Political engagement is turning out to be a damned tricky nut to crack, with the solutions not being nearly as 'obvious' as many people like to claim. However, within the research two psychological aspects stick out: internal and external political efficacy. Internal political efficacy refers to our own sense of competence: do we perceive ourselves as having the necessary skills and knowledge to act in the political realm? External political efficacy refers to our attitudes to the political system: is it flexible enough to respond to change? A thriving democracy should result in high levels of both for its citizens, yet we currently have a system that works to repress them instead. It is because of losing these that #GE2015 is being described as 'boring' and 'bland' by so many, despite having a wider range of views and parties on offer than ever before.
In their book 'Citizens or Consumers?' Lewis et al explore, through extensive research, how the media both in the UK and the US treats their readers and watchers as passive spectators of politics, consuming the politicians and parties on offer but not engaging as active citizens. Vox pops and opinion polls ask members of the public to react to something a politician has said or an agenda the parties have set, but rarely do they ask individuals for their solutions, for what they'd do differently. Politics is seen as something that a certain group of people do, whilst the rest of us, if you're lucky, are occasionally called upon to react.
To be fair to the media this is, by and large, how politics works in the UK. A large amount of the politicians we choose between have been groomed for positions of power since the cradle, with a third of the Commons made up of privately educated individuals (compared to just 7% of the general population), and ethnic minorities and women are woefully under represented too, with similar distortions in the media and business as well.
Out of these officials it is those that play the game and toe the party line that get bumped up to the higher echelons of power, leaving those that really represent their constituents squandering in the back benches. The 'party line', be it red, yellow, blue or purple is determined by a rich and wealthy elite that control our political parties, with just 76 individuals responsible for 41% of all political donations over the past 5 years: inequality is not just about wealth, it's about democracy too.
We're looking for plucky Sturgeon or outrageous Nigel to entertain and amuse us because that's all we have been taught to expect from politics. The thought doesn't occur to us that we might have some part to play in it all beyond ticking a box, that this election is just as much our responsibility as it is the Prime Minister's. The few weeks of the 'short campaign' might break up our otherwise busy schedule of Strictly and X-Factor, but they don't strike us as a chance for us personally to take a stand or do something beyond grumble and moan. For as long as we can remember the notion that we are passive spectators to the elite playground that is politics has been forced through our eyes and ears at every available moment and so hopes of being the change we seek were not just abandoned, for many there were never even there in the first place.
Externally too, our efficacy has been beaten down by a complete inability by the mainstream parties to be able to respond to our needs. Since Thatcher's reign those lacking 3 or more public defined necessities (dubbed as the 'democratic' measure of poverty) has tripled, inequality has risen by a third (as measured by the Gini index), and wages have consistently lagged behind living costs.
Looking at the past 5 years specifically, things get bleaker still; over a million using food banks per year, at least 1.4 million zero-hours contracts and almost a third of all children in the UK are living in poverty. At the same time studies suggest that this Parliament has overseen quite a deliberate shift of wealth from the poor to the rich, with the wealth of the richest 1,000 Britons doubling over the past 10 years. Our rigid neoliberal consensus appears fit for only one purpose: handing ever more control to the wealthy and powerful.
Yet despite all this, very few politicians on either side of the Commons dare to challenge the status quo. From Pinochet's Chile to Thatcher's Britain these are policies that have been enacted with little or no mandate from the people subjected to them, held in place only by an archaic first past the post system that actively discourages smaller, genuinely alternative parties. The British public overwhelmingly support nationalised rail and energy and higher taxes on the rich and yet have been given the complete opposite by successive governments, resulting in a feeble state enthralled to bloated corporations, ensuring a political and economic system that can only cater for the wants of a few, not the needs of the many.
There are, however, ways of clawing back our sense of efficacy. Research shows that turnout is higher in electoral systems that lean more towards proportional representation, systems that are better equipped to respond to the views of the public, as well as giving genuinely different parties a chance to break through and shake things up. More transparency from parties as to how their candidates and policies are decided, as well as limits on how much one individual or organisation can fund a party would go a long way. A media that allows ordinary people to set the political agenda, that asks the public for their solutions and their priorities, rather than a quick soundbite on Ukip's latest obscenity would help spread the idea that politics is something we all have a responsibility and a right to participate in.
We need a more rigorous, inclusive and relatable political education in schools, one that is suffused throughout the curriculum rather than a tack on for Friday afternoons, coupled with a lowered voting age that helps ensure many young people vote the first time they can, something research suggests sets up a habit for a life time. We need better representation of minority groups not just in the Commons but across all positions of power within society. Above all we need a discourse that empowers people to the point where they feel they can act in, influence and own each election, rather than just watching from the side lines. Without these things, politics will continue to struggle to inspire the British public.