A Crisis in British Democracy?

Prompted by an intriguing question from a colleague, I just found myself in the position of trying to set out, in one paragraph, the big overarching theme from all my lecturing and teaching on British politics. I kind of didn’t manage it, but I think that my failure may be an instructive one, and the theme I did draw out makes a certain amount of sense: contemporary democratic crisis.

Not-so-contemporary democratic crisis.

The paragraph I ended up writing speaks, I think, to the broader perspective that this blog is trying to pull together:

The unspoken overarching question … is “Is there a crisis in British democracy?”. To begin to answer this question, we have to draw upon a multitude of core trends from recent years: voter dealignment, sovereignty debates, regional nationalism, single-issue parties, electoral instability, political scepticism on the part of the public, conflict between formal and informal elements of the establishment (media vs. politicians = good example), the rise(?) of executive presidentialism, etc.

Each of these topics could form the basis for a blogpost (or journal article. Or book. Or book series) in their own right – and perhaps they will. But we might sketch out how each of these vaguely-drawn headings contribute to the sense of a broad crisis in British democracy.

Voter dealignment is a hugely important trend in contemporary politics, convincingly framed by David Denver and others. In the UK context, it incorporates the effects of the decline in class-motivated voting, a long-term pattern that was powerfully concretised by the New Labour project and its rejection of most of the ideals usually associated with a politicised working class. We are now, as a voting public, far more likely to be ‘floating voters’ than before, far less likely to maintain political and party memberships, and increasingly disinterested in emulating the voting tendencies of our parents. Economic social mobility may be rather stagnant, but political mobility remains alive and well among voters.

Our dealignment from the classic duopoly of British political culture contributes to several other trends. So-called ‘single issue’ parties are now successful enough to need to set out more broadly-framed governmental manifestos (often with mixed results), meaning that UKIP isn’t just interested in immigration reform and EU membership, but also needs to have a perspective on education and the NHS that is at least somewhat plausible. Combined with the rise of regional nationalist parties – primarily meaning the SNP, given the strangely dwindling fortunes of Plaid Cymru in Wales – voter dealignment clearly hasn’t simply resulted in more variation in party support, but in the awakening of the UK as a venue for a multitude of political perspectives and parties. This rise in ‘third’ parties is of crucial importance even in the face of the Liberal Democrats’ declining fortunes. With significant upticks in support for UKIP, the Green party, and the SNP, combined support for Labour and the Conservatives is at a historic low.

Of course, when we talk about the changing tendencies in party support, what we’re really trying to understand is the changes in voter behaviour more broadly.  Political scepticism and political apathy are powerful forces in our democratic landscape. Electoral turnout crashed significantly in the early-mid 1990s, and has only recovered a little bit since the end of the Blair years. While the importance and efficacy of voting is generally considered to be non-negotiable in most democratic contexts, there exist good reasons to doubt the meaningfulness of democratic participation in this country – and it’s telling that such scepticism seems, more and more, to be at the heart of our national debate, with various movements claiming (or being accused of embodying) an ‘anti-politics’ agenda. Various recent events have contributed to declining public confidence in the institutions of British democracy even as they form part of what many commentators perceive as being a generalised crisis in the support-base for established liberal democracies worldwide.

Meanwhile, the crisis in British democracy – if there is one – is surely reflected in the mounting tensions between the various core institutions and components of the establishment in this country. This is a democracy where the printed media claim to influence the outcome of elections even as their circulations decline and the political class seeks to introduce press regulations. The police are constantly at odds with political will at a personal and institutional level and the NHS is alternately revered and delivered to play as a viable political football.

This is a short list, and a badly incomplete one, but it gives some sense of the scale and rapidity of the trends that are reshaping British political reality. Now, more than ever, British politics is in need of a clearer understanding of its own democratic theory.

Finger Lickin’ Voting: Apathy, Nando’s and Clegg

Here’s something my students are probably sick of hearing me say: a metaphor isn’t an argument. Even the most evocative, appropriate-seeming and intuitively persuasive metaphor or analogy might not, in the end, make very much sense at all. Political communication is rife with arguments-from-metaphors (and there’s quite a lot of it in political academia as well). It’s a dependable fall-back position in politics because it relies upon an ancient form of reasoning, and one that requires no expertise or careful thought on the part of your audience in order to seem wise.

I'll flame grill your chicken

Example: Nick Clegg, making a generally pretty charismatic appearance on a comedy TV show, being asked to make the case for voting – this, obviously, in the aftermath of Russell Brand’s well-publicised argument that voting is basically a big waste of time – made an interesting comparison:

[I]f you go to Nando’s and get someone else to go up to the counter and order for you, you can’t complain if they come back with a meal you don’t want.

Does this really strike us as being similar to voting in some important way? It certainly seems to have done the trick for the show’s presenters, one of whom took to the New Statesman to write up Clegg’s performance in glowing terms:

It was the single best description of the value of voting I’ve ever heard. And according to the electronic wall of scribble known as Twitter, it was a very convincing one. And all because there was no bullshit.

Casting a vote, however, is not very much like placing an order in a restaurant. To receive a meal different to the one you ordered is an error; to end up with a government controlled for a party that you didn’t vote for is a by-product of the procedural norms of democracy. There is no agentic similarity between these two situations: my vote, unlike my food order, is neither the necessary nor the sufficient condition for the arrival of my desired outcome. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, our votes carry far less objective value than the opportunity costs we incur by taking the time to cast them, which is why political scientists have spent decades puzzling over the paradox of voting. Given that in the UK’s particular electoral system the narrow chance of having an ‘influential’ vote is literally ruled out for many by the accident of their geographic location only deepens the quandary – quite a lot of us are voting, but none of us are right to be doing it on the grounds that we think it will change any outcomes.

Even if we grudgingly agree, for the sake of argument, that Clegg’s statement is basically sound, it doesn’t come across as a strong justification of voting. Voting, by this account, is a practice that we should value on the grounds that it licenses us to complain about political outcomes. Our political objections become meaningful, then, because we participated in the system that brought about the outcome to which we object.

But this idea contradicts what would seem to be the most persuasive reason to value voting: that it generates not the grounds for agreement with final outcomes (since the eventual outcomes will be undetermined by my vote), nor the grounds for legitimating my disagreement if the outcome is not to my liking, but rather because it signals personal consent to the procedural norms of the democratic system itself. If democracy produces an outcome that I do not like, I will be more inclined to tolerate it if I feel that the system that produced such an outcome was fair in some basic way. Voting would therefore not give me a reasonable basis from which to complain, but rather create a reasonable basis for my political obligations to a government that I did not choose.

In any case, Clegg is again demonstrating a talent for political communication, and he can hardly be blamed for not articulating a strong case for voting, since for most of the political class voting appears to be a self-evidently virtuous activity.

But I might recommend a better, more appropriate analogy between Nando’s and UK politics: after all, no matter what you order, you’re very likely to end up eating chicken again.