AS Politics, Democracy, Politics, Unit 1
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To what extent is there a political participation problem in the UK?

In the UK, the level of political participation is measured by the turnout in general elections that take place every 5 years, although there are other means by which a person can be politically active. As a representative democracy, elections are the cornerstone of democracy in the UK. The level of electoral turnout must therefore be an important indication of the health of the larger democratic system. However, in recent years, the percentage of the general public voting in general elections has reached new lows since universal voting was introduced in the UK. It could be argued that the UK is suffering from a ‘political participation crisis’ where the public are becoming increasingly disengaged with UK politics. But, this diagnosis may be a little premature as the problem might not be about a decline in the overall level of political participation but instead about a shift from one kind of participation to another. Thus, it is difficult to decide whether the problem is about the apathetic nature of society or a more fundamental issue surrounding the outdated democratic system that dictates UK politics.

The argument that suggests the UK is the victim of decreasing levels of voter participation is supported by substantial evidence. Of all the forms of political participation, general election turnout is the one most readily identified with this issue and so if the the state of British political participation was based solely on this form of political participation, the claim that Britain is in some sort of crisis is not a false one. Turnout on Election day has been on a steady decline since the 1960s, despite the occasional fluctuation appearing in 1974 and 1992. However, the 2001 election was what gave the allegation, that there is some sort of political crisis, merit as the turnout at this election was the lowest ever recorded since universal voting began. The figure presented at the 2001 election was just over 59% with the winning party’s total vote dropping by 2.8 million, despite them winning an overwhelming majority. The low turnout seen at this election was never really given a valid explanation, although the Labour party did attempt to provide an argument in the form of ‘Hapathy’. Their view was that the public were too comfortable with the government in power and their own situation that voting was not necessary. Change was not required and so the electorate were consumed by the idea that the election was a waste of time. But, this was a highly controversial analysis made by Labour due its optimism of the situation at the time. However, the question as to why there is a repeated lack of public engagement in politics is one that plagues politicians and the answer will never truly be known. But the most convincing reason seems to be the disillusionment of the public which catalyses the rejection of politics all together. Whilst many like to blame the MPs and political parties for being completely out of touch with the majority of the electorate, is it really their fault if the public fail to engage and so it is just guess work for those in government? The main reason however, seems to be this notion that the public’s vote wont matter and the decision has already been made even before they turn up at the polling station. 17 million voters live in safe seats and 85% of seats do not shift when it comes to a general election. Whatever the advantages are of the ‘first past the post’ system, they are undeniably overshadowed by this major problem.

It is obvious to see that Britain is suffering from some sort of problem, whether or not the word ‘crisis’ is entirely appropriate is something to be argued. But, there are ways of identifying this problem, other than analyzing data from general elections. Low turnout extends to other forms of political participation including party membership and Mayoral, local, council and European elections. Both these forms of democracy receive regularly low reception, not just in the UK but worldwide. Voter turnout in the 2014 European elections saw a wide selection of voter turnout from the results recorded by all 28 countries. With some countries like Belgium reaching almost 90%, it is hard not to view the UK’s voter turnout of 35.60% as anything but evidence for the political participation crisis. The argument is that in countries like Belgium, voting in elections such as the EU elections are compulsory and so it is prone to receiving high voter turnout. If that was the case, why isn’t Belgium, and other countries, seeing voter turnouts of 100%? The most obvious, and logical, explanation for it is to address the theory that there is a problem with political participation and, along with general election turnout, the EU elections are a clear example of it. Regardless of Britain’s unenthusiastic approach towards the European Union and European involvement, it is obvious, not just to politicians, that there is either an anti-politics attitude embedding itself amongst the electorate, or there is a more fundamental issue with democracy. Again with other, minor elections, media coverage of them is significantly lower than the more important elections, such as the general election, and so people are ill-informed about such elections. Another example of how the problem is growing into what could be considered a crisis is the drop in party memberships over recent years, despite a small rise in the Labour party since welcoming new leader Jeremy Corbyn. With parties becoming more centrist and the outermost edges of the political spectrum slowly dissolving, joining a party in no way allows a person to express their political view and so to most people, they are a pointless concept.

However, this debate is one that divides opinion as it could be argued there isn’t a crisis, or even a problem, at all and that the nature of democracy is simply moving on with the times. These outdated forms of political engagement and democracy are something of the past and new, more convenient ways of being politically active are replacing it. In a liberal democracy, such as the UK, high election turnouts are desirable as they are the showpiece of democracy, but the falling levels of political participation stems from the way politics has changed rather than the changing behavior of the electorate. The nature of modern politics which is built upon centrally concentrated ideologies, and political parties more obsessed with getting into power and having a glimpse of No.10 rather than sticking to thought out policies does not support this system of democracy employed in the UK today. As a result, the current state of affairs, has encouraged new kinds of political participation consisting of pressure groups and interest group memberships. Groups like this offer an alternative to the center politics that is at the heart of party politics. Parties create policies that aim to appeal to middle England and to offend the fewest voters to fulfill their main goal of getting into power by any means possible. With little option, especially in the two party system the UK has adopted, abstaining from voting seems more appealing than simply voting for the lesser of two evils. This lack of political choice inspired this idea of interest groups and single issue parties as an effecting way through which people attempt to influence government policy. As general election turnout and main party membership decreases, non-party memberships have become increasingly more popular with the likes of the National trust gaining around 350,000 members, close to the current Labour Party membership numbers. The National Trust’s large membership allows it to have significantly more influence than if it was a small organization or if individual members attempted to make change. However, much like voting, these groups do struggle with involving the members after they’ve initially joined and do not practice the most democratic strategies when making decisions. Despite this, political engagement through the means of an interest group or pressure group is preferred over joining a party or deciding to vote with evidence for this shown by the fact that in 2004, only 2% of people were members of political parties whilst almost a third was connected to some sort of non-party or interest group. Their growing popularity comes from the disillusionment of mainstream politics amongst the electorate and the failure of these main parties to keep their promises which are pledged in manifestos before elections. This inability to make promises they cannot keep again gives merit to the idea that parties are out to win votes and keep votes rather than stick to their principles.

Another example of how people, typically younger voters, are attempting to make a different through means other than an election is the rise in the level of cyber activism. With social media becoming ever more prominent in our lives, it is hard to diminish its impact and ignore its influence over the general public. The internet is easily accessible to most people and its convenience ensures that political opinion are easily expressed and shared. This growing familiarity amongst the electorate with the capacity and scope the internet holds will, hopefully, make becoming more politically and socially aware easier and so have a positive impact who are disillusioned with politics and see it as a thing of the past rather than a platform for change.

Overall, it is hard to truly evaluate the situation when one form of political participation completely out ways the others in terms of its importance and so the means by which the electorate can participate are not viewed equally. At this current point, general elections are the measurement of political participation as they have the most direct influence on activity in the commons. Despite immense disillusionment from the electorate, it seems unlikely that the democratic system will change so that the problems voters face concerning the system of democracy are eradicated in favour of a system that means every vote counts and everyone feels they matter. For now, it is obvious that the UK is facing some sort of problem, despite efforts to use other means of political participation to encourage political engagement but, this is not at the fault of the electorate, who are the victims of a clearly flawed structure, and instead, at the hands of the politicians and political parties, and the media.

Ilenya Nocivelli

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