How effective are the various ways participation could be strengthened in the UK?

There is no denying that there is a participation crisis in Britain in terms of voting. When only 65% of the population cast a vote in the 2010 General Election rising slightly to 66% in 2015 it would make sense to look at various ways that participation could be strengthened in this country. There is no use in thinking that low participation is something new, just 59% voted in 2001 which improved only slightly in 2005 (61%) this is clearly a persistent problem that will only get worse unless proper attention is given to it and change occurs. Jordan Booth investigates three ways we could increase participation referendums

Referendums are perhaps the best way of getting citizens involved in politics. But what exactly are they? A referendum is a vote in which citizens are asked to give their opinion regarding a particular question or proposal. They are direct democracy in action – the people make the decisions themselves, not the politicians.

The main strength of a referendum is the fact that they enable the public’s views and interests are properly articulated and not distorted by politicians who claim to represent them. Whilst politicians may try to influence the electorate’s decision in the end it is down to every individual and what they want. Democracy is all about the people and referendums allow the people to have more power, if the public feels like they have more power and influence in politics I think they would be more inclined to participate in it.

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Another possible strength of having more referendums is that by widening the opportunities for political participation people may take more of an interest and be more knowledgeable of politics. This can only be a positive for democracy and would hopefully increase participation.

However, there are, as with any system of governance, problems with the idea of having more referendums. One criticism is that if the public does not take an interest or fails to have a complete understanding of politics then they may not realise the importance of their vote and may make ill-informed decisions.

Although it could be argued that politics is best left to professionals and ‘experts’, democracy is about people and the power they should be free to exercise. The only way they can properly do this is by voting in referendums, so the argument to extend their use is a very strong one.

Lower the voting age

Lowering the voting age could increase political engagement by fostering an interest in politics earlier in people’s lives. One of the most persuasive arguments for this is that it would increase political engagement. This is because political participation between 18 to 24 year-olds has historically been the lowest of the age categories so by lowering the voting age to 16 young voters would be engaged in two ways. One, it would strengthen young people’s interest in politics as they would get a say on decisions that affect them, and two, would also help politics to focus around issues that are more meaningful to younger voters.

However, the reasons against lowering the voting age are strong. There is an argument that even at 18 and beyond children remain in education and still live with their parents, therefore they are not full citizens so should not get the same vote as those who pay tax (along an counter understanding of ‘no taxation without representation’).

There is also the question of how much this would actually improve participation numbers, Andrew Mycock says that although lowering the voting age may increase participation in the short-term, but much more needs to be done in the long term. I agree, it is pointless enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds without educating them in politics first, they need to be interested and understand what their vote means without simply having it foisted on them

Digital Democracy

Digital Democracy is about bringing politics into the 21st Century using technology. For example, instead of voting at the ballot box you could text your vote or decide via an app.

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A clear strength of this would be that citizens would be able to express their views easily without having to even leave home. Information would also be much more accessible and available to a wider audience. Furthermore, with technology as dominant as it is today, politics would be truly “with the times” and could no longer be seen as outdated.

As with the previous alternatives, e-democracy has its weaknesses and critics including James Crabtree. Some of the electorate may not be reached by the technology, for instance some of the elderly population. They may not have easy access to the Internet meaning that the whole population would not get an equal chance to have a say, which is fundamentally unfair (although one could argue that the current system is not fair either, requiring one to go to a polling station).

Ultimately, I believe that there are two ways in which participation could be strengthened in the UK. The first, using more referendums, which, although it may cost more to have more frequent referendums I believe it would be worth it. The second way in which participation could be increased is by introducing digital democracy. This would be fairly easy to implement given the standard of technology today, there just needs to be more time and money invested into it.

I doubt that lowering the voting age would see a dramatic rise in participation unless it is coupled with a major change in the way young people are educated about politics. It is pointless giving them the vote if they are not fully aware of why they are voting, what they are voting for and what ramifications their vote holds. In order to strengthen participation we need to have a frank and serious discussion about the state of public participation in politics. Without this, no meaningful progress will be made.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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