The low turnout at last month’s by-elections tells us a lot about the state of modern democracy. With a turnout of just 38% in Stoke-on-Trent and 51% in Copeland, does this signify a time for change in the system of democracy as we currently know it?
The idea that the UK is facing a crisis of democracy is something that has been debated for many years now. However following the outcome of the EU Referendum last year when votes were cast to decide the fate of the UK and indeed the EU, never before has the state of modern democracy been called into question to such an extent. And recent debates over triggering Article 50 and respecting the democratic vote and the ‘will of the people’ has got many thinking – who are ‘the people’ they refer to? For sure it isn’t those who voted Remain, but what about those who didn’t vote? This was highlighted recently in a blog written by Adrian Low who pointed to the forgotten 12.9 million UK residents who didn’t vote in the Referendum.
Firstly, as Low points out, this figure includes two groups who were excluded from the vote;
- 16-18 year olds (who incidentally were allowed to vote in Scottish Referendum in 2014), and
- 9 million EU residents living in the UK
These groups are considered significant since, as a majority are likely to have been in favour of Remain, their votes would have potentially reversed the result. Their exclusion is also considered undemocratic given that it is these whose lives are arguably most likely to be affected by the outcome.
Secondly, however, this figure also includes a large number of people who chose not to vote. This follows a trend since the early 1990’s that has seen low voter turnouts, especially amongst millennials who are often referred to as the lost generation of political engagement.
This decline in voter turnouts is likely to be for many reasons, but increasingly it is associated with a growing mistrust of the political elite. This can be linked recently for example to the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. However this became particularly acute last year following the political infighting and back-stabbing by our nation’s politicians in the run up to the referendum as referred to here, in addition to the deliberate spreading of misleading information and, arguably, “expert” scaremongering used as a way of almost forcing the public’s hand as referred to here and here.
Beyond the actions of individuals however, the electoral cycle is also considered a key contributing factor to the short-sightedness of politicians by encouraging political actions that will increase a Party’s chances of being elected regardless of the consequences (and even if this means ‘accidentally’ taking the UK out of the EU in doing so!). This is thought to have led to a general feeling of powerlessness and indifference.
And now for turning to those who did vote the vital question remains – what exactly was it they were voting for? And how much was their vote swayed due to some fundamental failings in the system rather than a real desire to leave or remain in the EU? For some of those who voted Leave for example, as we have been told time and again, this was an opportunity to fight back against the status quo and the institutions it serves. So on these grounds is Brexit – the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – really what the people who voted for it wanted? And are current democratic procedures to blame if it isn’t?
Under these circumstances we might ask – how can we restore the public’s faith in politicians? And could a reform of the electorate help to reenergise democracy? Essentially I think that for most the fundamentals of democracy remain intact. However we live in a different world now to that when democratic procedures were first put in place – procedures that arguably no longer suit a world in which information travels fast and where “fake news” and “alternative facts” have become almost the norm. Therefore surely this signifies a time for change in the system of democracy as we currently know it.