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.