Still can't be bothered to vote

Politics and the People
October 12, 2007

In 2001, UK electoral participation sank to a new low and four years later hardly recovered. It has become received wisdom that there is mass withdrawal from the political process brought about by widespread cynicism, disenchantment and indifference. British democracy, some even claim, is endangered.

Politics and the People contests this wisdom. Its basic thesis is straightforward: there is no crisis of democracy, no collapse of political participation, because the British people have always been half-hearted about involving themselves in the political life of the country. Britain has never possessed anything that could be described as a "vibrant" political culture.

And if the myth-makers are wrong, so are the doom merchants. Popular participation, always a minority sport, may be altering its shape but it shows no sign of diminishing.

Kevin Jefferys rightly argues that contemporary judgments about the dearth of mass political activity make sense only by placing them in a historical context. Politics and the People sets out to provide "the first full-scale study of 'popular politics': the actions and attitudes of the population at large" in the years since the First World War. Much of the study consists of a systematic review of the available evidence on orientations towards politics and the disposition to engage in political life over the past 90 years. His core thesis is that British political culture has always been somewhat passive - a subject rather than a citizen culture. Equally, rather than being a novel phenomenon, "widespread cynicism about politicians has been endemic throughout the history of British democracy". There was a brief period in the late 1940s and early 1950s when there was a marked spurt in levels of political activism and commitment - especially in the Labour Party - but this soon abated. Indeed, Jefferys shows how membership and rank-and-file activism in that party has always been patchy - often low and listless in the party heartlands in the North and Scotland - and generally disproportionately middle class.

Quoting E. M. Forster, Jefferys argues that the British attitude towards the country's institutions can best be summed up as "two cheers for democracy". If there has never been a golden age of political participation, equally there are no grounds for the contention that British democracy is now a "sickly, ailing patient".

True, in the new millennium electoral turnout did begin to plummet, levels of party allegiance dwindled and the proportion of the electorate perceiving little difference between the two main parties reached a postwar high at 44 per cent in 2001. However, unprecedented numbers of people poured into the streets of London to protest against the Iraq war, reflecting a more general upsurge in non-partisan forms of popular activity, such as membership of new social movements and pressure groups, and joining marches and demonstrations. In 2001, the proportion of people telling researchers for the British Social Attitudes Survey that they had taken part in some form of political action had doubled since the mid-1980s.

The central thesis of Politics and the People is that total levels of political interest and activity over the post-1918 period have "barely fluctuated", with about 15 per cent of the population evincing a great deal of interest in politics and about half little at all.

As a survey of Newcastle-under-Lyme conducted in the early 1960s noted, politics for most people was "a marginal pastime" in which "only a few are really active".

The British political culture, the book concludes, has always been "anaemic: lacking in vigour and vitality". But equally there is no sign of a crisis of mass disengagement.

Two comments seem apposite here. The first being that it is an odd assumption that a high degree of informed interest and involvement is a reasonable expectation. Both are, to a significant extent, a function of motivation to acquire knowledge, of the capacity to think in abstract terms and the ability to process a significant amount of information with ease. (Points that have been indicated by research.) Not surprising then (as Jefferys points out) that such characteristics are positively correlated with education and hence with class. People (unless from highly political backgrounds) will not naturally make the connection between their own lives and the complex political arrangements and broader social forces that shape public decision-making.

Second, there is one major puzzle that the book overlooks. In so far as the above is correct - that political interest and activity is correlated with class and occupation - then one would not expect the pattern of stability that Jefferys uncovers but an upward curve. A much larger slice of the population now passes through higher education, far more are employed in white-collar work and there has been an explosion of the number and variety of media outlets supplying political coverage. The question is not simply whether things are getting worse, but why are they not getting better?

Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics at Stirling University.

Politics and the People: A History of British Democracy since 1918

Author - Kevin Jefferys
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Pages - 336
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9781843542223

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