Saturday 25 October 2014

Reasons to be Cheerful about British Political Participation

It is generally accepted as true that political participation in Britain is at depressingly low levels.
 People regularly bemoan the rise of political apathy, the disillusionment with the system, the low turnout in our general elections, the decline of political party memberships.  Rightists complain about a lack of patriotism and belief in traditional culture.  Leftists complain about the lack of the kind of activism and mass working class/student/minority group solidarity that made the 1970's such a terrible place to live. All this is taken as a sign that our society is  decadent and unconcerned, steadily declining in a thick sludge of materialism and buzzfeed articles.

And there is a certain amount of truth in all this. Over the 50 years political party membership has fallen, general election turnout has also fallen.  And there are many other things wrong with our political culture as well.  But particularly in the last very few years there are at least a few fragile signs, a few green shoots, a few straws in the wind that this might be changing.  They might just be blips in a downward trends but right now there are at least some reason to be cheerful.

The first is obvious and widely known: the Scottish referendum.  The referendum in September saw impressive levels of political interest and turnout. But people probably don't release just how unprecdented it was. At 85% the turnout was not just higher than our recent general elections, or other referendums, it was the highest turnout ever in British democratic history. It was higher than any general election turnout since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918 and was higher than any previous referendum conducted in the UK: higher than the 84% who voted in the 1960 general election, higher than the 81% who voted in the Good Friday Agreement referendum in '98 . It was a truly remarkable achievement. It warms my conservative heart to know that even in this day and age you can at least still get people engaged through an appeal to their nationalistic paranoia. Truly some things never change.  

Lots of people were stunned by the passion (and turnout) unleashed in the Scottish referendum and bemoaned the fact that something like that couldn't happen across the rest of Britain.  But UK-wide there is at least some reason to be cheerful as well.  Yes, election turnout isn't what it used to be when your dad were a lad but it is not falling. In fact it is rising and has been for a decade. The idea of falling turnout is one of those zombie facts that lives on long after it stops being true. Turnout bottomed out in 2001 and has been rising since. Sure, it's a relatively recent trend, but it is a trend.   We go into 2015 on the back of two increases in a row and hoping to see a third.  Here's the recent history:

UK General election turnout

2001 - 59%
2005 - 61%
2010 - 65%

And there's every reason to think that we will break the 70% threshold in 2015, which would see us return to the levels generally seen since the 2nd World War, bumping around between 70-80%. Whatever you may think about UKIP, or the SNP, British politics has not been this stirred up since the 1930's.  UKIP has taken safe Conservative seats in southern England and made them charged up marginal contests.  It has taken solid northern industrial Labour heartland seats and made them marginal contests.  The SNP has taken rock-solid working-class Glaswegian one-party state seats even and put the fear of God into the Labour establishment there. The Lib Dems are desperately hanging onto their strongholds with every bone in their liberal bodies and even the Greens are popping up threatening a few seats.

Next year there will be more marginals and three-way marginals and 4-way marginals than there have ever been before; more seats where two or three or four parties will be tearing chunks out of each other and that ferocious contest should drive turnout and participation to height they have not been in decades. You may hate UKIP, or the SNP (I know I do) but the surges in their support have been driven by huge numbers of people who did not vote last time, or possibly ever before. People who have been chronically separated from the political process. And the threat of these parties will also drive supporters of more moderate parties to turn out to stop the crazies: a virtuous circle, at least as far as election turnout is concerned.  Turnout at the general election should hit 70% and hopefully even higher.              

There is also a 3rd good, very recent, reason to feel optimistic about British political life. The collapse in political party membership has been one of the emblematic pieces of evidence proving the never-ending decline of British political culture.  And since the 1950's this trend has been pretty consistent and dramatic.


Remarkably, in the most recent period even this has turned around. It may be that even political party membership has bottomed out.  Figures released in 2014 have shown increases in party membership for every single significant UK political party, apart from Labour who haven't released any figures yet.  The Conservatives, Lib Dems, UKIP, SNP, Greens, have all posted significant increases. And Labour saw a major increase between 2009-2010 and have stayed at that higher level since.  Sure, in the case of the major parties: Lib Dems, Conservatives or Labour this is against the background of historic lows. But in the most recent periods for which figures exist we have seen increases.  

Conservative 2013 - 134k
               2014 - 150k

Labour 2009 - 156k
              2010-2013 - 190k

Lib Dem 2012 - 42.5k
                 2014 - 44k

The increases have been down-right dramatic among the smaller parties.  The SNP, UKIP, the Greens (both English and Scottish) and Plaid Cymru have seen big increases, mostly since 2012, in fact mostly this year. Admittedly, here, the BNP and Respect have seen falls (Good, I hear you say) but these are swamped by far by the increases.   Minor party membership has gone from around 70,000 only a few years ago to 160,000 now. The figures are partial and scrappy, but the trend is definitely there.

UKIP   2010 - 15.5k
             2014 - 39k

Plaid 2012 - 7.6k
          2014 - 8k

BNP 2009 - 13k
          2013 - 4k     
   SNP 2010 - 16k
            2013 - 25k
            2014 - 75k

  Green (English & Scottish) 2012 - 15k
                                               2014 - 31k
Respect 2012 - 1.9k
               2014 - .2k

Unfortunately the data is poor. But we do have information for almost all for 2014 and from at least some of the last 5 years, and it shows a cumulative change from a recent low of membership across all parties from 400,000 a few years ago to around 550,000 right now, and that is a significant increase.

Of course these might just be straws in the wind. We are talking about decades of trends that show signs of turning around in the last few years.  But why always be a pessimist?  It's easy to always claim things are going to hell, especially with our politics. I'd rather be optimistic.  These fragile signs could be the start, if managed properly, of a new trend that sees higher turnout, higher participation, higher party membership over the next years and decades. And that, even if it is just a possibility, is at least something to be cheerful about.


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