current affairs democracy politics

Is Britain a post-democracy?

In my day job in publishing, we sometimes talk about ‘post-literacy’ and whether or not Britain is a post-literate society. That’s a situation where people can read, but don’t. They don’t necessarily need to or want to. There’s a degree of worry that functional reading skills are in decline in many developed countries, even though formal literacy rates are as high as ever.

Thinking about this weekend, which has been one of the more depressing moments in British politics that I can remember, I wonder if there’s a similar situation in our politics. We have the vote, we just don’t use it. We have the institutions of democracy, but not the practice. Are we, in effect, a post-democracy?

There are various aspects to post-democracy. One is whether or not the government represents the people. It certainly doesn’t in Europe. 27% of voters in last week’s European election voted for UKIP, but the turnout was 33.8%. Because the rest of the country didn’t bother to ankle round to their local polling station, the ‘winners’ of the election were chosen on the basis of a pretty small fraction of the country. Fortunately the European elections use a representative system, so you don’t ‘win’ the election in the same way. Still, our voice in Europe only speaks for one in three of the population.

Our national government doesn’t represent us well either. The Conservatives won 36% of the votes in the general election, which means twice as many people didn’t want David Cameron as Prime Minister than did. Turnout in 2010 was 65%, which reduces that mandate even further. There are diverse reasons for it, but it’s little wonder people aren’t bothered about voting if you can come out the other side of a general election with a government that three quarters of us didn’t ask for.

Another way of looking at it is to ask whether people have faith in the government and those that represent them. A 2012 poll on the state of British democracy found that only a quarter of us think Parliament does a good job of debating social issues “in a sensible and considered way”. 62% of us agree with the statement ‘politicians tell lies all the time – you can’t believe a word they say’. If levels of trust are that low, it’s no surprise that people aren’t engaging in politics.

You could also look at how well people understand their own government. Here again the signs aren’t healthy. From the same 2012 poll, 37% of people don’t know who their local MP is. (Comparing that to turnout, it suggests there’s a percentage of people who voted but then didn’t bother to see who had won.) There is also fairly widespread confusion over what MPs are supposed to do. Do they vote according to their own conscience, according to party policy, or by asking their own constituents what they think? Who do they actually listen to in making their decisions? We don’t appear to know, which is probably why about half of us don’t know if our local MP is doing a good job or not.

Britain is a democracy. But if the government doesn’t represent us, and is neither trusted nor understood, what is that worth? More importantly, how do we re-invigorate our democracy and extend participation?

This week the newspapers are full of pictures of Nigel Farage chortling in various pubs up and down the land, and the other parties are all asking ‘how do we beat UKIP in 2015?’ But we should take this opportunity to step back and ask some much bigger questions about democracy in Britain.

11 comments

  1. Wasn’t it just the most depressing outcome ever! I do wonder though, if I suppose the people that could have made a difference to the voting results didn’t because they didn’t vote, would they have also have voted UKIP as well? I ask because surely the people who didn’t take the time to vote must not have been intelligent enough to know what the outcome would be otherwise? I know that’s very simplistic in view but I just don’t understand why, given the amount of coverage we see on countries where voting is waged with killing, fighting and fixed results why we take our rights for granted so much.

    1. I suspect it’s not a matter of intelligence, but of convenience. If you’re not interested, voting is just a hassle that people can do without, especially if you don’t see how it impacts you. A simple thing like the rain on thursday will have affected turnout.

      That’s no excuse of course, but we ought to be looking at how to make it easier to vote.

