Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Democracy in UK Threatened
The Guardian today points out that our turnout figure of 62% last May compares badly with the 65% Portugese, 77% Norwegians and 85% Danes. What makes the British situation even more worrying is the fact that it is the young who are not participating. Political Scientist Edward Phelps, in the current Political Quarterly, has produced an important yet depressing analysis.
He shows that in 1964 87% of under 25s voted while 88% of over 64s did the same. In 2005 the figures were 86% for the older group but only 44% for the under 25s. Even more depressing is the fact that nonvoting is habit-forming. Turnout was 52% in the 18-21 group in 2001 but down to 43% four years later.
a) What happened to turn young people off 1992-2005? And
b) what can be done about it?
On the first question, it is very hard to find a single explanation. It is probably connected to a number of factors:
i) the picture of untrustworthy sleazy politicians in the mid nineties
ii) the excessive use of spin by New Labour
iii) the ignoring of public protests over a number of issues but most importantly Iraq.
iv) The fact that both major parties have been fairly close on issues like the economy and, since 1997, the public services. Wider choice encourages more votes.
v) The weakness of the main opposition party since the early nineties. Elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 have seemed like foregone conclusions.
vi) The competition which politics faces for the attention of younger people. There is so much by way of entertainment and activity to make politics seem like the boring obsession of losers.
On the second question, I have wracked my brains ever since 2001 and not come up with anything world shattering. It is also not possible to point at a single answer but nothing short of a cultural renaissance is required to re-engage government with the governed. To achieve this it will be necessary for politicians to eschew spin, to become more direct and honest and for young people to feel the political system does respond to what people are expressing. But it is no use pretending this is anything other than an intractable yet vital question to which we have to find some answers if our democracy is to survive in the long term.