Declining Democracy 158

Total membership of political parties in the UK has declined, very steadily and inexorably, from about 3.3 million in 1968 to about 500,000 in 2010. That is even worse than it sounds because of course the population grew substantially in the same period. That is one of the fascinating facts in this report by Democratic Audit.

That is just one of a large number of PDFs that comprise the total report. It is well worth reading and it reinforces the argument, consistently made on this blog, that democracy has failed in this country.

There is one constituent of a genuine democracy that the report does not seek to measure, but which I think could usefully be quantified by political scientists. That is the degree of real choice being offered by the political parties. I am sure that this has very substantially declined as well. There is no real choice on offer nowadays between the various neo-con parties. The differences on the timing and depth of cuts in public services, on continued privatisation of health services, on Trident nuclear weapons, on Afghanistan, on the money men who control the politicians, are miniscule. Only in Scotland do voters have a genuine choice of a different direction, and they take it.

This is a direct consequence of the other trends the Democratic Audit does measure. They show that the parties are more than ever, and constantly more, not avenues for popular participation but the domain of a political class and controlled by a wealthy “elite”. It is no wonder that they all have the same programme of promoting the interests of that elite.

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158 thoughts on “Declining Democracy

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  • Clark

    Arthur Dent: “So why do they vote for the lizards?”
    Ford Prefect: “Because if they don’t, the wrong lizard might get in”.

  • Tom Welsh

    Clark, it’s awesome how often Adams managed to hit the bulls eye, casually, in passing, without taking aim – like some kind of Zen archer.

    You could think about it for months without coming up with a better distillation.

  • Tom Welsh

    Unfortunately, Craig, I am very much afraid that the very real evolution you describe is more or less inevitable. Like actual Darwinian evolution, political evolution is not necessarily for what we would consider the best (although much tosh has been emitted about how it must be). Having studied history (and recently gone back to it in search of context) I can’t help noticing that for the greatest part of our existence, we human beings have been ruled by tyrants or dictators. Absolute rulers, anyhow – not necessarily as bad as those names sound. I firmly believe that life under some absolute rulers is better than life under some incompetent, shambling democracies. (And the rfact that I share that particular belief with Hitler doesn’t discourage me in the least – he was also a non-smoker).

    It seems a long time since the Enlightenment, but that’s only because we are such short-lived creatures and have such short memories. (Also, each fresh generation seems powerfully compelled to despise and ignore the achievements of everyone who lived before). Remember what Ben Franklin said when asked what kind of constitution had been chosen for the fledgling USA? He said, “A republic, if you can keep it”. A little later, he perceptively remarked that, “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic”. Well, it turned out not to be the people as a whole, but 1% of them or fewer… nevertheless, the principle stands.

    We have seen democracy of a kind come to life, and grow, and survive for a while, and now what we are left with is its fossilised skeleton. People walk about through the colossal bones and congratulate themselves on how free they are. Yet when did you last ask yourself, in any specific situation, exactly how free you really are?

  • Mike Rogers

    Agree fully with your sentiment.

    It goes hand-in-hand with the general decline in people voting at elections. In that case, the ghastly, smug politicians try to suggest that the low turnouts are because the electorate are so content with the way things are being run. Of course we are! How could we be otherwise?

    BTW, the word is minuscule.

  • AW

    There is an alternative – the Respect Party, of which I am a member after leaving the Labour Party when they invaded Afghanistan. I was a member of Labour since I was 15 years old. The Respect Party is not taken seriously, despite being democratically elected by citizens of this country in Bradford West, because of George Galloway’s disgusting demonisation by politicians and journalists (even so called left wing Guardian journalists). These are the same journalists of course who mock and demonise Julian Assange for exposing the truth about the corruption and war crimes of the West. I think Respect is like old Labour, a true anti-war Socialist Party, and I think it is a shame for democracy that this true alternative will probably not get off the ground country wide because the media and traditional “no-choice” parties are actually now anti Socilaism and real change.

  • Mary

    The report states the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ doesn’t it? The chair of Democratic Audit, Simon Burall, is an ‘Ambassador for WWF’ which somewhat diminishes his credentials.
    Just look at what WWF has morphed into. Representatives from banking, Goldman Sachs, big business, Coca Cola, big US politics, big everything. The only group not represented seem to be arms manufacturers but their interests are most probably there somewhere on the board. Just scroll through the biographies.

    Save the planet, save the threatened species? Yes indeed.

  • Alaric

    I like the idea of Professor Brian Cox being Prime Minister. Apartfrom Merke, I wonder if any other physicists have made it in politics…?

  • Alaric

    Echoed by John Lydon on Question time when he espoused that, its not about left or right.

