I don’t recall a period in which people have felt so angry with politicians and so removed from the political process itself. Over the past 50 years turnout at elections has steadily declined from over 80% in the 1950s to just 60% at the last election. A much more worrying fact is that areas of social deprivation tend to have the lowest turnout. The people who are in most need of social change and improvements in their lives don’t feel politicians can deliver and therefore don’t see the point in casting their vote. Why is this? Is it the nature of the political process or is it the politicians themselves which put people off voting? I would argue that it is a little of both.
The expenses scandals of 2009 saw public opinion of politics and politicians at an all time low. Claims for moat cleaning, duck houses and non-existent mortgages followed by the mantra ‘I followed the rules’ infuriated the British public. At a time of economic turmoil when many people lost their jobs and homes we witnessed one politician after another justifying expense claims, failing completely to take on board public anger. Are politicians so far removed from their constituents that they feel that they are entitled to operate under different rules than the rest of us? And if this is the case, how has that happened? I would argue that the nature of the parliamentary process itself is largely to blame for the failure of politicians to engage with their constituents and the same outdated procedures put people off voting.
The rules and procedures of parliament have their origins in the days of rotten boroughs when democracy was only for rich men. The present rules and procedures do not seem in keeping with a system of universal suffrage. The complex stages of the passage of a Bill, Select Committees, the language used by ‘Honourable Members’ and costumes worn by officials really do make the palace of Westminster seem so remote. To many people, our politicians appear to go to work in the 17th century.
But Parliament and the work that goes on there has got to be relevant and understood by the voters and they have got to feel that they can engage with politicians and that their views and interests will be taken on board. For that to happen we need to change how Parliament works and that means a complete overhaul of outdated procedures, language and dress.
But the changes shouldn’t end there. We need also to look at how people are selected to stand for election. Many people will know individuals in their community who show great leadership and have wonderful communication skills and really engage with their communities and actually get things done. Why then do we not see more of these people entering politics? I toyed with the idea of getting involved in local politics and attended some meetings at my local council. I can’t find the words to describe how awful such meetings were. How many people have had that same experience and been put off by the overly complicated procedures and party bias?
Things have got to change otherwise there is a danger that voters will completely turn away from conventional politics and move towards the extremes, a worrying trend we are seeing with the success of the BNP. Unless mainstream parties learn to communicate better with their constituents and people from a more diverse background stand in UK elections, then we are going to continue down this worrying path of extremism and people are going to feel that politics is not for them when it should be for us all.
Rosemary is chairing the ‘campaigning in a cold climate’ session at the Campaigns Conference.