Democracy in the UK is in crisis, with turnouts so low the vote is becoming a meaningless right – and trust is at the heart of it
Our political landscape is undergoing seismic shifts, and two factors stand out.
First, the three main political parties are haemorrhaging support. Recent figures show less than 1% of the electorate is a member of a political party – 20 years ago that would have been nearly 4%.
Second, and perhaps even more worryingly, in our last three general elections 20 million voters out of an electorate of 49 million did not go to the polls. And when it comes to local elections, or those for police and crime commissioners (PCCs), a staggering 80% of the electorate say “thanks but no thanks”. This week it was predicted that the poll for a new South Yorkshire PCC could attract the lowest turnout ever for a British election.
Our prized treasure of a civil society – participatory democracy – is in crisis.
Putting two fingers up to the political establishment has no boundaries when it comes to race, age, gender or national geography. Some groups abstain more than others, but the numbers opting out are so huge that if we’re not careful we could sleepwalk into a situation where our treasured universal right – the vote – becomes meaningless.
Some would argue that the response from our political elite has been inertia. But now they are being forced to take note, because into that monstrous political vacuum Ukip has emerged as a serious contender in England; and in Scotland, the SNP runs parliament and nearly won independence this year.
Many political commentators have rightly pointed out that our elite political class has lost the trust of great swaths of the UK, in no small measure because it has seemed to be more self-serving than committed to public service. Former prime minister Tony Blair’s love affair with big business and his support for George Bush’s foreign policy ripped the heart out of the Labour movement. Where could disillusioned members and voters go? Many now stay at home on election days. Today, more than at any time in history, and right across the political spectrum, parties are, to a greater or lesser extent, led by privileged individuals and career politicians with whom ordinary citizens have little in common.
Nigel Farage understands that disconnect better than most. There’s no political brilliance in being the anti-everything party, but where he succeeds is in his ability to connect with ordinary people. The “let’s go down the pub and have a beer” approach becomes instantly appealing when compared with what people perceive as the aloofness of other politicians.
The three leaders of the main parties must urgently find their own honest formula to reconnect with voters, and at the same time revitalise the parties.
I know about the difficult challenges in this area. I’ve worked for nearly 20 years engaging with black and minority ethnic individuals who are often cynical about politics. In 2010 the short film Why Don’t Black People Vote? articulated the common answer: “Because we don’t trust politicians.” I, and others, have also sat down with almost every party leader in that same period, giving them ideas on how to transform our democracy and society.
A good starting point for political leaders would be to begin trusting the electorate. That way, in turn, we can trust them. The too often vice-like grip that party leaders have over who runs the party machine translates to insiders getting a leg up, and outsiders – who are often popular – being squeezed out. That’s a key reason why we don’t have a multitude of working-class MPs.
Parties should recruit new members who would rejuvenate the local branches. Once recruited they can be nurtured and encouraged by being given suitable roles that use their interests, experience and talents. They must be allowed to express themselves rather than being there either to make up the numbers or as anonymous cut-and-paste replicas of the leadership.
In the late 1990s, I witnessed how local branches purported to want new voices – until those voices challenged the status quo. One incident stood out in Southwark. The local Liberal Democrat group invited me to speak. About 40 members were there: black, white, Asian, young and old. They were brilliant. Passionate about their area, the party, and social change. But, of course, with that mix, they challenged their party. Within months, the local branch was suspended, then shut down. Many of those individuals, along with disgruntled former Labour supporters, have now joined a local independent party called the All People’s Party.
If mainstream parties begin to treat new members with respect and support, they will bring sensible solutions to problems facing the young, elderly, sick, disgruntled and fearful. They will also be a conduit for recruiting others. Every local party branch, therefore, needs a talent spotter to identify the hard workers, gifted speakers and tenacious organisers, to encourage and promote them.
Time and again I and others have told the leaders and their advisers that the energy to revitalise their party fortunes will come from diversity. A diversity in all areas, at all levels of the party. This, above all, will help modern political parties better connect with ordinary people.
With greater diversity, grounded in strong values, a commitment to essential rights and decency, a party is better placed to avoid pandering to the latest popular prejudice. And from this starting point, new policies that support opportunity and talent are more likely to be unleashed. Rather than being like the Americans, who have allowed big business to run government, we need our leaders to have faith in us as empowered, active citizens, hell-bent on improving our society.