Political disengagement is endangering UK democracy
Political disengagement is the functional disconnection of the electorate from the political institutions, including participation in the elections. The primary indicator of political disengagement is declining turnout during the elections. In the UK, the main social groups demonstrating the highest scale of political disengagement are the youth, ethnic minorities, the poor, the long-term unemployed, unskilled workers, and women. Hence, researching political disengagement would also mean researching the causes for each of the social groups ignoring the political institutions. The most likely reasons for political disengagement among these social groups are job insecurity, harsh labor conditions, low wages, lack of government support of women, including mothers, as well as young professionals and unskilled workers. At first glance, political disengagement should not endanger UK democracy, and it could be even beneficial to politicians, motivating them to focus only on the limited number of social groups such as older and wealthier voters.
In my opinion, political disengagement is the result of relatively high standards of living in the UK that allow people ignore the political process in the country and concentrate on their personal issues instead. Voters complain about politicians doing little for them, but simultaneously voters do not put the effort into making their voices heard. Mchugh (2006) points at the controversial dilemma relating to political disengagement in the UK. Voters want to have their voices heard, but they lack consistency and enthusiasm in putting the effort into getting their voices heard. The author published a survey that showed the prevalence of low-involvement measures such as signing a petition (that does require a full self-dedication to the cause). Signing a petition requires minimal effort from the voters. Moreover, whereas 72 percent of respondents expressed willingness to sign a petition as an expression of their political involvement, only 50 percent signed petitions in their lives (Figure 1; Mchugh, 2006, p. 549). 46 percent of respondents expressed the readiness to contact MP or local councilor, whereas only 24 percent did. 32 percent would renegade against their party of interest, whereas only 15 percent did. 26 percent of respondents said they would go on a protest, whereas only 13 percent did. Only 16 percent of respondents said they would donate to the organization of their preference, whereas only 10 percent did. 15 percent said they would present a case at a public inquiry, whereas only 4 percent did. 13 percent said they would participate in the parliamentary-level discussion, whereas only 4 percent did. Only 4 percent of respondents said they were ready to start a legal case against the government, and 0 respondents did. Only 3 percent of respondents said they would participate in the election as candidates, and only 1 percent did. Finally, 12 percent of respondents confessed they would do nothing to protect their political interests, whereas, in reality, 36 percent of respondents did nothing.
Quantitative research by Mchugh (2006) allows one to make several conclusions. Most people are ready to make the minimal possible effort in protecting their political interests. One more conclusion is that a lot of respondents are either not sincere about their aspirations and real actions, or they are not capable of assessing their actions and aspirations. Respondents exaggerate their contributions to their political struggle. People pretend they are politically active, whereas only 12 percent of people sincerely confess they do nothing to protect their political interests.
Fig. 1. The survey regarding the state of political involvement among the UK voters. Mchugh, D., 2006. Wanting to be Heard But Not Wanting to Act? Addressing Political Disengagement. Parliamentary Affairs, 59(3), pp.546–552.
In my opinion, political disengagement is on the rise in the UK because voters got addicted to various kinds of entertainment shows. They are so used to entertainment that they started perceiving the politicians as actors and entertainers. Voters want to watch a show rather than some boring political discussion. In 2015, the former MP Douglas Carswell pointed at a disturbing growth of the trend on ‘anti-politics or political disengagement (Flinders, 2015). Carswell confessed the parliamentary parties were obsolete, comparing them to the Kodak cameras that had used the tapes since the late nineteenth century. Whereas the Kodak company controlled 90 percent of the U.S. market of videotape products in the 1970s, it filed for bankruptcy in 2012 because it was obsolete in the digital era. Comparing the UK parties with the Kodak videotape company means that they no longer fulfill the demand within society. The 2015 election marked a point where the UK voters stopped believing in the classic parties. There was a growing trend of support for “anti-establishment” that eventually resulted in the Brexit voting in 2016. Moreover, such an “anti-establishment” movement also took place in the U.S., granting Donald Trump his victory during the presidential election of 2016. The voters got tired of the way the traditional political parties conduct their policies and rhetoric. They wanted to “do politics differently,” and the parties failed to adapt to this public opinion. Shocking mayor of London Boris Johnson managed to become the most suitable and the closest to reaching the point of “doing politics differently.” Again, the same trend dominated in the U.s. in 2015-2016, granting Trump his presidency.
