Political Participation Democracies
“…our democratic system isn’t working…public faith in our politicians institutions are draining away and being replaced by a progressive and debilitating alienation.”
(David Cameron May 2006)
The subject matter of political participation in modern democracies is at the very core of the academic study of democracy in politics. The principal and most central theme in current and contemporary studies on political participation, in the United Kingdome, and in almost all the other highly developed democracies, is the declining levels of participation in political parties and elections and over the last decade and even longer.
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Academics examining trends in not only national but local politics have pointed to a predominantly striking decline in local party activism and local election turnout. In the midst of political theorists and scientists, the revision of political participation was in the past usually limited to conservative forms of involvement, specifically those focused with the means of representative democracy, like electoral voting, standing for office or campaigning.
But the rise in what is referred to as ‘direct action’ in politics during the 1960s and 1970s in a sense forced political scientists to take notice of and recognise those so called ‘non-conventional’ forms of participating in politics, like, for example, the signing of petitions, taking part in protests and demonstrations or partaking in civil disobedience (Wilks-Heeg &Clayton 2005).
“Changing the way we govern, and not just changing our government, is no longer an optional extra for Britain. So low are popular esteem for politicians and the system we operate that there is now little authority for us to use unless and until we first succeed in regaining it.”
(Tony Blair, 1996)
Political participation had been described as being vital to democracy at large. Yet, political academics have disputed as to the degree of participation that is needed for a “healthy democracy”. It has been said that very high level of participation in politics from the public is not a reasonable expectation in today’s society. Apathy, it is argued in the text, should be accepted as a democratic value as it marks the limits of politics. Furthermore, it is put forward that a fully participating democracy is not realistic in a modern liberal world. It is instead more feasible for a democratically appointed political body to make all the decisions.
The most basic type of political participation in a democracy is the process to voting in elections, although, voting in UK elections has been said to have declined in recent years. Voting in the British national elections had averaged an estimated 7 6.5% between 1950 and 1997, though the general trend is said to be one of decline. A higher form of political participation or commitment other than electoral voting is joining a political party or a cause group. This also has declined substantially from several million after World War2 to less than a million in more recent years (textbook).
“We face a crisis of political engagement. The metaphor that I have long used for this crisis is the empty stadium. We who work in politics continue as normal while the audience- in this case, literally- trickle away.”
(Lord Philip Guild, June 2006)
Its been said that democracy is facing a crisis of legitimacy and thus needs to be fundamentally re-arranged to become once again relevant in the public’s everyday lives.
This crisis of political participation in Britain appears to be a great concern for politicians. Turnout at the last British general election was said to be the lowest yet, at 58 per cent, making it lower than at any other general election since 1918. Furthermore, voters are said to have been reluctant to go to the polls in all the other elections that were held over the last six years or so. Naturally, then, politicians have been trying to figure out ways how they can, once again, re-engage the public at large with the political process.
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Over the last ten or more years, trade union membership has again and again been high among the more educated in contrast to the less well educated. Yet, the decline in political membership has risen at somewhat more or less the same rate among all the educational groups regardless of one being more or less educated. So there is no reason here to expect that the fall in trade in union membership should or will have led the way to an educational divide in electoral participation (Curtice and Seyd, 2003).
In addition, it’s said that apart from the arguably undemanding activity of signing a petition, most of the public have for the most part have not engaged themselves in other forms of political protest activities. Though, the article argues it is fairly apparent that the decline in electoral turnout at the recent British elections can not be attributed to any wider negative response to politics by individuals to become mixed up in the political process. To a certain extent, it has become clear that many other forms of political participation are now somewhat more widely accepted than they once were in the past.
This twist of fate in reference to decline in turnout and participation and the increase in non-electoral participation has clearly raised questions as to whether if at all, the two are connected. Are other new forms of political participation replacing electoral voting? Are some turning away from the ballot box and using street protests and demonstrations instead? In reality academics state, there is no real evidence to hold up this claim. But rather, those who do take part in non-electoral political activities have been found in cases to be morerather than less likely to vote in elections (Wilks-Heeg &Clayton 2005).
There have been many explanations for political turnout decline, like, for instance changing citizens, changing elections, a declining interest in politics or declining trust and bland parties that are becoming more and more difficult to differentiate between. There had been a strong link established between party distinctiveness and turnout. Membership of political parties has dramatically fallen in the United Kingdom over the last decade. Is there in fact cause for concern; is the decline in electoral turnout a sign of declining trust in politicians? Does it actually matter because the decline in participation is not proof of decline in political interest as there has been a noticeable rise in non-electoral participation, has there in fact been a decline or are citizens finding other ways of participating in politics that have not yet been fully recognised?
Some would argue low turnout may reflect contentment with the current situation in UK politics Electoral activity for example which refers to activities such as party membership, voting, and party activism. There is also ‘Consultation activity’ this includes a wide range of citizen involvement with public agencies, political parties through surveys, public panels and focus groups. Moreover, ‘pressure activity’ including activities such as membership of pressure groups, taking part in demonstrations and also other forms of political protest, participating in boycotts of consumer products, writing letters to politicians or local MPs, and lobbying policy-makers as part of a wider campaign (Wilks-Heeg &Clayton 2005).
- Stuart Wilks-Heeg & Steve Clayton, 2005, http://www.liv.ac.uk/ssp/research/Political_Participation.pdf (Accessed 25.03.2008)
- Bromley, C. and Curtice, J. ‘Where have all the voters gone?’, in Park, A., Curtice, J., Thomson, K., Jarvis, L. and Bromley, C. (eds.), British Social Attitudes –
the 19th Report, (London: Sage, 2002).
- Curtice, J. and Seyd, B. Is there a Crisis of Political Participation? Park, A., Curtice, J., Thomson, K., Jarvis, L. and Bromley, C. (eds.) British Social Attitudes: the 20th Report – Continuity and Change over Two Decades, (London: Sage, 2003).
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