We should stop fretting about the declining interest in traditional politics. It is perfectly healthyby Barry Cox / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
There is rising concern about political disengagement. For those who believe in active government, even more in active citizenship, there are indeed many lamentable trends. Turnout at elections is low, and getting lower. Even the London mayoral contest tempted only 34 per cent of the capital’s electorate to vote. At the same time, party membership is dropping. New Labour temporarily reversed this long-term trend when Tony Blair’s appeal was at its freshest, but in the past two years the decline has begun again.
The status of politicians has also declined-being a Westminster MP is nothing like as important as it used to be; being a local councillor even less so. We have yet to see what standing the new Scottish and Welsh representatives will earn, although the early signs are not good. And, after a few decades, the Strasbourg MEPs have failed to increase their status among voters.
Various explanations are given for this decline: ideology is dead and class allegiance less strong; the differences between parties are much less sharp; and a lazy cynicism about politics and politicians pervades public debate.
Reinforcing this disrespect for traditional politics is the decline in media coverage of serious political issues. The broadsheets have cut back parliamentary reporting and are almost as interested in the personal and the sensational as the tabloids. ITV has killed off News At Ten. The BBC is marginalising Panorama. Specialist political current affairs has disappeared from Channel 4.
But this is not because the journalists and producers have become bored with politics-far from it. These developments took place because newspapers and television organisations picked up the changing tastes of their readers and audiences-and over the past 20 years these have steadily moved away from an interest in politics. In this sense the media has responded to the “crisis of disengagement” more effectively than the politicians.
For the past 200 years it has made sense to be politically active-in the first instance, to try to win the vote if you didn’t have it, and thereafter to use it either to improve your lot or to defend what you already had. In addition, you knew that the attitudes and abilities of those elected to run the country could determine whether you would have to fight a war, or watch the men in your family do so. Politics mattered. Now many people think it doesn’t matter, or matters far less.…