The rise of UKIP and the decline in ratings for the other main political parties in England and Wales are worrying for our participatory democracy. The turnout in the May local elections suggests the trend of declining political participation in recent years looks set to continue with turnouts as low as 15 per cent in some wards.
Even the participation of UKIP could not disguise the apathy and disaffection with our political parties. Although the Electoral Commission report on the outcome is still awaited the projected turn out looks likely to fall below the turnout in May 2012.
The historic trend in voter participation during the last 100 years shows a gradual decline. It seems we vote in television reality programmes with greater enthusiasm than we do in political elections. In 2010, for example, 15,466,019 votes were cast for The X Factor but when it comes to choosing our political representatives we vote with our feet. In the recent elections for Police Commissioners the turn-out was as low as 18 per cent.
A report from The Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), published in March, casts further disturbing light on just how low our opinion of our institutions has sunk.
According to the EIU faith and trust in British institutions has reached an ‘all time low’. Britain now possesses one of the lowest political participation rates in the developed world. We are, in the words of the EIU, in the midst of ‘a deep institutional crisis’, and in a study of 167 countries we sit behind Iraq and Palestine in political participation rates. Even in recent by-elections turn-out has fallen to below 50 per cent.
Britain, according to the EIU, is not only below all the major European powers, but also lags behind some nations that were not considered political democracies until very recently. These include the Lebanon, Tunisia, and Namibia. The EIU did score us highly on having a system of free and open elections, but we scored only six out of 10 when it came to participation. The ERIU democracy index looked at several other factors in producing their latest index, but even then Britain was ranked 16th out of 167 countries, placing it in the lower rungs of the top 25 major democracies in the world.
The EIU report concluded that in Britain: ‘Problems are reflected across many elements – voter turn-out, political party membership, the willingness of citizens to engage in politics and their attitudes towards it. Trust in government, parliament and politicians is at an all-time low’ (my emphasis).
The crisis in trust in our key institutions has been exacerbated by recent scandals involving the police, the church, our financial systems, the BBC, and the media (phone hacking).
The EIU report specifically signalled out the Libor rate rigging scandal as a key factor in recent low political participation, while disillusionment with our political systems has been further damaged by the MPs' expenses scandal and ‘cash for questions’ controversies.
The EIU argue that the British public remain disaffected with politicians who they believe have not sufficiently cleaned up their own act, and have failed to call the bankers to account for triggering the financial crash that precipitated the severe austerity measures now being imposed on the British people. It even suggests that the 2011 riots were a response to a loss of confidence in our political and ruling elite.
It ends with a chilling warning to the Coalition in its final two years in office: ‘There is a clear risk of escalating resentment among affected groups, particularly if further state support is offered to the deeply unpopular financial services sector.’ It's worrying too for Labour, as they look unlikely to be able to offer anything more radical than a similar raft of cuts and welfare squeezes that will make it difficult for them to charm new voters.
These are disturbing times for our democracy, and the more our elite institutions are exposed, the greater the risk to our democratic future. Greater accountability may do something to alleviate the fall from grace.
Find out more:
Dick Skellington 17 June 2013
The views expressed in this post, as in all posts on Society Matters, are the views of the author, not The Open University.
Cartoon by Gary Edwards