Participation crisis

Participation crisis

a lack of engagement with the political system, for example where a large number of people choose not to vote, join a political party or stand for office.

Watch the short film from The British Election Study

Voter turnout

Falling turnout is thought to be important because it means that if governments are elected on a reduced share of the popular vote this undermines their legitimacy and therefore right to govern.  The widespread belief that the government is illegitimate could mean social unrest.- 

But, is this really true? Most elections do not deliver what most people think- ie a clear choice of the majority. Almost all Uk governments were not the choice of most people since the combined vote for other parties almost always is larger. As a percentage of the potential electorate, not just those who voted, governments in the UK regularly win with under 30% of the electorate voting for them.  In 2019 the Conservative won an 80 seat majority with 43% of the vote.  This means that although the UK electoral system routinely fails the basic democratic principle of delivering the choice of the people- governments still govern.

The average turnout at general elections from 1945 to 1997 was 76 per cent. Since then it has been lower. The percentage for 2001 at 59%  was the lowest since the end of the First World War in 1918. There has however been a  recovery at the last three general elections, although it is still some way from the levels seen at most post-war contests.In the 2019 United Kingdom General Election, voter turnout was 67.3 percent of eligible voters, a 1.5 percent drop compared with the previous general election in 2017. Between 1922 and 1997 voter turnout never fell below 70 percent, but in 2001 it dropped to just 59.4 percent. Since that low point, voter turnout has gradually recovered and reached 72.2 percent in the Brexit Referendum of 2016, which is still some way off the peak of 83.9 percent recorded in the 1950 General Election. 

Turnout is even lower, the  'second order' elections, such as local government and the devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This may be because voters see these less powerful bodies as unlikely to make a major difference to their lives.  referendums have also generally had a low turnout.

In spite of publicity encouraging people to vote, the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2012 had the lowest average turnout at any UK contest, at 15 per cent. Voters did not fully understand the purpose of these elected individuals. There was a slight improvement to 26 per cent in the 2016 elections.

Are lower turnouts explained by apathy, political cynicism and disengagement from politics. If so this could be a worrying sign that the system of representative democracy is failing to fulfill its most basic function of winning the consent of the people.

However, it may not be so negative since there is a suggestion that low turnouts are the result of 'Hapathy' ie general contentment. There is little difference between the parties and they agree on the basic social and economic structure of our society.Most people may not really mind who wins. An alternative version of this is known as 'hapathy' - a blend of the words 'happiness' and 'apathy', meaning that people are generally contented and see no need to push for political change. This may possibly help to account for the unusually low levels of voter turnout in 2001 and 2005 (the economy was booming and presumably levels of contentment were higher) but not for the 2010 election (which took place against a much less optimistic economic background). To some extent levels of participation depend on the type of issue at stake. Turnout for the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 was 84.6 per cent, while 72.2 per cent of people took part in the June 2016 EU referendum across the UK. These figures suggest that on critical issues affecting the way that the country is governed, people will still express a view.

Also, you can argue that the low turnouts are not what they appear since they vary ( differential turnout) by age group, ethnicity and regions. If the entire population were over 65 years of age turnout would remain above 80%. Some more middle-class constituencies have high turnouts with poorer constituencies, ethnics minorities and the young voting the least. This may present a different problem since it may lead politicians to disregard the  interests of these groups- e.g pensions are protected but student fees increased. 

There is also a study which suggests that voter turnout figures tend to be inaccurate by up to 10% since they do not reflect students, second homes and multiple addresses. 

Aggregate Turnout is Mismeasured Jonathan Mellon (University of Manchester) Geoffrey Evans (Nuffield College, Oxford) Edward Fieldhouse (University of Manchester) Jane Green (University of Manchester) Christopher Prosser (University of Manchester)  2018

Elections Act 2022 Will voter ID be an obstacle to voting?

