily directed at Parliament or government, but at a more diffuse network of actors. And it is not just extra-Parliamentary aspects of politics in which citizens are increasingly active. Minor parties – primarily in the form of the United Kingdom Independence Party and the Green Party – have made strong gains in elections, and their membership has risen considerably. In the 2010 election they made up 11.4 per cent of the vote, and UKIP came first in the recent European elections.

There is plenty of evidence that citizens are disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged.  But that may be also because of the way we define politics: the word conjures images of Parliament, MPs and committees.  If we broaden the net a little it becomes clear that civil society is far more vibrant than we may think.

And this positive aspect can show us a way out of the political swamp: it is time for 21st century democracy. We have ways and means of opening up the policy process. The Hansard Society, for instance, proposes using technology to enable citizens to ask questions at Prime Minister’s Questions. The Icelandic government, post-2008 economic crash, crowd-sourced its proposed new constitution. Given that people feel they cannot influence decisions a more transparent and participatory political system may help us to shed the cobwebs which are turning people off.

It isn’t all bad. Citizens are willing and able to involve themselves in politics. They can help by putting pressure on the establishment to reform, and academics can help by researching fresh forms of political organisation.  People are disgruntled and disillusioned: but maybe they are not disengaged.

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