We are facing a democratic deficit of startling proportions.
Across Europe, electoral turnout has been on a downward trend for decades and membership of a political party is dwindling compared to the post-war era. In the UK, only 44 per cent of those aged 18–24 voted in 2010 and a recent survey found that only a third of 16–24 year olds say they have an interest in politics.
The challenge of confronting our ailing democracy is vast. The research undertaken for this pamphlet emphasises the importance of the challenge and underlines the deep disconnect between the public and politics. The verdict of participants in the democratic deficit workshop organised by BritainThinks was predictably damning: politicians don’t seem representative of the communities they serve and don’t speak in a language many can relate to. They want politicians to work harder to listen and to interact with their communities and act on principle and not simply chase short-term popularity.
Politicians must accept this problem before we can solve it. There may be a temptation to retreat from political reform, especially in the midst of the significant economic and social challenges we face. The next Labour government will take a different approach and open up our democracy to bring about change. It is not enough to do nothing and hope the tide changes. It is essential that we seek to explore new ways of achieving democratic renewal and political reform.
This research offers a sense of direction for Labour party policy. It was no surprise that a policy of decentralising power and giving communities more say over local decision making was popular in the ‘Dragons’ Den’ workshop, where citizens took the part of the Dragons. As the late congressman, Tip O’Neill, once said, “all politics is local”. Purposeful political engagement will only come through empowering people to make the decisions that affect their community. Ed Miliband has already called for a new era of public services, to put the power in the hands of parents, patients and public service users. Labour recognises that a centrally-controlled Whitehall machine is old fashioned and not fit for purpose in the 21st century.
The Dragons’ Den did not always agree with Labour policy. Ed Miliband has announced that the next Labour government will introduce votes at the age of 16. Introducing votes at 16 is a bold and radical proposal that, if implemented with care, has the potential to energise a new generation of politically active and engaged citizens. The Dragons suggested that younger people are already severely disengaged from politics and unlikely to take up the opportunity to vote.
I share the Citizen-Dragons’ concerns that lowering the voting age should not be taken in isolation. Votes at 16 must go hand-in-hand with wider youth engagement and a renewed commitment to citizenship education. Over time, voting and political debate could become a rite of passage in our education system, like taking exams. The last Labour government made great strides with its introduction of citizenship as a subject in secondary school. Citizenship education should sit at the core of our curriculum, giving young people an understanding, deeper knowledge and interest in civic issues. Votes at 16 would place renewed emphasis on this.
Instead of legislating to lower the voting age, the Dragons suggested politicians should visit schools to engage in political debate, to educate young voters. From Loughborough to Brighton, Ealing to Barrow, I have been doing just this, asking students their views and opinions on politics and the issue of votes at 16 specifically.
I have found that youth is by no means automatically linked to apathy, and the reasons behind low turnout are multi-faceted and complicated. Young people today are often highly political but understandably wary of formal party politics. Many don’t feel politicians are listening to their concerns or talking about their aspirations. Opening up our democratic system to younger people is an important way in which we can solve this problem. Rather than turn our backs, we must instead seek to address the current democratic malaise by empowering young people.
As well as lowering the voting age, Labour is developing policies across the political reform agenda. We want to make it easier for people to register and vote at elections, and are looking at radical changes to achieve this. To reform the government’s gagging law, we are consulting widely with charities and campaigners to build a regulatory framework which protects freedom of speech but ensures accountability. Labour remains committed to a democratically elected second chamber. There is still a lot to do, but Labour is beginning to create a wide ranging reform programme.
The Fabians, FEPS and BritainThinks have adopted the correct approach by putting the citizen at the heart of building a new policy programme. We all need to listen a lot more if we are going to close the democratic deficit. This research is a welcome contribution to this process. Labour is listening in opposition, and will achieve real change in government.