Party membership

This is another indicator of a participation crisis. Only 1.6 per cent of the electorate now belongs to one of the three main UK-wide political parties, whereas in 1983 the figure was 3.8 per cent. However, this differs significantly from party to party.

· The Conservative Party had just under 150,000 members by 2016, a significant drop from an estimated 400,000 in the mid-1990s.

· The Labour Party's membership increased in the run-up to the 1997 election but fell while the party was in government to around 190,000 members. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader has been associated with a remarkable increase in membership, with a total of 515,000 by July 2016.

· The Liberal Democrats had about 70,000 members in the early 2000s, falling to 49,000 during the 2010-15 coalition with the Conservatives. In 2016, they had recovered to about 76,000 members.

Another recent trend has been an increase in the membership of some smaller parties. At the 2015 general election a record 29.4 per cent of the vote went to parties other than the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

However, party membership has increased in the last 5 years for all parties.

Why is this a problem?  Because parties perform some vital roles such as formulation policy ideas, which is particularly important in providing the electorate  with an alternative to the government's proposals. Parties also select candidates and run campaigns which they fund mostly from their own resources. With a shrinking membership, parties become dependent on big donors such as the unions or business groups which can lead them to favour these interests. Small membership may also be open to selecting more extreme candidates since it is activists and the ideologically committed who are more motivated to join parties. This may lead to the selection of more extreme candidates or local parties becoming out of touch with their MPs.  

However, parties are increasing centralised with the leadership exercising considerable control over candidate selection and dominating policy formulation.  Fundraising from a broad cross-section of society may be more Democratic if properly regulated. 

The conventional wisdom of ‘parties in decline’ does not now fit the recent history of the UK well, with some membership levels growing, and others fairly stable. Some ‘new party’ trends emerged (for a while) within Labour and the SNP, utilising different, more digital ways of mobilising and stronger links to parts of civil society. Internal party elections of most key candidates (not leaders) are generally stronger now than in earlier decades (except within UKIP). 

the membership of the Conservative Party has historically been above that of Labour, apart from a brief period around the 1997 General Election. However, since 2010, Labour’s membership has been above that of the Conservatives 

The most recent data (2022) indicates around 1.5% of the UK population are members of one of the Liberal Democrats, Labour Party or Conservative Party, though latest data for the Conservative Party is from 2019. This compares to a historic low of 0.8% in 2013. Across the UK, the Labour Party’s membership increased from 0.4% of the electorate in 2013 to 1.2% in 2017, before falling to 0.9% in April 2022. 

Alternative Participation?

There are other, less formal ways in which people can get involved in politics. Membership of pressure groups, particularly those concerned with single issues such as the environment, has been increasing. The last two decades have seen numerous well-attended demonstrations on issues as diverse as fuel prices, the Iraq War, fox hunting and student tuition fees. Direct action has become a recognised feature of modern politics, indicating that people may be turning to new methods of expression because they feel that conventional politics has let them down. Society has become more consumerist - people make up their minds more on an individual basis and are used to making choices between different options.

In the last decade, the emergence of social media has enabled people, especially the young, to exchange political views and participate in online campaigns on particular issues, without engaging in the real world. An example of e-democracy is support for e-petitions, which allow people to register a viewpoint online. An e-petition on the Downing Street website in 2007, against proposals for road-charging, was signed by 1.8 million people.

Parliamentary e-petitions can generate huge support, as evidenced by the 6.1 million people who signed the Revoke Article 50 and Remain in the EU petition in 2019. Given that voters are increasingly disengaged from traditional party politics, e-petitions provide a fresh way of public participation. For example, in 2021, Parliament debated a variety of e-petitions ranging from the protection of hedgehogs to revoking the television licence.

The public also engages with politics online. The biggest Twitter account in the UK in 2021 was BBC Breaking News, with 10 million followers more than the singer/songwriter Harry Styles. In 2022, the UK prime minister Twitter account had 5.8 million followers, and politicians with radical agendas generate considerable enthusiasm. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had 2.4 million followers and former UKIP/Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage had 1.6 million followers on Twitter.