  • Sandman

    Declining party membership could be a positive sign. It might indicate less political polarisation, fewer grievances to be addressed by parties, decline in interest for political patronage, and most importantly more independently-minded swing voters.

  • Clark

    AW, I was initially hopeful when Galloway was elected in Bradford, but now I suspect his fame contributed to his victory; Respect and other smaller parties don’t have enough such high-profile candidates to become significant in parliament.
    Maybe I’m just being too pessimistic; I hope so. There is also Caroline Lucas.

  • Lord Palmerston

    Good riddance to democracy. The best government is through a limited
    franchise, such as we had from the middle ages through to the horribly
    mistaken reforms about a century ago that brought us universal

    The common man (or woman), it turns out, is utterly unfit to be
    entrusted with the vote. Far better to take one’s chances with
    government by an aristocratic elite than by sleazy populists elected
    by fools.

    But as our electorate is unlikely to vote for their own
    disenfranchisement, our descent towards popular fascism is going to

  • Mary

    O/T but maybe not. A seventh person, a woman from Hackney, is arrested by the ‘anti-terror police’ following the violent arrests of three men in Newham and two men and a woman in Ealing during the week.
    Blowing off front door R Us.

  • crab

    Those were terribly whimsical points Sandman.
    “It might indicate less political polarisation”
    The *degree* of polarisation can more often be greater within smaller groups.
    “fewer grievances to be addressed by parties”
    Pure wishfulness, standard hollow political kant.
    “decline in interest for political patronage”
    This is worded to sound like it could be a positive by replacing “participation” with “patronage”
    “most importantly more independently-minded swing voters.”
    Would “independence of mind” or voting dynamism be improved or worsened by a reduced choice in politics?

  • nevermind

    Far from proffering any particular political direction, we have had all sorts of connotations from radical left via expressively green socialist to our dogma laden main parties who are living in a bubble of their own making.
    Despite the negative hang ups the term Independents have received from those who’d rather leave the conservative mother ship then get deselected, it is, in my view the only vessel still without a massive gash in their side and which should bed used.
    The meeting on the 14th. 11.30 pm, at the united reform church in Wymondham, will revoke and recall the long gone rich landowner Ketts who in 1492 started a rebellion for being wronged, but its only an umbrella.
    Who could say that a ketts Alliance of Independents is worth than the SWP. What is important is whether they will find commonalities and can work together after they are elected, whether one rep. is led by his party dogma after the election and not his voters mandate.
    I will go to this meeting to debate and or suggest a common 5/10point plan of intent, a quasi contract with voters, on offer before an election, not a pre-chewed agenda on issues. But the real mandate will come from the voters themselves, something they are concerned with on a daily basis. That means that you are available, that you can be reached on line and respond, that people can talk to you at hustings and that you make the effort to talk on the doorstep.
    Never has there been a better time for Independents to get elected if they are honest. This will take like minded volunteers, time and effort, but many who frequent this blog have been through these trepidations before and know what to do next time round.
    It is not all a matter of money when you have enthusiastic helpers, what is important is that you create interesting debates and meetings that are reported.. The BBC, sadly in a state of junkie dependency to the party in power on the day, addicted to the status quo, their franchise, for which they will bend their own rules, misinterpret them and or forget that they are there.
    If the public broadcaster in their respective local region, does not rebel as well and undertake a fair election coverage due to the unprecedented voter apathy and the past mistakes and mismanagement of the body politic, then even this exercise will fail to get elective representation by Independents. If it takes stunts and arguments to defend your right for decent coverage, you will inevitably be in the disadvantage. This can be ameliorated with effort and manpower, if you have enough enthusiastic helpers that are with you and persuasive in their arguments, who can also listen to people, if you are a cohesive campaign that is up to date and you are in on public hustings and debates, you can sway the voters who are so pissed off with what’s led to this debacle, i.e. party politics, that an election could galvanise a large Independent voter ship.
    My final plea, those who intend to make a difference should not expect an easy ride or that it will just happen. To make any inroads into elected politics takes time and effort, so the sooner such movement comes together, or Independents try to organise, the better. Like now…..

  • John Goss

    I agree AW. The Respect Party does provide an alternative. And the Green Party, Clark.
    There is also almost a party within the Labour party, the Socialist Campaign Group which has 14 MPs currently who choose to work within the Labour Party towards Socialist aims. This is also in decline mostly due to retirements plus the New Labour policy of lumbering parliamentary constituencies with candidates of their own (New Labour) choice.
    Then there is the Socialist Party (England and Wales).
    But the truth is there is nobody to vote for with a realistic chance of governing. I am one who has added to the decline. I get and read George Galloway’s newsletters but I think he and Caroline Lucas are exceptional personalities with not enough charismatic party members capable of turning either party into a threat. Neither Respect nor the Greens have the party machine to make them electable.
    Also I’m not young any more and some of the spirit no longer burns in the lamp. Many MPs who would have won my support are dead, or retired. There was a time when the youth of the country had political fire. But because of all the sleaze, from all the major parties, nobody is interested in politics any more in this country. It is sad, but factual. I still vote but only to try and make a marginal difference. It is quite obvious all the major parties are unworthy of support.

