Political science and journalistic commentaries are full of woe about the abject state of modern politics and the extent of the gap that has supposedly emerged between the governors and the governed. In this context, the 7 May 2015 might have been expected to deliver a General Rejection of mainstream democratic politics but did this really happen? Is British democracy in crisis? Matthew Flinders argues that although interpretations of ‘crisis’ are exaggerated, there is a serious problem with democracy.
The Hansard Society’s ‘Audit of Political Engagement’ in 2015 was published just weeks before the General Election and offered further evidence of growing public disillusionment with (and disengagement from) mainstream democratic politics. Just 49% of the public said they were certain to vote and this figure fell to just 16% for those aged 18-24 (only 22% said they had undertaken a political activity in the past year), just 30% of those surveyed claimed to be a strong supporter of a political party, the number of those who believed they were registered to vote declined and the number claiming they had not registered increased. Only 61% of those surveyed thought that Parliament was ‘essential to our democracy’ (a decline of six percentage points), and 68% thought our system of governing needs improvement. Just 18% think that standards of conduct in office are high. Combine this with the surge in support for those ‘insurgent’ parties that were interpreted in fuelling anti-politics and the 7 May might have been forgiven for delivering a General Rejection of democratic politics.
But is there evidence that a General Rejection occurred? More specifically, what can we actually learn about ‘the politics of political disaffection’ from both the election in terms of both the campaigning strategies of the parties and the voting behavior of the public? It would at this point be possible to highlight the impressive turnout, especially amongst the young; or the high levels of electoral volatility — the highest since the Second World War — that resulted in a high number (92 to be exact) losing their seats. But such answers would be too obvious, far better to focus on quite different issues.
The first issue is contextual and institutional in the sense that a debate about anti-politics, about disaffection, about disengagement arguably dominated the 2015 election. From Russell Brand’s intervention as the archduke of anti-politics to Ed Miliband’s claims about being the first politician to ‘not over-promise but then over-deliver’ the election was one in which the mainstream parties and their candidates started very much from a position of having to justify ‘the system’ rather than just their policies. The flip-side to this was the rise of the ‘insurgent parties’ and their politicization of anti-political sentiment based around a condemnation of the Westminster elite and the adoption of ‘outsider status’. And yet even here the insurgent parties had to tread a careful line between, on the one hand, rejecting the actually existing model of politics while, on the other hand, promoting a deeper conviction that democratic politics is not futile.
But let’s be honest about this. The 2015 General Election was not an anti-political election and the SNP, Greens and UKIP were not (and are not) anti-political parties. They are — rhetorically at least — anti the ‘actually-existing-model-of-politics’. They are pro-political but anti-Westminster majoritarianism. This is the crux of the issue. In this sense they all promised to ‘do politics differently’ and it would appear that in Scotland and across the rest of the UK a large segment of the public supported them in this endeavor. What did not support them, however, was the electoral system. Or – more specifically – the electoral system ‘worked’ for the SNP but ‘failed’ for UKIP and Greens. But what is important about the 2015 election is that is demonstrated that the UK is no longer a two or ‘two-and-a-half party system’ but a multi-party system being crudely suppressed by a simple plurality electoral system. And this brings me to my third and final issue: what the 2015 General Election really revealed was a major lack by any of the main political parties to demonstrate a little political imagination.
‘Doing politics differently’ or ‘re-designing democracy’ does not come easy to an official or politician schooled in the British political tradition. As a result we have a Government that is committed to tinkering with the mainframe (i.e. the Westminster Model) rather than thinking anew. The problem is that as Andrew Marr recently argued ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’ (New Statesman 23 March 2015), forces have been unleashed, but the centre has no sense of how to channel or control these dynamics. As the Hansard Society argued in a report in 2010 ‘there is no silver bullet for tackling public distrust and disengagement with politics’ but until British democracy stops drifting and politicians show a little political imagination — and political scientists adopt a solution-focused approach — confidence in the system is unlikely to grow.
Featured image: UK polling booth 2011 by Microchip08. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.