Public Disenfranchisement With Politics: A Myth or Reality?

23/10/2013 11:26 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

It has been said that the British political system is bankrupt. One scandal after another has seen people lose faith in Britain's institutions and in the political process as a whole. A new paradigm way of thinking is needed. Is this mere unhelpful rhetoric, or genuinely the deal?

The 2001 general election saw the lowest voter turnout since the introduction of universal suffrage, with only 59.4% taking to the polling booths. This crept up to 61.4% in 2005 and 65.1% in 2010. Compared to the likes of other European countries with average voter turnouts hovering around the 90% region, these are hardly respectable figures. Britain lags behind with its comparatively measly average of 73.3%. The less said about turnouts for the European elections and the PCC elections, the better.

How should this be characterised? Apathy? Indifference? Whilst low voting turnouts are indicative of a lack of participation in party politics, this does not necessarily translate to a lack of interest in politics per se. It may once have been possible to dismiss the low turnouts as being down to a society that had succumbed to the distractions of modern life: the tantalisations of technology; the fascinations with fashion; the temptations of televised talent shows; yet this no longer seems credible. If anything, technology is helping to engage people in political issues.

When earlier this year DWP Secretary Iain Duncan Smith claimed that he could live on £53 a week, an online petition demanding that he prove it garnered the support of tens of thousands of people within only a few short hours. True, this may have had something to do with Mr Duncan Smith being one of the most odious men in public life, but the rapidity with which people registered their displeasure suggested something else: it was his benefit cuts which were the real issue. The petition eventually reached over four hundred thousand signatures, and was snubbed by the DWP Secretary as a 'stunt'.

Stunt or not, the incident was symbolic of a wider disaffection with party politics. A shake-up of the welfare system by a millionaire in a cabinet stuffed with other millionaires was always going to be a difficult one to swallow, but further to this, the memory of MPs with their snouts firmly buried in the trough of taxpayers' money has not yet escaped public memory. Nor ever should it.

If our Parliamentarians really imagined that they could fiddle their expenses without anyone ever being any the wiser, then this begs the question whether they're even particularly interested in the majority of the general public being involved in the political process at all. Why would they want such a thing? It stands to reason that the fewer people that are engaged in politics, the fewer there are for Parliament to attempt to satisfy.

Who, therefore, should be promoting themselves? Is the onus on the MP to encourage his constituents to take an interest in him, or, is it the duty of his constituents to make their MP take an interest in them?

Whatever the answers to the above questions, the reality is that many people have opinions about a whole range of political issues. They are not disinterested in politics, but a substantial number are disenfranchised with the choices on offer. Why? Take your pick. For all the guff about the need to 'restore public confidence' after each new scandal and revelation, which party actually has the decency to stick to its manifesto? Certainly not the Tories with their 'Vote blue, go green' slogan now a distant memory, as Cameron gets squarely behind fracking. Certainly not the Lib Dems with their cowardly betrayal of students over tuition fees. Would Labour honour its electoral promises?

The ball is in Miliband's court. Now to wait for him to do something impressive with it . . .