A few months ago the referendum on AV was hailed as a pivotal moment in the history of British politics. That it was given such attention is commendable, but the frenzy of activity around the referendum is in danger of obscuring a far greater and more immediate problem with our democracy; the complete lack of engagement between many people and the political system.
That is not to argue that electoral reform is unimportant, it clearly is, and I for one vigorously campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum. However, it seems to me that we ignore the problems of low turnout and engagement at our peril. These are not only pressing problems, but also ones that affect all areas and sectors of society, and that have a realistic solution. It is my opinion that it is to this task that we should turn before any further attempts at electoral reform are made.
Why do we need public engagement with politics? Quite simply, because at it’s most basic level democracy is about the will of the people, and that cannot be truly gauged without higher turnout at elections and more interaction with local politicians. MPs and other elected representatives cannot truly claim that they have a mandate from the electorate when only 40% turned out to vote, and few people even know their name! Even proportional systems are unable to rectify this major problem with our democracy, which means in a large percentage of cases a majority of the population don’t even vote, let alone support the winning candidate. The AV referendum is a perfect example of this. The 68% No vote appears at first glance crushing, but when turnout is added to the equation we can see that just 29% of the population voted against AV. Our politics cannot be truly representative until this is changed.
However, the lack of engagement between vast sectors of the public and politicians is having a far more dangerous effect than simply this. With many people utterly uninterested in politics, we are in danger of creating a ‘political class’, much like the old aristocracy, that is totally disconnected from everyday life. That may sound extreme, but just look at the opinion polls showing a huge percentage of the public don’t trust their elected representatives or feel hugely detached from the ‘Westminster Bubble’. Many argue that the expenses scandal was the root of this anger; I would argue it was a symptom. As the divide between MPs and their constituents has grown, there can be little doubt that they have become less accountable to their electorate, and so more willing to misuse public money. Of course, this was not true for the majority of MPs, but it provides a grim portent of what could happen if the levels of engagement between voters and politicians continue to fall.
This may seem a complex problem, but at least some solutions are readily available. The most obvious is for politicians themselves to become more approachable. Community politics may be a primarily Liberal Democrat idea, but it is one that the other parties would do well to follow. This is not just an issue of surgeries and local media appearances, but a whole different way of doing politics, involving and not just consulting residents. Our elected representatives shouldn’t sit in their offices and wait for their constituents to come to them, but get out on the streets and meet the people who voted them in. This isn’t just a way of interesting and engaging people in what their MPs are doing, but also pays great benefits for the politicians themselves. The fabled Lib Dem success in by-elections and local government is based on just this principle. Voters, whatever their political persuasion will be far more likely to vote for a candidate who gets out and knocks on doors, than a counterpart who waits for them to come to him.
The localism agenda of the coalition government is also welcome. Giving ordinary people more power to influence what happens in their local area will inevitably encourage participation in politics. Too many people feel that they are disenfranchised by living in safe seats, or simply don’t feel that their representatives do enough to reflect what they think in the halls of power. Localism will give people the chance to change at least some of this, and question politicians’ actions throughout their term, not just at election time. The power to recall MPs will also help to convince people that politicians should work for their local area, and kick out those who do not. Hopefully, this will encourage more people to trust and engage with the politicians who do deliver the goods for their constituents.
However, these in many ways are mere cosmetic changes to the current system. To convince the millions of people who have become totally disenchanted with politicians that politics is an important factor in all aspects of their life a completely new approach is necessary. This needs to start not when people have already lost faith in the democratic process, but when they are forming their opinions; in school. The lack of knowledge about government and politics amongst many secondary school pupils is simply astounding. Some cannot name the Prime Minister, and few would be able to name their local MP or more than one or two cabinet ministers. What is needed is a new lesson that teaches pupils the basics not just of politics, but also of current affairs and law. This would reap far greater benefits than many extant lessons, particularly the various mutations of Citzenship classes. Of course, education does not necessarily precipitate involvement, but the more people know about the political process, the less likely they are to feel that their representatives are distant and remote, in turn encouraging political participation. If well taught this could have a transformative effect on the British political system.
If we are really serious about solving the major problems of our political system then it is to these rather than any more complicated solutions that we should first turn. Electoral reform will always be important, and I for one will continue to campaign for it, but even the best forms of PR will not truly represent the will of the population unless we solve the dilemmas of low turnout and engagement. Some may say that politics has always been this way, but that, even if true, is no defence. If democracy in Britain is not to suffer any further then we must act quickly to re-engage many forgotten sectors of society with political life.
Adapted from an article originally published on http://www.politicsstudent.co.uk/