Critically assess the extent to which there is a crisis in participation in UK politics
This essay will highlight the extent to which a crisis is present in UK politics with relation to participation and provide explanation as to why this is. Barnes and Kasse provide a broad yet accurate definition for political participation; “All voluntary activities intended to influence either directly or indirectly political choices at various levels of the political system” (Conge 1988: 242).
There are many constituting factors of political participation which must be explored in order to understand the potential decline in political involvement today. Direct political participation through voting, participation through extra parliamentary organisations as well as campaigning and party membership are all crucial areas that must be assessed in order to come to a valid conclusion. The most important factor contributing to political participation is direct participation through voting.
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The idea of anti-politics, involving the alienation and detachment of the public from politics, is a crucial feature in explaining why turnout has decreased so drastically and also provides a counter argument to the assumption that apathy is the most important determinant in the turnout. It is clear that since 1950 there has been a sharp decline in voter turnout at UK general elections; the 1950 general election saw a record turnout of 83. 9%, the 2010 saw only 65. 1% of the electorate exercising their right to vote in what should have been considered a very important election.
Whether or not voter apathy is responsible for a decline in turnout is an important question, there are of course other reasons for the low participation levels as apparent in the 2001 election; “The low turnout at the last election was not down to apathy but because non-voters made a positive decision to abstain suggests a new report from the Hansard Society” (IPSOS MORI 2001). Reasons for abstinence may include a lack of knowledge amongst the young or a view of similarity between the two parties by the electorate, also the idea prevalent here was that not voting was a vote in itself.
The 2010 election saw the Liberal Democrat party receive 23% of the popular vote, yet only receive 8% of the seats in the House of Commons. This illustrates many votes are wasted under the disproportionate first-past-the-post voting system; it is therefore no wonder voters will choose not to exercise their right to vote on Election Day. Critics of the first-past-the-post system argue that because of the fact that one candidate is elected in each constituency creates a disincentive for example, a labour supporter living in a Tory constituency (Qvortrup 2007).
It is therefore a wasted vote; this provides partial explanation to voter decline and also reinforces the theory that voter apathy is not as rife as assumed. There are of course other possible reasons for decline; and apathy cannot be ignored. Surveys have also recently found that people in the 18-34 age group have a lower sense of ‘civic duty’ than older age groups; this might offer partial explanation of lower youth turnout (Dunleavy et al 2010). Another possible reason for disengagement would be the loss of faith in MP’s by the electorate.
The expenses fiddling fiasco rife in the Commons prior to the 2010 election can only be seen to negatively impact the polling figures as the electorate obviously do not want to actively support corruption of their potential government. There has been a much greater sense of dissatisfaction with the performance of the UK’s political institutions a staggering 63% of those asked were dissatisfied with the way the Westminster Parliament was doing it’s job, compared with only 30% in 2001 (IPSOS MORI 2009).
These statistics convey a distinct lack of trust in the UK political system and in an environment of distrust and dissatisfaction; abstinence is a logical action from many of the politically engaged electorate. Dalton and Gray highlight the idea that it is in fact highly ironic that as voter opportunity has increased in Britain, the average turnout in elections have decreased (Dalton 2003: 39).
It is apparent that the UK is in need of great political reform in order to improve political engagement, it is obvious the interest is there, however devices such as the voting system in operation and weak checks and balances on Parliament had lead to high levels of dissatisfaction and distrust. Moreover, there has been a definite decline in party identification; statistics show 45% of the electorate in 1965 were strongly aligned to a party, however post 2005 a mere 9% showed strong allegiance (Dunleavy et al 2010).
Party alignment amongst the public must be seen as a thing of the past and is now mere embellishment to more important factors in voting behaviour such as salient issues. However, decline in partisanship is an important aspect in explaining why there has been a decrease in election turnout in recent years. The addition of proxy and postal voting rules, designed to alleviate the difficulty of voting has not had the desired effect since its introduction prior to the 2005 election.
It is clear from this that the ease of voting has no effect on the electorate; other aforementioned factors have paved the way for the decline in this form of direct political participation. Extra parliamentary organisations such as pressure and interest groups are very much an important part of political participation; “Groups expressing opinions about politics are, it seems, increasingly widespread” (Heffernan 2011: 174). This goes to illustrate that in this form of political participation, there is not a prevalent crisis. In 2003 after the invasion of Iraq, central London saw as many as 1. million strong rally in protest to Blair’s actions. With a voter turnout at the previous election of 59. 4%, an all time low, it must be considered strange that indirect political involvement was so high at a time of apparent disengagement. This shows that the electorate are not apathetic to political developments such as the Iraq war. More evidence for this is provided by the 2007 Make Poverty History campaign which brought together 540 British member organisations in order to press Western leaders over global poverty issues (Hefferenan 2011: 174).
The use of celebrities to endorse particular interest groups, namely Joanna Lumley and the Ghurkhas, provides necessary publicity to groups that may be overlooked. This selflessness from celebrities in supporting smaller issues will attract members of the public for support; In a sense Lumley was an excellent marketing device in achieving the Ghurkhas right to settle in the UK. This in turn, leads to an increase in political participation. Similarly the infamous Fathers4Justice campaign and the rise of the ‘Super Dads’ illustrates how a salient issue leads to increased political participation.