  • Clark

    John Goss, yes, there are alternatives to the Big Three, but the problem remains; under the present voting rules (“First Past The Post”) a threshold of voter confidence has to be crossed, or people fear “letting the wrong lizard in”. I suspect that Galloway’s fame, and Lucas being party leader is what got each of these candidates across that threshold.
    (Apologies to Komodo, who is clearly the right kind of lizard.)

  • Mark Golding - Children of Iraq Association

    Since the expenses scandal most British people’s idea of a politician is that they are thieves, liars and cheats. Since the late eighties activists have taken the fight elsewhere and others oblivious to the demise of democracy and liberty have exhausted their mental powers predicting who will win the next X Factor contest before the final.
    We have become a Coca-Cola society where large global ‘corporates’ dominate the political arena forcing us the people to shelter in the crevices of the Internet, drawing solace and relief from selfsame.

  • Clark

    Sorry folks, I’m at Nevermind’s again, and I forgot to bring my passwords with me, so I can’t investigate the problem. I did e-mail Tim, so perhaps he fixed it.

  • Guest

    ” Only in Scotland do voters have a genuine choice of a different direction, and they take it.”
    No they don’t. Craig, I don’t put much faith in your political choices!!!, so far on your blog you have promoted Obama as being the change we need!!!!!!, the Lib Dems as being the change we need!!!!!!. Now its the Murdoch loving SNP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

  • guest

    “that democracy has failed in this country”
    By the way Craig, how can something that has NEVER really existed have “failed”.

  • nevermind

    Why this hang up with party politics, this is the 21st. century and we are hankering for the good ol’ days?, when consecutive Governments have shafted us, when the media has played footsie with police and the non/elected Government, when corrupt practises are almost normalised.

    An alliance, yes, feasible, but a party with whips and lobbying and crap that’s wrong, NO

  • Giles

    Guest – Obomber fooled all the right-on liberals who believed that having a black man in the White House would eliminate the world’s ills. It says a lot about them and where they’re coming from. But there really is no excuse for backing Clegg.

  • chris2

    “ …’When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic’. Well, it turned out not to be the people as a whole, but 1% of them or fewer… nevertheless, the principle stands.”

    Actually the principle is completely contradicted: even though they can “vote themselves money” the people don’t. And largely because, in the USA at least, they cannot. The Constitution was set up to prevent them from doing so and, with a few very rare exceptions, they have not done so.
    The enormous electoral districts,(now 458 for 300+million) the undemocratic Senate and the power of the Courts were all part of a system designed specifically to prevent the poor from realising power. Check for example the lack of any but the skimpiest welfare and unemployment programmes for the tens of millions of Americans in need, the erosion of free educational provision and the absence of any healthcare service.

    As to your other generalisation:
    “I can’t help noticing that for the greatest part of our existence, we human beings have been ruled by tyrants or dictators.”
    You are wrong here too, most communities, not unlike those Iroqoiuan nations in eastern North America, were actually extremely democratic and their members were amazed when they learned how the French, for example, were ruled absolutely by a King. They were equally shocked by the cruelty of Europeans towards children.

  • craig Post author


    I hadn’t taken in that Clegg was to the Liberals what Blair was to Labour. Stupid of me.

  • Mark E. Smith

    Tom Welsh, the problem is that Benjamin Franklin lied. The US Constitution did not give us a republic. In a democratic form of government, power is vested in the hands of the people. In a republic, power is still vested in the hands of the people, but the people exercise their power through elected representatives. The US Constitution did not vest power in the people or give the people any way to exercise power through representatives. The US Constitution was a counterrevolutionary document:

    As for smoking, when a 20-year-old who has never smoked and whose parents never smoked gets lung cancer, the doctors say it must be from second-hand smoke from neighbors, ignoring the fact that the victim works with toxic chemicals and lives in a polluted city, breathing in the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day (only with many more toxic chemicals) just from vehicle and industrial air pollution alone. I’ve been smoking for 56 years and I live in a senior building with many other people who have been smoking for more than 50 years and have no lung or respiratory problems. Are you also a vegetarian like Hitler was, or is it only his authoritarianism, racism, and general wrong-headedness you admire?

    A representative democracy is no democracy at all When people vote to delegate their power to representatives (the power they never really had, but imagine that they have because they’re allowed to vote to give it away), they are falling for an illusion. More and more people are waking up.

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