Deserting in their droves, by Gerry Stoker

6 Jul 06
There is a crisis in democracy, as more and more citizens lose interest in politics. The reasons are complex and varied but globalisation and professionalisation are prime culprits. It's time to return control to the individual, argues Gerry Stoker

07 July 2006

There is a crisis in democracy, as more and more citizens lose interest in politics. The reasons are complex and varied – but globalisation and professionalisation are prime culprits. It's time to return control to the individual, argues Gerry Stoker

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 Brown's 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.

Globalisation has not ended the capacity for politics but has pushed it into arenas and modes of operating beyond the everyday capacities of citizens. Government at local and national levels can influence global trends but they do so out of sight of most of their citizens. Technological and scientific development also create impacts that politics is only able to contain by moving decision-making on to remote and expert terrains. An effective dialogue between science and democracy has not been easy to create as rows over genetically modified food, global warming and cloning indicate.

As the deference that dominated democratic politics in advanced industrial societies has declined, it appears to have been replaced by a culture of cynicism, not just towards politics but also towards many other institutions. The media would appear to be implicated in the spread of cynicism. There has been a 'dumbing down' in mainstream news coverage, which means that people are less likely to understand underlying issues or complexities. Politics can often be seen to fail when what it is delivering is judged in a simplistic framework.

Second, the fusing of news reporting and comment, another characteristic of mainstream media coverage of politics, feeds a culture where fact, opinion and speculation merge into one another. This lends itself to a cynical take on political life.

Ordinary members of the public are excluded from politics and often have quite naïve attitudes towards it. I think that a substantial part of this discontent is because the discourse and practice of collective decision-making sits very uncomfortably alongside our daily experience of individual choice, self-expression and market-based fulfilment of needs and wants. As a result, too many citizens fail to appreciate the inherent characteristics of the political process in democratic settings: its complexities and messiness. Politics involves listening carefully to the opinions of others and their expressions of their interests and maintaining resilience when things do not go right the first time. It is a hard slog rather than a quick fix. Doing politics in our large complex societies is bound to create some frustration.

A cycle of disaffection with democracy ultimately runs the risk of undermining public support for it. But we can rethink the way that we do politics to address the challenges that we face. In our reassessment, we need to recognise that, for most people, politics is not their first choice of activity. There are trade-offs between the time spent on politics and the joys of private life. Moreover, advocates of engagement tend to over-prescribe particular solutions as well as misjudge the extent and nature of the involvement that people want.

Politics is therefore a place for amateurs and we need to design institutions, structure processes and develop support systems to make it easier for people to engage in it. My solution to the problem of disenchantment with politics is deceptively simple. It is to expand the opportunities for citizens to have a say about the issues they care about.

Reforms should be premised on the idea of an ergonomic approach to politics. We need ways of getting people more directly involved in policy making and implementation without expecting them to give up their lives and become professional politicians.

We need measures that will enable people to

re-engage with representative politics. The divide between professional politicians and amateur voters is too great and the reforms must give amateurs greater confidence in systems of representation and their capacity to exercise influence through them. I would focus attention on three issues: how to make elected politicians more socially representative; how to ensure that the highest ethical standards are observed by our elected representatives; and how to make elections more competitive. I would also focus attention on slightly more unconventional ideas for reform.

We could use more new technology to improve communication between citizens and their representatives not only over individual constituency matters but also over legislative and policy concerns.

We need to ensure that more representatives' time is spent effectively looking outwards towards citizens rather than inwards towards the demands of parties and parliamentary procedures.

Thirdly, we need to challenge citizen and lobby groups to demonstrate more effectively their claims to represent interests.

In addition, we should develop the architecture of representation to cope with the twin challenges of localism and globalisation. Local devolved institutions need to build around an often complex and layered sense of identity about where we live. We need local government systems that not only enable us to act in our neighbourhoods and communities but also have the strategic capacity to frame our local response to larger-scale issues.

Engagement at the global level is a harder challenge. We need to encourage more effective and co-ordinated international organisations and to develop the capacity to act more effectively and globally. At the same time, we need rules to give all stakeholders a locked-in part in decision-making processes. This large-scale reform agenda could be joined by a range of more pragmatic reforms aimed at making the prospects for democratic governance on the global scale more than just a daydream.

The first change should be to improve public education, as citizens are largely ignorant of what the institutional framework and pressure points are at the global level. Second – and connected to this – there could be more transparency in the way that these organisations work, through the provision of clear and accessible information. National parliaments and assemblies could debate and scrutinise the actions of global institutions more thoroughly and effectively than they do.

More support could be given to civil society organisations, so that they can speak more effectively and fairly for a full range of global interests.

We also need ways to engage in politics that are not too time-consuming. There are plenty of examples from around the world of imaginative ways to get people involved, including budget debates and e-democracy.

In short, we need to address the underlying societal trends that drive disenchantment with politics. That means reconciling individualisation with politics by developing representative and direct politics in new ways. We should break the stranglehold of specialised practitioners over politics and provide opportunities for citizens to engage rather than remain cynically on the sidelines. We need to grapple with the demands of complexity and globalisation.

Achieving mass democracy was the great triumph of the twentieth century. Learning to live with it will be the great achievement of the twenty-first century.

Gerry Stoker is professor of politics at the University of Manchester and an ESRC professorial fellow. His book, Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work, is published by Palgrave Macmillan on July 7


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