The major error of the UK’s major parties is that they are consistent in informing the public about their agenda. Other parties step in by offering a completely different agenda. Boredom and fatigue of the UK voters also fuel the separatism movement in Scotland since the Scottish National Party experienced a surge in the number of supporters in the mid-2010s (Flinders, 2015). The number of supporters of the Scottish National Party has already exceeded the number of the personnel of the British Army — over 100,000 people. There is little social mobility in the UK, and modern voters feel it, despite all the attempts of the ruling class of persuading society in the opposite fact. Though the voters keep watching mainstream media, there is a growing sense of mistrust of the electorate to the ruling class.
There are three major disadvantaged groups in the UK — the ethnic minorities, the poor, and the young. I think that ethnic minorities must play a more active role in political life if they want their condition gets improved. I also think that the young must not just study hard at school and college, but they must also be more self-critical and aware of what the market needs. Finally, I think that the poor must also become more politically active if they really want to change something in their lives for the better. All these groups feel that their interests are not heard by the government in London. And since they witness how their interests are being largely unmet, they naturally lose interest in voting. The British comedian, actor, and political activist Russel Brand wrote a book titled Revolution in 2014, reflecting the current state of public opinion in the UK. Brand intensified his political involvement, expressing left-wing ideas such as anti-elitism and direct democracy. He debunked modern democracy, calling it a sham. Brand confessed he stopped voting because he no longer believed in conventional politicians. Though he used the word “revolution” as the title of his book, he also called for non-violent activity. Brand looks up to the direct democracy of Switzerland that is globally known for its frequent referendums on various issues. Though idealistic, Brand describes a society that resembles Ancient Athens (except for it was a slavery-based society). He described a perfect society as “self-governing, fully autonomous, ecologically responsible, egalitarian communities” (Brand, 2014, p. 64).
Prime Minister David Cameron started making fun of Russell Brand publicly, calling him “a joke” (Flinders, 2015, p. 243). Owen Jones (2014) highly criticized Cameron for his attack on Brand, using it as one more evidence of the corrupted elite that tried to ridicule the opposition. Russell Brand seized the initiative by imposing his agenda before the 2015 election. He reflected the trend of “doing politics differently,” and despite his previous call for boycotting the election at all, he decided to take an interview with Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party. Brand probably decided to support this party in the end by considering it a “lesser evil,” if choosing between the Labour Party and the other two.
The critical lack of trust of the electorate in the UK political class eventually resulted in the growing influence of UKIP and SNP. The former largely contributed to Brexit’s successful voting in 2016, whereas the latter put the territorial integrity of the UK at risk. The country has been through the referendum on Scotland’s secession in 2014, and if SNP keeps gaining popularity, the situation will get only worse in the future. At this point, political disengagement not only endangers UK democracy but contributes to the separatist movement in the UK, especially in Scotland.
I think that the elitist structure of British society contributes to political disengagement in the UK. “The over-centralized nature of the British polity” is one more reason for political disengagement in the UK (Flinders, 2015; Lijphart, 1999). The UK democracy is framed within the so-called “Westminster Model” and British political traditions in general that, according to Richards and Smith (2015), failed “to adapt to the ‘information age’” (Flinders, 2015, p. 245; Richards & Smith, 2015, p. 42.).
The wake-up call for the British political class happened long before the General Election of 2015. Back in 1975, the Trilateral Commission published a report titled The Crisis of Democracy, discussing the very same process taking place recently in the UK regarding the growing scale of political disengagement (Greenleaf, 1983; Sampson, 2005). Going back to the discussion of Scotland’s independence referendum of 2014 also points to a disturbing trend of a much higher turnout during the referendum than during the General Election of 2015 — 84.6 percent and 66.1 percent, respectively. Higher turnout means a higher motivation and interest of the electorate in the main idea of either the election or the referendum. There are only two possible motivations for participating in the independence referendum — a strong desire of leaving the UK and becoming an independent state, especially in the aftermath of Brexit, or fear of Scotland’s independence going to happen. In other words, some Scottish voters desperately want their country to leave the UK, whereas others desperately fear this happening. If people are so scared of Scotland’s independence coming true, it means that their fears are not groundless. There is a small 5-percent gap between supporters and opponents of Scotland’s independence.
Fig. 2. The 2015 UK General Election Map.
Though the Conservative Party won the 2015 election, it won only 1 seat in Scotland. The Scottish voters may start feeling that the UK parliament does not represent their interests. This is the ‘red line’ that should never be crossed if the UK population wants to remain living within one country.
