In a series of recent tweets Mitch Benn said “UK politics used to be about the rivalry between the political representatives of the lower/middle classes and the upper/ruling classes but now it’s just about the rivalry between the progressive and conservative wings of the POLITICAL class. No-one else gets a look in. It’s the sheer fact that UKIP don’t (appear to) belong to this political class which is fuelling a lot of their popularity.”
It’s become very apparent to me that I’m firmly in the “political class”. I was saying to Annie at the weekend that the set of people who have recently read the Number 10 Transparency website, the House of Commons Report on Political Engagement, the Institute for Government Whitehall Monitor Report on the 2014 state of the civil service and the Labour Digital Government Review is, well, probably just me.
The difference between now, 50 years ago and 150 is profound. 150 years ago the upper class and the political class were synonymous. If you hasn’t been to a good boarding school the odds of you being politically influential were slim to nil. 50 years ago you absolutely could get involved but it was by joining an existing political party and working your way up through their ranks until you gained some influence.
Today, mostly thanks to the internet, the amount of information related to politics in this country that is available to everyone is unprecedented. The opportunity to become involved through the existing party structures, the large number of open consultations, organisations like 38 Degrees or speaking directly to your MP via email or social media is similarly unparalleled.
Yet, according to the Report on Political Engagement (and the very similar Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement) the number of people who feel disenfranchised increases every year. Participation in a general election is a poor indicator of people’s political desires or efforts but the fact that a very large number of people are not even doing that continues to be worrying.
The two reports offer a number of reasons for people’s separation from politics. The chief of these is, I personally suspect, “lack of time”. People continue to lead busy lives with work and family responsibilities and don’t prioritise getting involved in broad spectrum politics. They may have narrow specific concerns but they either don’t know how to best articulate them or they channel them through an organisation like 38 Degrees.
As an aside, one of the parts of the remit of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy is to look into whether the internet can and should be used to try and draw those conversations and opinions closer to Parliament rather than through intermediaries.
The main way that people used to find motivation to be involved in politics was to back, to one extent or another, a political party that they thought best represented their interests and world-view. As all the parties, UKIP excepted, have moved to the center ground to gain the broadest spectrum of votes. This means that people no longer feel they have a “team” that represents them. Exactly the opposite has happened in America which now finds itself with people voting Republican on the same ballots where the also vote for outright progressive measures such as gay marriage or marijuana legalisation.
This perceived lack of an “easy” way to engage in politics in this country now leaves a lot of people short of the “initiation energy” they need to become involved. So-called “clicktivism” is one way to achieve this but it brings with it a whole raft of its own issues and doesn’t provide people with a way to engage with people in the influence hierarchy (even if you didn’t used to speak to your MP you might have spoken to your union rep who passed concerns from you and your peers up the chain).
So, what’s the solution? I feel the first hurdle to get over is providing much better political education in this country. Very few people, even those like myself in the so-called political class, really know the differences between government and Parliament, law and policy, EU regulations and national statutes, etc. In a recent twitter conversation with the UK Parliament Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee I said that ideally the BBC would be reminded of its Charter commitment to provide political education to the country.
This explanation had to be more than about just voting. It has to be about all the ways government wants the public to get involved via all of the open policy work that is currently happening. But it also has to be about how the public can engage in the topics the government doesn’t want to talk about.
GOV.UK and the Parliament website have their own role to play in this. The way consultations are publicised and handled, especially in terms of transparency, leaves a lot to be desired. There’s also a lot more can be done around information and notifications around law and policy such as an ability to registry interest in specific areas of political discussion.
There are lot of people who want to do the right thing in this area and, despite the reportedly increasing general malaise, there’s still a lot of “angry young men” on all sides which has to be a good thing.
The fact that a lot of them, or is it us, are focused on improving the ability and desire for more people to be involved in the conversation, and not to just focus on specific issue politics, gives me hope that things will get better.