The ‘glamorisation’ of interest politics with examples such as these is a very important tool in keeping participation alive when it comes to pressure and interest groups. It is apparent that there has not been a decline in involvement through pressure groups, involvement in these sorts of groups are not only a way for the politically engaged to actively participate between elections, but for those apathetic or abstaining members of the electorate to participate. Both 2010 and 2011 saw action amongst the young in protest to the increase in tuition fees.
The 2010 riots were over shadowed by many arrests and aggression between both the police and the protesters. However, the November 2011 protest provided little trouble as thousands of protesters march their way through London. Although we may not classify the protests as a pressure group, it definitely is an illustration of pressure action politics. Furthermore, this dispels the assumption that there is an apathetic pandemic amongst the young. Salient issues that will directly affect the young will be met with participation as illustrated in both December and November.
Participation in campaigns represents an extension of electoral participation beyond the act of voting (Dalton 2003). This type of participation provides active activity between elections for those who are politically involved. However, as Dalton mentions, campaigning requires more initiative and higher levels of interest than other kinds of political participation and it is of course more effort to be involved in this way than simply casting a vote. Membership of political parties is also of cost, so this provides explanation as to why party membership is so low today.
There is strong evidence of a trend decline in individual membership of the three largest parties since the 1960s (Marshall 2009). In 2005, only 1. 3% of the electorate were members of a party, whereas in 1964 membership was as high as 14%. It appears that there is either mass disengagement from party politics, and the electorate will vote on issues rather than show high levels of partisan alignment. It is however, reassuring to see our European counterparts experiencing similar trends in party membership decline.
The dismantlement of the class system illustrates how class nowadays is more ambiguous, and therefore there is likely to be decrease in typical class voting behaviours. Campaign activity will have suffered as a result of party member decline as obviously there is a distinct partisan tie between the two. The annually published Audit of Political Engagement provides very important insight into participation trends, statistics and evaluation and is of great importance when considering a question such as this.
Findings in the Audit of Political Engagement 5 show that around 12% of people are politically active as they have participated in at least three political activities out of a list of eight. Shockingly, 48% of the public report not having taken part in any of these activities (Hansard society 2008). The audit goes on to conclude that there has been a decline in engagement and activity and no matter how small the decline, it must be taken very seriously. To this extent, the audit agrees that there is a crisis apparent in participatory politics in the UK.
By looking at the propensity to vote IPSOS MORI statistics provides a clear picture of voter readiness to vote at the next election and can provide a projected turnout for the fore coming election. MORI found that 61% were interested in politics compared with 53% who say there were absolutely certain to vote in the next election (Hansard Society 2008). This shows that political interest and propensity to vote are not necessarily as strongly correlated as one would think.
The high levels of political interest apparent is certainly a good thing for British Politics, however it does not guarantee political participation due to circumstances beyond the control of the voter. The use of the media is a very important tool for political education and is could in it’s self be considered a form participation. Programmes such as Question Time and Prime Ministers Questions bring politics to the living rooms of the public. The ease of watching television is participation in its simplest form.
BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time in 2009 not only provided great controversy, but the programme received its highest ever audience with ‘Around 8 million viewers’ (BBC 2009). Deputy Director General of the BBC Mark Byford added “This very large audience clearly demonstrates the public’s interest in seeing elected politicians being scrutinized by the public themselves”. Interest in these two programmes, illustrates as Byford says, a clear show of political interest amongst the electorate.
This again shows he ironic nature of the relationship between political interest and actual participation. However well the media is at providing key information and education to the public, as well as providing a competent check and balance on political institutions, this is not the participation necessary for relieving the crisis that has become apparent in UK action, however the use of programmes such as Question time can be used as a tool to educate the younger electorate especially.
Griffin’s appearance provides a more dynamic and interesting side to politics, which should hopefully engage the apathetic such as those with little interest. It is possible to conclude that there is definitely a crisis prevalent in political participation in the UK. Hard empirical evidence of decline in voting turnout and dissatisfaction of our political institutions supports this. However, it is important to remember that voting is not the only factor relating to political participation and engagement. The support for pressure groups and interest groups are increasingly widespread, as aforementioned by Heffernan.
Evidence for this most recently is depicted by the student riots of 2010 and the more peaceful protest of 2011. It is clear from this that salient issues provide an extremely important cause for political action, especially for those who are typically considered to be disengaged and apathetic. The relationship between interest and participation as highlighted upon illustrates a divergence between the two; there is no lack in political interest, the phenomenon of anti-politics has arisen from political institutions itself.
The first-past-the-post system is an unproductive system as we see votes wasted, hence the electorate feel their votes will not count. As promised by Clegg as he aims to tackle anti-politics, reform is necessary in order to not only increase the turnout at the UK general elections, but to also install higher levels of satisfaction and trust amongst the electorate with regards to our institutions. With reforms we can expect to see higher levels of turnout and even increases in campaigning and party membership.
There is no doubt there is a crisis apparent with voting levels at an all time low, however interest in politics is still high meaning there are many of the electorate who would be willing to engage in political participation if such reforms occur. Therefore we are able to establish that the extent of the crisis is not as great as feared, it is simply in the hands of Parliament to legislate reforms hereby mobilizing the electorate in order to boost turnout on election day.