The rise of new forms of political engagement may be seen as a positive development, but it is still a cause for concern that so many people are uninvolved in traditional politics. 

Why are these changes happening?

One explanation for political apathy: a lack of interest or awareness of contemporary events and political issues that affect society, might be the complexity of a globalised world. Do governments really have much control over the economic and environmental problems they face?

The population in the UK has never been so wealthy, so well educated and so old. The advantages of education and the disadvantages of less education have become more significant, particularly since the end of the war. To leave school in 2021 with few qualifications is to be set on a path which will be much less easy to escape from than in the 1950s. In the 2016 referendum, the single significant factor in determining how people would vote was education with people with a university degrees overwhelmingly voting remain and those without one voting  leave. This cuts across traditional party loyalty and may lead many to view the largely university educated politicians as an out-of-touch elite. 

The age of insecurity, overwork and disappointment

Increased education may also have contributed to greater cynicism and awareness of the failures of representative politics. Political journalism is more critical and the media is far less deferential than in the past. From That Was The Week That Was to Spitting Image politicians figures of fun and derision.  Social media and the internet may also have contributed to an echo chamber effect where people hear their own views reflected back in their choice of news sources. Wealth and consumerism may mean that our priorities focus on the consumption of food and entertainment in a distraction culture. It's also the case that citizens of the UK in 2021 have less time for quiet leisure than people of the 1950s- work and emails pursue people into their homes and the majority of parent couples work full time.   This 'time squeeze' has increased stress and anxiety in the context of  an economy which delivers more choice and more wealth,  but less security.  Zero hours and the decline of jobs for life  means a prevailing culture of anxiety. Therefore there is little time for politics and a deep sense of impatience which leads politicians to promise big to get elected and to get the attention of the electorate and therefore inevitably disappoint when in power.

Another factor that helps explain both declining voter turnout and increasing interest in alternative types of political activity is the generally negative public perception of politicians in recent decades. Examples of dishonest behaviour by MPs and broken electoral promises, together with a general sense that voting does not change anything, have reduced levels of trust in democratic politics.

 Declining Trust in Politicians

In 2009, MPs collectively were held up to contempt and ridicule over allegations that they were overclaiming on their expenses. A perennial criticism is that MPs can exploit their public position for private gain. In 2010, a former Labour minister, Stephen Byers, was secretly filmed telling a hoax consultancy firm that he was like ‘a cab for hire’. In 2021, Conservative minister Owen Paterson resigned as an MP after the House of Commons Standards Committee suspended him for 30 days for ‘an egregious case of paid advocacy’.  The media has publicised these stories which has undermined the credibility of Westminster and may have led to voter disengagement. In 2021, according to a YouGov poll, 80% of those surveyed believed there was a fair or significant amount of corruption in UK politics, with just 1% saying there was no corruption.


House of Lords Scandals 

2019 Audit of Political Engagement The Hansard Society conducts an annual survey. It shows increasing disengagement and increasing criticism of politics. In 2019 it showed the growing attraction of populist 'strong leaders.

'Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed that ‘Britain’s system of government is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful’. It is unsurprising that the ‘rigged system’ narrative caught fire in the United States, where money in politics is highly visible: yet the UK’s very different system is judged in much the same way.' 

'The most headline-grabbing finding from the Audit was that, by a margin of 54–23, Britons agree that the country needs ‘a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’. The support for a ‘strong leader’, with its echoes of Rodrigo Duterte, Nicolás Maduro and Vladimir Putin, is disquieting'.  Uk citizens had a high regard for the army.

'Roughly a third of people say they do not want to be involved ‘at all’ in either local or national decision-making: a rise of nearly 10% since last year'

The survey also suggest that the majority of people have little or no interest in any kind of political participation