So far in current politics we have seen that it is difficult for cooperation to gain traction in a political system that is competitive, tribal and in thrall to the idea of competition, in poor governance that various forms of agencies, are remote from scrutiny. There is, in addition, an acknowledgement that there is a lack of participation and engagement which is a cause of concern, because there is little idea of how this can be combatted.
A House of Commons Briefing paper on disengagement says “Political engagement is assumed to help make governments responsive to the needs of citizens and give citizens the opportunity to shape the laws, policies and institutions that govern them…Across Western democracies, voter turnout and trust in politics has decreased since the 1950s.” (HoC Briefing CBP7051)
Another Hour of Commons briefing provides a detailed analysis, free from editorial comment, looking at political party membership (HoC Briefing SN05125). It shows, amongst other things that membership:
- has declined massively since peaking I the 1950’s
- represents a small fraction of the electorate
- is primarily to support for the party but that active opposition to others is the second reason for joining
- requiring very strong part allegiance is limited to less than 10% of the population
- of the Labour Party from a “hinterland” in the wider Labour movement, has also has suffered a decline
Politics, is seems, is a minority pursuit. The membership of political parties is small, even with its astonishing growth to 500k members under Jeremy Corbyn the Labour Party has half of its peak membership in the 1950’s. It is estimated that the Conservative Party may have as few as 124k members. Even if we include activists and the wider labour movement in the “political class” (a term usually used with reference to the so-called Westminster bubble) the number of politically engaged people in relation to the population at large is very small.
First past the post politics allows minorities to rule. By this I mean simply that with much less than 50% electoral support a parliamentary majority can be delivered that allows a government to act with a so called mandate. This is often defended as delivering strong government and may have worked when there was a consensus and support for the two main parties as was the case in the 1940’s and 50’s. Since then it has been called an elected dictatorship (Note: Elected Dictatorship). With the decline in party affiliation and its split across multiple parties there seems to be chronic, structural democratic deficit, one that also undermines legitimacy (Democratic Dashboard)
It is widely acknowledged that there is a growing gap between the very well off and the mass of people, see (Pickett & Wilkinson) and (Wilkinson Ch3). It seems highly likely that this fact is related to the decline in participation and engagement.
- When all politicians agree that the economic system has to be fixed in the same way, as for instance in the 2015 election when it was just the degree of austerity (because there is no alternative) voting is just a matter of selecting one set of managers over another
- The technicalities of managing the economy only appeals to so called "policy geeks" and become more and more opaque to the majority of people.
When the system delivers turnouts are low, but when the system fails to deliver, as it has signally failed to do since 2008 it should not be a surprise that there is a rise in anger, frustration and bloody mindedness that gives space to populism. The pictures below illustrate a way of thinking about the barriers to wider participation.
This structural problem is multi-factorial and includes multiple detailed problems such as the decline in power of local government, the growth of agencies and outsourcing with inadequate supervision, the failure of the legislature to hold the executive to account and cronyism. I want to illustrate how these are all part of a structural, systemic problem. For ease let’s just assume the population splits into 10% who are thriving, with another 30% who are doing very well from the status quo, 30% of people are treading water and 30% of people are actually losing out.