Fig. 3. The 2010 UK General Election Map.
If comparing the election maps of the General Elections of 2010 and 2015, it becomes clear that just within 5 years, Scotland has been entirely ‘lured away’ from supporting the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats to supporting the Scottish National Party. The 2005 UK General Election Map highly resembles the 2010 election, but in 2015, everything changed, and Scotland has become predominantly nationalistic, i.e., supporting the Scottish Nationalist Party.
Political disengagement does not just endanger UK democracy, but it threatens the UK territorial integrity because of the rise of Scottish nationalism between the 2010 and 2015 elections. For 20 years, since the late 1980s and till the mid-2010s, Scotland had been predominantly pro-Labour and pro-Liberal-Democrat, but never Scottish nationalist. The crisis of democracy in the UK results in the rise of the nationalist movement, primarily in Scotland. The very fact the Labour Party and Liberal Democrat Parties lost the support of most Scottish voters is a disturbing fact because the Scottish Nationalist Party aims to make Scotland independent from the rest of the UK.
The British poor demonstrate a declining interest in politics, whereas I think they must show an even higher interest than the wealthier voters. The IPPR’s Divided Democracy Report of 2013 points at a steadily growing gap between the young and the old voters as well as the poor and wealthy voters (Flinders, 2015). Only 10 percent of the young UK voters, aged 18-25, confirmed they planned to vote in 2015 during the General Election (Flinders, 2015). Modern culture discouraged the youth from voting at all, probably hinting that voting is not ‘cool.’ On top of that, politicians aggravate the situation by paying more attention to older and wealthier voters since they are more likely to vote, and thus politicians try to save their time and money on canvassing with those voters who are the most likely to vote. Disadvantaged communities get into a vicious circle of mistrust and despair.
The 2015 General Election showed a higher turnout and overall motivation of the Scottish voters to vote than in other parts of the UK. 2015 was also a disaster for the Labour Party that had its electorate ‘stolen’ both by the Conservative Party and the Scottish Nationalist Party. Though the Labour Party remains popular among ethnic minorities and the poor, these groups become so disengaged that they fail the party of their preference by not showing up at the polling stations. In other words, ethnic minorities and the poor express their verbal support for the Labour Party during various surveys, but they do not get things done by showing up at the polling station to cast a ballot.
Flinders (2015) refers to the study by Jennings and Stoker (2015) that claims that political disengagement largely means disenchantment with ‘conventional’ parties such as the Conservative or Labour Parties. In other words, political disengagement simultaneously means higher support for UKIP and SNP. If survey respondents claimed to mistrust the politicians, he or she simultaneously claimed they would like to vote for UKIP. These respondents started mistrusting equally Cameron and Miliband. At some point, the Conservative and Labour Parties started meaning the same for the disengaged voters, though these parties convey different ideologies. The biggest failure of the Westminster Model of UK democracy is that the routine political struggle of the major parties lost any sense in the eyes of the disengaged voters, especially in Scotland. Supporters of the Greens, according to the qualitative study by Jennings and Stoker (2015) confessed they struggled to understand the government and politics (Flinders, 2015). The growing scale of political disengagement in the UK results in UKIP becoming the second most popular party in 120 UK constituencies. As of 2015, the Labour Party lost 26 seats in the parliament (Flinders, 2015).
Kyroglou and Henn (2017) claim that political consumerism works as the response of politically disengaged youth. Young voters expect the political system to be more like a supermarket that offers discounts and special offers. This segment of voters no longer believes in their capability of influencing politics, and as a response, they expect some purely economic solutions that would be as objectified as possible, given the analogy of the government to the supermarket. Kyroglou and Henn (2017) point at the critical lack of research on the topic.
The Westminster Model worked in the past when the UK was either under threat of the military invasion during WW2 or during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The UK population used to view the political parties as their protectors. As of now, this is no longer the case. The UK economy and the established standards of living ‘liberated’ the young voters from perceiving the major parties as their protectors. The youth knows they need to study and work, but in their mind, this has nothing to do with participating in the elections. In turn, Buchanan (2002) claims that modern politicians view their electorate with the same level of indifference. The political class has also become indifferent to the real needs of the electorate.
