Deserting in Their Droves

By Stoker, Gerry | Public Finance, July 7, 2006 | Go to article overview

Deserting in Their Droves


Stoker, Gerry, Public Finance


Michael Wills, Swindon North MP and ally of Gordon Brown, claimed in June that at the 2005 national election every single Labour MP on the doorstep reported profound disillusionment and disengagement'. His fear is that such discontent will lose Labour the next election, even under Browns leadership.

In contrast, Conservative leader David Cameron hopes that the discontent will propel him to power. My fear is that the dissatisfaction with politics is so profound that democracy itself is being brought into disrepute. Moreover, it is not just a local difficulty. These troubling issues are present in many mature democracies. Politics in democracies is failing.

The facts speak for themselves. Turnout in local elections among young people in England is little more than 10%. In the 2005 UK general election, only four out of ten 18-25-year-olds voted. With some variation, turnout rates for all social groups have generally been falling across western democracies. Disengagement is also reflected in the collapse in membership of political parties, a major trend in the mature democracies.

In 1964, 9% of all registered electors in the UK were party members but by 1992 it was barely 2%. The Labour Party's membership recovery in the 1990s has evaporated again, with membership now down to 200,000. Opinion poll evidence points to a decline in deference, but what has emerged is not citizens who are confident or assertive about politics but those who are more alienated, confused and, in the end, cynical.

Single-issue politics has taken up some of the political vacuum but it rests on only a thin form of engagement. There are lots of ways in any 12-month period that people are trying to make their voices heard. However, much of that activity is individually focused (based around an act such as boycotting a good or service or contacting an official) rather than collectively organised. Most citizens' engagement has a sporadic and mundane character. There is nothing wrong with such expressions of citizenship; they are just rather limited. Much engagement is directed towards something that brings personal benefit or perhaps provides an expressive statement about a person's sense of themselves and their identity.

Wearing the wristband or shirt is as much a lifestyle statement as a political act. These atomised forms of citizenship mean that people often have only a surface engagement with political issues and complexities. There is hope in the range and diversity of engagement in democracies, but there are concerns because of its uneven spread and shallow quality.

Most of the real politics is done in a space where we are spectators. It is the sphere of professionals and we are the amateurs. The cohesion brought by parties, the advocacy of special interests by the lobby and the challenge and dissent offered through various forms of protest provide vital links in the democratic chain between governors and governed. But all are failing to engage citizens-at-large in politics. Activists are odd people, very much in a minority in our society. They do a lot of the work of politics for us but the way their organisations work is in part responsible for people's sense of alienation from politics.

As parties have lost membership, they have become reliant on professional campaigners and organisers and treat citizens as passive political observers who just need to be mobilised at election times to back the party. Citizen lobby organisations - such as Friends of the Earth - have large-scale passive memberships and they, too, rely on professional organisers and experts.

Members fund but the professional politicos in the lobby organisations decide what to campaign on. Even more radical protest organisations tend to be professionalised in their style of behaviour and use of the media. The occasional engagement by a wider group of citizens in a protest event' or rally is a relatively vacuous form of political expression. …

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