Big government, enormous turnoff

May 4, 2007

With party politics and voter turnouts waning but many citizens active on local and global issues, experts ponder what might stir a democratic revival

Only local autonomy will restore people's belief that their vote matters, says Paul Whiteley

If you bothered to vote in this week's elections in Scotland and Wales or the local elections in England, you will have been in the minority. Election turnouts have been falling since the late 1990s, and in general elections they have declined dramatically compared with a generation ago.

The turnout in Britain's 2005 general election was just over 61 per cent. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in 2003, it was 49 per cent and 38 per cent respectively. Younger people are even less inclined to use their vote. The British Election Study survey, conducted immediately after the 2005 general election, showed that turnout among the under-25s was only 48 per cent. Although roughly half of the over-65s in that survey strongly agreed with the statement, "It is every citizen's duty to vote", only a fifth of the under-25s had the same view.

Meanwhile, the average age of members of political parties in 2005 was 59, and voters' attachments to parties are at an all-time low. Clearly, elections and party politics are increasingly turning people off, particularly the young.

But if we look beyond electoral politics we get a different picture. Forms of participation other than voting are healthy. Protest demonstrations in Britain are still popular, and the young are more likely to take part than the old. Equally, boycotting and "buycotting" - buying goods for ethical or political reasons - are fast-growing forms of participation in which the young play a prominent role. Similarly, large numbers of people get involved in local campaigns and local community organisations as volunteers. The young are a bit less likely to do this, but the difference between age groups is not large. In the survey quoted above, less than 5 per cent of respondents said that they had no interest in politics at all, and about a third said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of interest. Here the attitude of the young was similar to that of the middle-aged.

So why is party politics such a turnoff? First, Britain is a rapidly changing, multicultural society with diverse values. The key role played by political parties in modern democracies is to aggregate diverse interests into more or less coherent programmes. They help to reconcile the losers in the political process, and they share out the costs of political action as well as distributing the benefits throughout society. These activities help to keep the political process from becoming violent. The growing heterogeneity of society makes these functions harder to achieve. Common values have been eroded as class solidarity has weakened, and the declining importance of religion outside of ethnic minorities has produced greater cultural diversity. The political parties are increasingly failing to reconcile these differences.

Second, modern governments are often trying to do difficult things. In public health, for example, when the state first started to invest in water treatment and sewage systems in the 19th century, public health improved dramatically. In contrast, contemporary governments are trying to persuade people to give up smoking, get more exercise and lose weight, all of which are difficult to do. In this case, government often does little else but exhort people, and this quite often fails to achieve anything. As a result, citizens lose faith in the ability of the system to deliver, which in turn weakens their support for the parties that underpin it.

Third, a feature of modern government is the continuous election campaign.

This means that information is seen as a propaganda tool rather than a means of informing people, and the truth takes a back seat to the party line. Short-term advantages of spin eventually give way to long-term problems of declining trust and political alienation, particularly among the young. So modern campaigning and governing help to corrode democracy.

However, the single most important factor in explaining the decline of parties is the trend towards centralisation of the British state. This has been going on for 30 years or more; compared with other advanced democracies, such as Germany and the US, Britain is extremely overcentralised. And, apart from devolution to Scotland and Wales, which occurred because Tony Blair honoured a commitment made by his predecessor, John Smith, centralisation under the Blair Government has been continuing apace. In this respect, it has been little different from Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s, with Whitehall continuing to marginalise local politics.

Centralisation is justified by claims of managerial efficiency, promotion of common standards and avoidance of postcode lotteries. The paradox is that surveys show citizens to be more satisfied with locally provided services such as rubbish collection and libraries than they are with nationally provided services such as the National Health Service. The Soviet Union showed how incompetent the state can be in trying to micromanage services that should be devolved down to a lower level. What has not been recognised is that over-centralisation also discourages party activity and electoral participation. After all, why should people vote in a local election when their council has so little power? Why should anyone get involved in local politics if it has so little influence over what happens to local communities?

The arrival in 10 Downing Street of Gordon Brown is not likely to change this state of affairs. He has presided over the greatest centralisation of power into the Treasury in modern British history, and the targets and indicators culture is the direct product of this centralising mindset. The Government's response to the pathologies of centralisation has been to privatise. But in many cases this makes the problem of democratic accountability worse because no one can remove a private company working under a long-term private finance initiative agreement.

With weakening voter attachments to political parties, a widespread belief in the electorate that government is corrupt, and increased rebelliousness among backbench MPs, this centralised system appears to be now coming unstuck. Constitutional changes, such as a major devolution of power to local government, are needed if we are to persuade people that voting in elections is not a waste of their time.

Paul Whiteley is professor of government at Essex University and co-director of the British Election Study.

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