Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Is electoral politics in terminal decline?

Two bits of data suggest this is the case. A sharp decline in turnout which never dropped below 72% 1945-1997 (with a peak of 82/83% 1950/51) but in 2001 fell to 59% and only rose 2% in 2005 despite some arguing the contest would be closer. There are a number of factors that drive turnout, one being the extent to which votes matter. While many voted in 1992 to try to ensure victory of Labour or Conservatives, and again in 1997 to kick out the Conservatives it seems, the foregone conclusions of 2001 and 2005 would clear depress turnout.

One reason for that is engagement in party politics itself. Tribal politics, which pitted capital against labour, is a feature of history and what has resulted is a lack of ideas in politics and a convergence around the centre ground. In order to differentiate themselves, parties enter into empty oppositionalism and attack politics. There is a lack of a narrative underpinning party manifestoes and so it is more about selling a party as 'least likely to cut core public serices' than competing approaches to governance. Research suggests that this process of marketisation of political policy making and campaigning has a sclerotic effect on voter engagement. It simply promotes a ‘hard sell at any cost’ approach using bold statements that focus on image not substance. While it is argued this is a response to lowering engagement and involvement, so political messages must require only peripheral processing and not deep cognitive engagement, this lack of interest may actually be exacerbated by the style of communication.

Turnout figures also however mask a stark political reality; that not only is there a lack of choice but that there is also a representational divide in Britian. In 2005 the highest turnout was 77%, the lowest 34%; some voters were engaged! There is a big disparity between Marginal and Safe seats! The former see a keen contest fighting for every vote; the latter see little contest and are likely to have a lower level of representation from their MP. This may seem a contentious point, but having moved between constituencies in recent years I note receiving newspapers, flyers and a significant amount of literature from both the MP Annette Brook across a four year period, as well as her opponent in the 2005 election. In four years within the Poole constituency I have not heard anything from MP Robert Syms, nor even seen him in the media: it would appear he makes no effort to publicise his work for the constituency at the very least.

The separation between an air war (via the mass media) and the ground war (on the streets and doorsteps) can be highly important in terms of maintaining a representational connection as well as achieving electoral victory, and could be crucial in 2010. The Air war is likely to be highly negative aimed at getting committed voters out and convincing those who already lean towards one party or another. The negativity will appeal only if the receiver agrees with the foundation of the attack; if they feel it to be inaccurate or too personal the sender will suffer. The Ground war, in contrast, will be about persuading by personal contact and making policy relevant to lives and localities. But only the key voters in the marginal and target seats will see a ground war; this two tier system will remain as long as the UK uses the first past the post voting system. Voters need to be asked and convinced, most are not!

A further set of indicators relates to trust in politics (standing at 24% currently) and general interest in participation. 80% are interested in politics (though this drops to 35% in the most deprived areas which are also likely to be safe Labour seats) yet only 15% are interested in an active role and only 27% feel they have any say in how the country is run. Self-efficacy in the UK is very low and, following the expenses scandal, can only be lower.

Leader debates may be the one positive element in the air war. Controls demanded by the parties will reduce audience spontaneity though. On the other hand, they may also be more like PMQs and full of rhetoric and attack and not setting out clear reasons for electing any of the participants. So the debates may only be peripherally processed and not play a role in providing informed choices. The media will also have a key role to play. The danger here is that focus will be on minute performance issues and political substance will be ignored or forgotten. This may be the case with much media coverage of the contest, their perspective being of a horse race with a focus on strategy as opposed to political choice, and highlighting personal failings and gaffes; does this encourage particapation?

Much has been said about the effect of the Internet, that it will come of age in 2010 and that there may be an Obama-isation of political campaigning. Parties will try to use the Internet to increase awareness but UK politics lacks an Obama, and the parties find it hard to develop participatory campaigns. MyConservatives.com centres around local candidates in marginals but struggle to gain supporters. In the marginal seat of Mid Dorset and North Poole, candidate Nick King has four supporters and has raised £150; not exactly demonstrating high engagement – perhaps the product (politics firstly, perceptions of elected representatives, and the party, not Mr King) is the problem! Activists will be trying to innovate and mobilise but can they touch the hearts and minds of the masses?

Due to the Internet, more voices will be heard, and some will be new ones, but largely they are megaphones for the parties. Greater co-production of the campaign will occur but outside party sites, and a lot will be satirical. Labour’s change we see site, I am told, gets more negative ‘Changes’ than positive and there are a few ‘negative’ changes shown on the related Facebook site; debate online regarding the site then centres on censorship rather than the aim of the site which should provide citizen endorsements of Labour’s tenure. The fact that the majority of pictures are uploaded by Labour candidates and activists tells us that either ordinary citizens do not see positive changes or they cannot see the point in engaging.

Because of all this, turnout is likely to show the same mixed pattern as in the last two contests with engagement being higher in the marginals. There may well be a slight average increase if the contest stays close however. It is highly likely that voters will select the best MP, locally, or the least worst leader and some may remain unsure till very late in the campaign. But will anywhere near a majority engage and become involved in electoral politics generally, let alone in the campaign of one of the parties. Based on current indicators related to the voting system, the level of negativity already circulating, and the nature of engagement online via party sites and across Twitter, it seems not. It will be a dirty fight and for many engaging in that fight will be anathema despite the powerful arguments for making an informed choice.

But does this suggest electoral politics in in terminal decline? Probably. Politics needs to be made relevant beyond key voters in marginal constituencies, perhaps this suggests revising the voting systems; it also needs to be part of everyday lives, suggesting better communication. Policy making should be closer to the people, either via effect representation or forms of direct democracy. Ideological space needs to be reconfigured to match modern society and the emotional and personal aspects of the leaders need to be discussed intellignetly to enable both personal and political involvement. News values need to be changed, as does the spin culture within politics; which we accept feed one another. Political communication needs to think not about victory but reception; victory at any cost may be pyrrhic and empty in terms of perceived trust and legitimacy when all that has been achieved is a depressed electorate bored with negative attacks. These were just some of the suggestions, perhaps a combination of all would reverse the negative social trend towards politics?

This is an overview of a debate held on March 14th at Bournemouth University featuring the author, Prof. Barry Richards, Dr Dan Jackson, and Roman Gerodimos.


CEMP said...

To hear the full discussion and also to listen to and download podcasts of the rest of the CEMP debates please visit http://media.bournemouth.ac.uk/about/podcasts.html

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