I’m sure that I have commented on previous posts (somewhere at some-point) that since September 2019 I have taught an AS Politics class. I have enjoyed the experience, especially with how the specification is now rooted in historical context – particularly issues surrounding the constitution and the extension of the franchise. After all, the 1832 Reform Act was the focus of my degree dissertation. Furthermore, it has also enhanced my own awareness of other aspects of British politics, principally that of the Supreme Court and specific debates regarding voting behaviour.
The essay I have placed below is one I wrote to show students who recently completed a question in a mock exam regarding the participation of those in UK politics. I took the view that there was not a participation crisis due to changing forms of participation as part of digital change. It is the first of – hopefully – many more posts in a new category relating to political history.
‘There is a participation crisis in British politics’. Analyse and evaluate this statement.
Changes in British society in recent decades – particularly with the digital revolution – has led to questions about a participation crisis. Evidence, such as voter turnout in elections, is clearly a cause for concern. This essay will assess traditional methods of participation (such as voter turnout and joining a political party) as well as more modern, online methods (such as e-petitions and social campaigns), before concluding that there is not a participation crisis, but rather a change in the methods of participation.
Firstly, the key statistics utilised to portray a participation crisis is in the form of the turnout at elections. In the elections of the early 1950s, the turnout was at 83-84%; this figure declined steadily throughout the decades and by the 1980s it stood within the mid-70% range. However, after the electoral success of New Labour in 1997, the following election in 2001 saw the amount plummet to 59%. Since that election, the figure has steadily risen, with the recent elections in the high 60s (2017: 69%; 2019: 67%).
Furthermore, voter turnout in other elections is also low: the European Parliament elections in recent decades has not passed the 40% mark, whilst turnout for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections is generally around the 40-60% range. All of this suggests that the public do not care as strongly about these elections.
Secondly, the overall decline in voter turnout is matched with the decline in political party membership. Membership in the 1940s-50s numbered millions for the two big parties (Conservatives and Labour), before declining dramatically from the 1970s onward, with both now in the hundreds of thousands, rather than millions.
However, it could be argued that this is not due to a participation crisis, but rather a change in the way people participate and the change in the party political system. For example, politics in the 21st century is no longer wholly dominated by the big two political parties, with other parties growing in strength. This can be seen with the incredible growth of the SNP in Scotland (as shown in the Scottish Parliament and in recent general elections) and with the re-establishment of a liberal force in the form of the Lib Dems. Furthermore, other alternatives have grown in credibility, particularly the Green Party (who boost a membership in the thousands), as well as more right-wing options, such as Ukip in the 2010s and Brexit Party in the year of 2019. This shows that membership is more likely to be split across numerous parties, rather than concentrated in just two.
Furthermore, we could also dispute the cited 2001 voter turnout percentage (59%) by outlining the context of the election itself. Labour had won a massive landslide in 1997 and all polls predicted another landslide again in 2001, in which case, voters did not come out in droves in order to participate in a foregone conclusion and waste a vote (coupled with an unpopular and uninspiring Conservative leader in William Hague). 2001 could be an example of voter apathy, or alternatively, hapathy in terms of being satisfied with politics and the Labour government. The steady increase since 2001 highlights that it was not the start of a downward trend, but rather one explained due to the context of the election itself.
However, the strongest argument to dispute the notion of a participation crisis is the argument that people are participating in different ways, such as via digital means. The digital revolution has dramatically altered habits across society over the past two decades and the same can be said of politics. E-democracy shows examples of people now engaging in social issues via the internet, particularly with the use of social media and use of e-petitions. One example is that of Twitter: during the 2019 election more than 15 million tweets were posted relating to it. This clearly shows that political discourse online is thriving. Yes, we could claim that such participation is used by some as a form of slacktivism, however, this would not take into account the new means of communication opened by from politicians to the public, and from other groups connecting to one another via such services. Perhaps it could be argued that online participation will become the dominant form in the decades, with the potential for elections to be done via a mobile device rather than at the ballot box.
In conclusion, if we frame the term ‘crisis’ within a traditional lens, then there is evidence to suggest that there is a decline in participation. This is shown in terms of political party membership. However, the digital revolution of the past 20-30 years has re-ordered many elements of society, and this is true of democratic participation. Younger people are more likely to engage in politics in an online capacity, such as utilising e-petitions and voicing concerns on social media. This shows that there is not a participation crisis, and perhaps new methods to engage the public through digital means will allow a rise in turnout in elections.