  2. The voting result was depressing throughout Europe, and actually the post-reading and post-democracy trends may – in part – be systemically connected. Polls and interviews with EU opponents had shown that most arguments against the EU were outright wrong, merely simplistic clichés and platitudes. I think the EU is quite transparent, but the citizens actually have to take the time and READ. It’s all there. The EU publishes a lot openly (there are exceptions, such as the TTIP negotiations, which also auspiciously have been absent from mainstream voting campaigns). Not voting is what shifts us directly into the post-democratic era: it was possible to vote against TTIP by electing parties that oppose the agreement in its current form – especially the undemocratic components and the secretive back-room negotiation style. What it takes to realize all that: reading. Actively searching for information. I gave out Campact info flyers about TTIP, and in our town I did not meet a single person who had even the slightest idea what it was all about, and most were completely disinterested about the EU elections – participation stayed at well below 50%. In the end people get the governance they deserve – and when they don’t care, when they decide not to participate, they will be governed by whoever pushes hard enough. I heard they call the current generation “Generation Head-Down.” (I wonder if the constantly hanging head has a psychological impact). A number I heard somewhere: in Germany 5% of the population are responsible for almost 90% of the book sales. I didn’t check if that’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

    1. That’s a good point, and I suspect you’re right. When you look at declining newspaper readership, or the quality of Britain’s most popular newspapers, it’s not hard to see why people vote the way they do.

      It’s notable that most people who voted UKIP have no idea what their polices are beyond their immigration and anti-EU stance. A lot of working class voters would be put off if they knew their economic policies and Thatcherite leanings, but they haven’t bothered to ask.

      1. I don’t think UKIP know their economic policies. They were very dry economically but since they have publicly junked their 2010 manifesto what they support now is an unknown. A pig in a poke party.

  3. I wouldn’t be so dismissive that ‘ twice as many people didn’t want David Cameron as Prime Minister than did.’ Not only did on that basis did more people want him than anyone else, but forced choice polling put him ahead of Gordon Brown.

    The idea that the current government lacks legitimacy seems odd since it represents the first government with more than 50% of votes cast for decades. That is coalition for you, totally missing from this post..

    1. Yes, I consciously left the coalition out, as I wanted to look specifically at the issues of representation and trust. Obviously nobody voted for a coalition, so in a sense nobody got what they wanted, David Cameron included. But that doesn’t make it illegitimate. That’s the system we have, and it’s the government the system delivered. But we can and should question the system.

      I also left it out because I want to look at it specifically in a future post. I want to look a little more broadly at this whole topic.

      Incidentally, you and I may in the minority, just, on the coalition’s legitimacy. The survey I mentioned says 47% say it’s democratically legitimate, 37% say it’s not, and 16% don’t know. From the lack of rioting,we can assume people don’t hold those views particularly strongly.

  4. A very interesting article Jeremy-I was one that wanted out of the EU, so I got off my backside and voted. Of course having studied the EU situation for many years understood the ins and outs probably better than most, nevertheless it didn’t stop me from exercising my right to vote. One problem that has shown itself is that government & all political parties have not so far involved or engaged the voting public in debate as much as they should have done, consequently so many are ignorant or vague on the important issues. TV Question Time and their likes are completely biased to the establishment, & added to the controlled Media dictates of those that run the establishment in UK & Europe.

    1. It was notable, I thought, that almost no one engaged with the actual debate over Europe. The Lib Dems tried, but their efforts were futile, caught between populism over immigration on one side and mud-slinging ridicule on the other.

      I suppose the question is though – is there even the appetite for debate? There are people like yourself who will read up on issues and make an informed choice. But is the lack of debate simply a response to lack of interest? And if so, how do we encourage people to engage more with the issues? The politicians can’t get people interested, the media isn’t serving us. What other avenues do we have?

      1. Yes indeed what other avenues for engaing the voting public do we have? Not quite laziness shall we say but an indifference to anyhting that does not impinge on their daily lives. The British peoples of the 1940’s when they had their backs up against the wall turned and faced their enemy with every ounce of strength they could muster and pulled together-question: does the man and woman of today have that same spirit of fight for its freedoms, or has the spirit since deserted them, been worn down by continued pericious propaganda to make them feel safe? Every token of economic life now is daily manipulated to the advantage of evildoers and the disadvantages of the honourable laborers. Perhaps they see that in this new economic world, no individual can impose the smallest check upon the imperious will of the fiat controllers.

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