The public sector strikes began a debate about democratic participation which must not be allowed to fadeby Josh Lowe / July 14, 2014 / Leave a comment
It’s been a bad couple of months for British democracy. Last week, as public sector workers across the nation went on strike, right-wing politicians complained that, due to low turnouts, unions were reportedly stopping work on (in the case of Unite, Unison and others) the whim of as little as one in five of their members. Left-wing commentators queried the wisdom of hurling stones from this particular glass house: modern politicians don’t generally have huge mandates for government. Less than half of the electorate in David Cameron’s Witney constituency, for example, voted him in in 2010.
The lack of engagement among union members is just one symptom of a crisis in engagement with the democratic process more generally. The turnout for May’s European Parliament elections was just over 34 per cent. Despite wide media coverage, the turnout at the Newark by-election was only 53 per cent, compared to 71.4 per cent in the constituency at the last general election. As a result of the strikes, the Conservatives have made a 2015 manifesto promise to introduce legislation which would make the support of a stipulated proportion of union members a condition of industrial action. This is a short-sighted response: it isn’t fair to expect one set of public bodies to pay the price for a crisis brought about by myriad factors beyond their control.
The debate provoked by last week’s strikes should be a wake-up call for the political class. An increasing number of the most important decisions that affect us all are taken, for the most part, without our involvement. Here are five ways we might begin trying to redress the balance.
Lower the voting age
It’s controversial for all sorts of reasons, but it’s hard to deny that dropping the voting age to 16 would get people to the ballot box. What’s more, this isn’t just because it adds 16-18 year olds to the electorate. One 2002 study which an Electoral Reform Society (ERS) spokesman points me toward argues that most people are “habitual voters” or “habitual non-voters.” Getting people into the habit as early as possible results in a huge boost to turnout over time,…