Political engagement is the issue du jour on the first day of the 2014 Labour Party conference in Manchester. In her speech to open the conference, Angela Eagle MP, she discussed her experiences whilst campaigning to save the Union in Scotland. She said a lot of Scots are simply sick of Westminster, sick of the British Parliament. In it they see little relevant to their lives, instead, they see a political class that looks the same, sounds broadly the same and does not represent them. However, this is not just the view of Scots, across the rest of the UK, disengagement with the political system and Westminster is rife.
It is this disengagement that has been the main cause for the rise of UKIP, who purport to be the antithesis to the 'Westminster establishment' (despite Farage being a privately educated, former investment banker who was a Tory activist for over a decade.) They have capitalised on the resent many feel towards Westminster, acting as a vehicle for those who feel disenfranchised. Labour have recognised the large number of people disengaged with politics is a serious issue for their chances in 2015, as it is their core vote in the working class that is perhaps most at risk of being lost to apathy. If the number of Labour voters who voted YES as a reaction to Westminster's system is anything to judge by, Labour will have to work hard to win these votes back in time to win a majority.
During a panel discussion, Diane Abbott and Lucy Powell both made it clear that the Labour party needs to engage young people and minority groups to win the next election. This is definitely true, as these people are more likely to not be engaged with the political process, and it is good for both Labour and democracy that more people do take an active part in politics.
Another element to disengagement that is not addressed, unfortunately, is the London centric nature of British politics. Many people see Westminster as remote; both in terms of its detachment from society, and the fact so much of Britain is so far away from it. Engaging with an institution so far away, that seems above society is difficult and an almost unreasonable request for many people to whom Parliament is almost another world. Even for those of us fully engaged in the politics of the UK, the London centricity of our system is ridiculous. It's not just Parliament that focuses on London, political campaigns, think tanks and events are predominantly in London as well. As a young person from the North who takes great interest in politics, it is not easy to participate when everything takes place in London. Travel is expensive, and often it means it is impossible to get involved with many things that I see as important. Many other peers of mine feel the same; they feel that because they are not in London, they struggle to effectively become involved with politics and campaigns.
At University, the vast majority of people I met who were involved with political parties, campaigns and pressure groups were London based. This cannot be a coincidence, that those outside the geographical focus of British political life are also less involved. As well as engaging young people and minority groups, Labour need to engage those who feel physically detached from the political focus on London, as this often leads to higher levels of apathy. The North East, Yorkshire and the North West all had lower turnout than anywhere else in England, lower than Wales and Scotland as well. With neither regional assemblies, nor geographical proximity to Parliament, disengagement with politics is easy and commonplace. With the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament, voter in these areas, though often dissatisfied with Westminster, can engage with decisions that affect their lives. Voters in the North cannot do this, as they are so far away from where decisions get made. Devolution in England will re-energise politics is areas detached from Parliament, as the people will feel closer to the decisions being made something that can only be good for democracy.
Labour should be commended for their efforts to bring the disengaged into politics, whether those for whom the referendum in Scotland rejuvenated their interest in politics or for young people and ethnic minorities. They should go further too, they need to ensure the regions where the anger at Westminster bubble matches that felt by many Scot, once again take part in the political process, both for their chances in 2015 and for the condition of British democracy.