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.

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Can we Escape Political Brands? The Problem with ‘Vote for Policies’

At this point in the British electoral cycle (informally known as the “holy crap, there’s an election really soon!” point), social media get filled up with various websites and applications designed to quiz your political views and then tell you which political party you’re closest to. There are the usual suspects – the always-interesting Political Compass assesses the main parties’ electoral platforms and places them on its classic grid, while VoteMatch asks you to agree or disagree with a series of statements to give you a sense of who you agree with.

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Vote for Policies works slightly differently. It simply puts up each party’s own description of its policy platform in a series of key areas – “from the political parties themselves – in their own words”, the website says – and fully anonymises them. You are asked to read each description of policies and pick your favourites. At the end, you get told who you actually ended up supporting.

Commentators are taking notice of the fact that there are some interesting outcomes emerging from people’s usage of the site. Craig Ling at Grayling describes how a quarter of the tens of thousands of respondents found themselves agreeing most with the Green Party (currently setting up lasting residence at about 6% support in most national polls).

In general (and somewhat like Political Compass and the rest), these findings may not indicate much more than the existence of a left-wing bias around politically interested internet users. But Ling describes a different virtue to this approach. By removing these stated policy positions from the ‘brands’ of the parties that produced them, we might get closer to actually finding out about people’s political beliefs, and who they would support in the absence of such biases:

Now of course, there is no guarantee that users of the site are entirely representative of the UK population, but 400,000 is a hell of a sample and frankly puts the Ashcroft Polling to shame. And it’s interesting to see what happens to people’s voting intention once the party leaders are removed from the equation and the public are forced to look beyond Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich incident, David Cameron’s Eton image, and Nick Clegg’s U-turn on Tuition Fees. Is there a case to be made for online voting in this model?

But there is a deeper problem revealed by Vote For Policies’ approach, and shared to some extent by the other sites and apps that try to give people a sense of which party they should be voting for. Simply put, it relies too heavily on the idea that an attractive policy can provide sufficient grounds for the formation of a political preference. The truth is that stated policy objectives will often never be realised in government, or may involve complexities in terms of funding and trade-offs in other areas.

In other words, the realism of these political platforms is not taken into account, or even presented as a relevant consideration, while people are choosing between manifestos on ‘Vote for Policies’.

It’s a bit like someone buying products in a supermarket based simply on what’s written on the back of their packets, or choosing which supermarket to visit based on the claims set out in their advertising. Like it or not, ‘brands’ can communicate far more information than advertising bumpf, and allows us to consider our own understanding and existing knowledge about the products in question.

Brands send certain signals, and allow us to access our experience and memory about a certain product. These associations can be positive or negative – nasty party seems to be an inescapable association for the Conservatives, years after that descriptor was first applied – but they nevertheless are important parts of the reasons we have to vote the way we do. What’s the point of finding myself in strong agreement with the policies of a Green Party that has literally no incentive to take political realities into account while writing its manifesto? Isn’t it important to bear in mind what I’ve learned about the competence and capability of a given party when assessing their positions?

‘Vote for Policies’ and other sites are providing a service, and may encourage more (and more thoughtful) voting overall. But they also operate from the assumption that policy platforms are the most important of the reasons to cast our votes, and this may be a mistake.