Yesterday evening the Hansard Society published the findings of its annual Audit of Political Engagement in the UK. Amid the flurry of goings out at the Leveson enquiry and the solemn commentary over the latest growth figures, it’s unlikely that it will receive all that much attention. Which is a pity since it contains some interesting insights about the possible future direction of democracy in our country.
Whichever way you look at it, the clear message from the Audit is this: there is a severe and growing disconnect between political decision-making in Westminster and the electorate outside of it. The public either aren’t interested in politics or if they are they’re simply disillusioned with elected representatives and the institutions in which they sit. Having only had a brief scan of the Audit’s report, I was struck by the number of times the phrase ‘record low’ was used. Only 42 per cent of respondents said they are interested in politics, down 16 points from last year, and just 48 per cent said they are ‘certain to vote’ in the next general election, down 10 points from last year. Both of these figures are the lowest they have been in the Audit’s series.
To call this a crisis of representative democracy sounds premature, but it’s really not such a radical diagnosis. The figures speak for themselves. The question we should be asking ourselves is not if we’ve reached a new nadir but why. A quick reflection on the past year’s events would suggest that the roots of a disgruntled electorate are obvious: a phone hacking scandal which just won’t dampen down; the summer riots which illustrated a mixture of incompetence and neglect on the part of a distant political elite; and the lingering after effects of the MPs expenses scandal.
All of these factors have no doubt played a central role in causing the current political crisis. But what is perhaps a more interesting and fruitful explanation as to why we’re in our current predicament is Parliament’s complicity in its own demise. By this I mean that many politicians seem resolute on telling everybody, either implicitly or explicitly, how incompetent they are and how disconnected they are from the rest of the country. Occasionally it feels as though the only people who dislike Westminster more than the electorate are those working in Westminster themselves. David Cameron and Ed Miliband alike have often spoken about the failings of Parliament and of the “Westminster bubble”. Others, like Richard Reeves, have written of Westminster as being “as rotten as Rome under Caligula”.
It’s right that everybody from Westminster to Fleet Street should pay attention to the shortfalls of our current political system. The sad reality, however, is that rather than trying to address these problems directly or fight back where allegations are false, many politicians are all too willing to concede failure in representative democracy. This is borne out in at least two ways. First, power is being devolved away from Westminster to new local democratic structures where there isn’t a clear demand for them – ICM figures released today, for instance, suggest that nearly two thirds of people don’t want elected mayors. Second, and more worrying, is that through new policy programmes like acadamisation social authority is being increasingly farmed out to private companies. As Ross McKibbin writes in a recent LRB piece:
The right to determine the relationship between schools and society (or employment services and society, or prisons and society) is being removed from elected institutions, gathered up by Whitehall and parcelled out to friends and supporters of the ruling party.
The latest Hansard figures are arguably just another symptom of the vicious cycle afflicting representative democracy in the UK. Public disillusionment and apathy towards the political system leads to greater and more open self-deprecation from those in Westminster, which in turn leads to more disaffection among the electorate. In the end we react by ceding responsibility away from those who have the clearest mandate to enact change. The solution to this crisis is for politicians to begin defending representative democracy more vocally. If they don’t, who will?