First, Russell Brand and then Jeremy Paxman…does anyone actually bother voting any more? As social research reveals declining levels of public engagement in politics and a widening gap between the governors and the governed Matthew Flinders explores what can be done.
Although Russell Brand’s recent interview with Jeremy Paxman is unlikely to be remembered as a ‘classic’ political interview that redefined a debate or shaped the career of a specific politician it did focus attention on the fact that large sections of the British public is becoming increasingly disengaged with politics. The 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey reveals that only a small majority of the public now turns out to vote, and fewer than ever before identify with a political party. The UK is by no means unique in terms of the relationship between the governors and the governed and even a quick glance at the titles of recent books on this topic – ‘Why We Hate Politics’, ‘Democracy in Crisis’, ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’, ‘Don’t vote, it just encourages the B**tards’ (yes, it does actually exist), the list is almost endless – reflects the fact that ‘disaffected democrats’ appear to exist in every part of the world. But what is to be done?
There are, as Bernard Crick emphasised in his classic ‘In Defence of Politics’ (1962), no simple answers to complex questions and in many ways the political process and the capacity of politicians is defined by this simple fact. And yet in the intervening half-century since Crick’s classic book was published public attitudes to political institutions, political processes and politicians have become increasingly negative. Today three-quarters of the public feel the political system is not working for them, younger people are less likely to identify with a political party, less likely to believe it a civic duty to vote and are less likely to have engaged in any conventional political activities. Recent research suggests that at the moment only around twelve per cent of those aged 18 – 25 report that they will definitely vote in 2015. The other 88 per cent appear unsure whether it is worth voting at all.
In this context Russell Brand’s arguments appear slightly more sophisticated than some of his critics might have appreciated. The comedian’s position was not that people should not vote but that it was rational for people not to turn out and express their democratic right when there was, in fact, no real choice between the main parties. To do otherwise was simply to participate in a sham that actually gnawed away at the health of democratic politics. The problem, however, with this argument is that it polarises the debate around a set of rather crude and simplistic options – ‘Vote!’ versus ‘Don’t Vote’, the ‘engaged’ versus ‘the disengaged’, ‘politicians’ versus ‘comedians’ – OK, so I made the last bit up but you know what I mean. My point is therefore whether the arguments about voting and turnout and elections risk unnecessarily closing-down options when we should in fact be reinvigorating the options we have while looking to create new forms of political engagement.
In terms of voting surely the real question is how to make voting matter? For some people this might involve the introduction of compulsory voting or reform of the electoral system and these ideas merit consideration (although in Australia where voting is compulsory levels of public trust in politics makes the UK look positively healthy) but a simpler and more effective reform might include the addition of a ‘None of the Above’ option on all ballot papers. In this way citizens could make a formal and recognised contribution to the electoral results without having to demonstrate their frustration through spoiling their ballot paper or simply not bothering to vote. The danger is that at the moment the ‘None of the Above’ option might actually win quite a few elections!
A more radical option involves the introduction of time limits for MPs. Let us say – for the sake of argument – a maximum of two or three terms (i.e. ten or fifteen years) after which the individual would have to leave Parliament and serve the same period ‘in the real world’ before being eligible to stand for re-election. I’m always slightly nervous when I hear people asking why we can’t have more ‘normal’ people serving as MPs, or suggestions that politicians do not exist in ‘the real world’ but introducing a term-limit would at least end the current system – the political equivalent of ‘bed blocking’ – by shaking-up the notion of ‘safe seats’, it would give more chances to more people, it would offer a balance between stability and fresh thinking and it would help illustrate the fact that reform can occur in a way that responds to social concerns. It would also make voting a far more significant political act. Although I am no ‘Mystic Meg’ (is she still around?) my guess is that our current MPs will hate this idea. Protestations and all manner of reasons not to even open-up a debate on this matter will inevitably pour forth but to some extent my interest lies not with the current generation of politicians but with the future.
The simple fact is that the vast majority of the public do not ‘hate’ politics (or politicians) and it is closer to the truth to suggest that they no longer understand how politics works or what politicians actually do. Why does everything seem to take so long and never be quite right? Why does there tend to be such a gap between what is promised before elections and then delivered in office? The crux of the issue therefore lies not so much with voting but with bridge building and promoting the public understanding of politics (and therefore the political understanding of the public).
Two things flow from this. First, in terms of fostering political understanding the importance of citizenship education cannot be over-stated. Citizenship education not in the sense of teaching what is ‘wrong’ or what is ‘right’ but in teaching ‘how’ and ‘why’ the political process attempts to reconcile competing social demands in a manner that is broadly fair and transparent but – most of all – guards against the brutal ‘politics of fear’ that still exists in large parts of the world. It is not therefore politicians or political parties that matter but the democratic process and the existence of engaged citizens that really matters. Citizenship education was introduced into the National Curriculum in 2002, following the recommendations of the advisory group chaired by Bernard Crick, and it has survived the recent curriculum review ordered by Michael Gove but it has struggled to establish itself as a fully-fledged subject. The future of Citizenship Education therefore depends on the degree to which it can shift from a passive subject taught in classrooms to a more active discipline that reaches out beyond the classroom and assembly hall.
The second element of fostering political understanding therefore focuses on bridge-building between political institutions and politicians, on the one hand, and the public, on the other, in such a way that the whole citizenry might be educated (politicians, officials and professors of politics included). Put slightly differently, how can we create ‘safe spaces’ in which the aggression and noise of contemporary politics is set aside for a more mature and considered discussion about the issues that really matter? Once again – as has already been admitted – creating such arenas will not deliver simple solutions to complex problems because no such ‘pain-free’ solutions exist. But it may allow new voices to be heard, it may allow disengaged communities to reconnect, it may allow more non-traditional forms of political engagement (off-line and on-line) to feed into and deepen more traditional and formalised processes.
It is for exactly this reason that the University of Sheffield has established the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics – the first centre of its kind in the world. And it also why the University of Sheffield is so proud to be hosting the formal opening of ‘Parliament Week 2013’ this Thursday evening with a public debate led by the Speaker of the House of Lords, Baroness d’Souza, and involving individuals and community groups from all over South Yorkshire and Humberside. Parliament may understandably seem very distant – politically and geographically – to the people of Sheffield, Doncaster, Leeds or Thorne but it does in fact shape almost every element of the their lives, my life and your life. My argument is therefore simple: do vote because most politicians are not b**stards, they are generally good people trying to do a difficult job with limited resources (and democratic politics generally delivers far more than many people appreciate). However, ‘doing politics’ in the future through the processes and institutions we used in the past is unlikely to overcome the disaffection that currently exists and the challenges we face. Understanding what it means to be a citizen in the twenty-first century, thinking about citizenship in terms of responsibilities and not just rights, while also fashioning new democratic arenas is more important today than when Bernard Crick first admitted that politics ‘could not make all sad hearts glad’ fifty years ago.
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