Further growth of political disengagement in the UK endangers UK democracy because neoliberalism ideology proclaims liberation of individuals from the ‘oppressive’ government as a whole. Obsessed with the neoliberal way of thinking, voters need neither Conservative nor Labourist nor any other government. Disengaged voters see no point in having the government at all. At the same time, such a trend of the growing scale of political disengagement also reflects Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Centuries ago, the UK population suffered from malnutrition or even lack of shelter, being unable to think the way modern UK voters think of themselves as totally independent and separated from political life. The top-level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-realization, i.e., the indulgence of one’s ego in the way of one’s preference. Theoretically, reaching the point of self-realization also means rejection of any group identities. Modern society becomes atomized, i.e., broken down into separate individuals that are not even grouped within families.
Young voters become more disconnected not just from the government, but from their parents and other relatives as well. According to Cohen (2003), there is a radical difference between a citizen and a consumer. Whereas citizens have both rights and duties, consumers have neither. Consumers are purely egocentric since they know the sellers want their money in turn for some goods and services. Consumers do not feel obliged to the supermarket they go shopping. In other words, if the UK faces a theoretical military threat from outside or it has to send troops elsewhere, consumers see no point in participation in any similar enterprise. In the modern neoliberal world, soldiers are likely to start thinking of mercenaries. In other words, young people are likely to go to the military only if they see this option as economically profitable for themselves. The neoliberal way of thinking eviscerates the sense of patriotism, especially given the modern scale of globalization. If the UK gets attacked by whoever, the young voters are likely to move elsewhere without the slightest intention to protect their home country.
In conclusion, political disengagement endangers the UK democracy in two main ways. First, political disengagement relates specifically to the disengagement from the classic parties such as the Conservative, Labour, or Liberal Democrat parties, as it happened in Scotland in 2015. For two decades, these three major parties were popular in Scotland, but in 2015, Scotland was entirely taken over by the Scottish Nationalist Party that aims for the independence of Scotland from the UK. Whereas the Scottish voters indeed started feeling disengaged from the major parties (Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat), the Scottish population started voting for nationalists on a mass scale in 2015.
Another major threat relating to the political disengagement in the UK is a complete loss of patriotism among the UK youth that starts treating the government as a supermarket. Mutual disconnection of the political class and the electorate puts the entire country at risk, making it extremely vulnerable to any internal or external threats such as Scottish nationalism or external military aggression. Within the neoliberal paradigm, voters feel no obligations to the government, losing interest in voting for any political party. Voters start feeling like consumers. If so, they reject the very concept of any civic duties to the government. If translating this analogy onto the military, the soldiers with the neoliberal mindset start thinking of mercenaries. If so, mercenaries perform their duties for money without the intention to give away their lives for their employer in the end. Political disengagement threatens the UK’s territorial integrity.
Barbosa, L.; Portilho, F.; Wilkinson, J.; Dubeux, V. 2014. Trust, participation and political consumerism among Brazilian youth.J. Clean. Prod, 63, 93–101.
Brand, R., 2014. Revolution, London, Cornerstone.
Buchanan, J.M.2002. The Economics of Politics; The Institute of Economic Affairs: Lancing, UK; pp. 4–17.
Cohen, L.2003. Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America; Alfred Knopf: New York, NY, USA.
Flinders, M., 2015. The General Rejection? Political Disengagement, Disaffected Democrats and ‘Doing Politics’ Differently: Table 15.1. Parliamentary Affairs, 68(suppl 1), pp.241–254.
Greenleaf, W., 1983. The British Political Tradition, London, Routledge.
Institute for Public Policy Research, 2013. Divided Democracy, London, IPPR.
Jennings, W and Stoker, G. 2015. ‘The Impact of Anti-politics on the UK General Election 2015’,http://sotonpolitics.org/2015/01/19/the-impact-of-anti-politics-on-the-uk-general-election-2015/accessed on 1 May 2015.
Jones, O., 2014. The Establishment, London, Allen Lane.
Kyroglou, G. & Henn, M., 2017. Political Consumerism as a Neoliberal Response to Youth Political Disengagement. Societies, 7(4), p.34.
Lijphart, A., 1999. Patterns of Democracy, Yale, Yale University Press; Flinders, Democratic Deficit.
Mchugh, D., 2006. Wanting to be Heard But Not Wanting to Act? Addressing Political Disengagement. Parliamentary Affairs, 59(3), pp.546–552.
Richards, D & Smith, M., 2015. ‘In Defence of British Politics Against the British Political Tradition’, Political Quarterly,86, 41 – 51.
Sampson, A., 2005. Who Runs this Place? The Anatomy of Britain in the Twenty-First Century, London, John Murray.
Trilateral Commission, 1975. The Crisis of Democracy, New York, New York University Press;