Consumer activism is a sign of political impotence

What has changed during the past two decades is the very meaning of politics itself

CONSUMERS ARE on the march; complaining, campaigning and forcing large companies such as Shell, Monsanto and the Bank of Scotland on the defensive. Public and private institutions face an unprecedented level of litigation as angry claimants demand not only compensation but a change in their mode of operation. However, these displays of consumer activism coincide with an unprecedented level of political apathy and social disengagement.

These contradictory trends are strikingly evident in the workplace. Claims have expanded as employees have gone to the court and to tribunals to demand compensation for bullying, various forms of harassment, stress and other health related matters. The TUC has been in the forefront of workplace campaigns around such issues as bullying and stress. Last year, its "No Excuse: Beat Bullying Campaign" was probably its most high profile initiative. Trade union activism has been redirected towards supporting the claims of individual employees in tribunals and other forums. This turn towards legal activism is paralleled by the suspension of traditional forms of union militancy. Last year there were just 166 stoppages, the lowest number since records began in 1891.

Legal and consumer activists interpret this development as a positive sign that people are standing up for themselves and refusing to defer to powerful institutions. Roger Smith, the director of the Legal Action Group, takes the view that "high litigation rates may well be a sign of an active citizenry".

However, there is considerable evidence that consumer and legal activism are symptomatic of a far more disturbing process: a decline in civic and social engagement. In a society of active citizens, no government would feel compelled to propose that the study of citizenship should be included in the curriculum.

If election statistics are anything to go by, the active citizen is in danger of becoming an endangered species. There has been considerable media disquiet about the record low turnout of 23 per cent at the recent elections to the European Parliament. Attempts to explain the problem away by blaming the distraction of the war in the Balkans or voter fatigue overlook the long-term trends.

It is worth recalling that, back in 1997, New Labour was backed by only 31 per cent of those qualified to vote. Voter turnout at this election was the lowest since 1945. "The 1997 general election excited less interest than any other in living memory," concluded the authors of a Nuffield College study of this event. Even the highly hyped public relations campaign surrounding devolution in Scotland and Wales failed to engage the public's interest.

The response of the British political class to the collapse of public participation is characteristically naive and technical. The most widely canvassed solution favours making voting easier. Setting up polling booths in supermarkets is one idea. Others have proposed a system of postal or electronic voting. Such technical solutions are not designed to invigorate public life, but to improve appearances. What these approaches fail to realise is that the reason why people don't vote is not because they are extremely busy or because they can't find the polling booth. Public disengagement from politics reflects the widespread conviction that politics simply does not matter and that most institutions have little bearing on their lives.

The steady decline of voter participation is only a symbol of a much wider process at work. Surveys indicate that suspicion towards politicians and political institutions is widespread. Party membership is falling. Even New Labour - despite Tony Blair's popularity - has fewer members than it had in January 1998. But it is not merely political organisations that face a decline in membership. Membership of voluntary organisations such as the Women's Institute and the Scout movement have all fallen dramatically. A rescue package announced to save the Methodist Church from collapse last February indicates that religious organisations are also subject to the wider dynamic of public disengagement.

What has changed during the past two decades is the very meaning of politics itself. Politics today has little in common with the passions and conflicts that have shaped people's commitments and hatreds over the past century. There is no longer room for either the ardent defender of the free market faith, or the robust advocate of revolutionary transformation. It would be wrong to conclude that politics has become simply more moderate. Politics has gone into early retirement.

The end- of-century ethos continually emphasises problems which are not susceptible to human intervention. Theories of globalisation stress the inability of people and of their nation states to deal with forces which are beyond their control. The big issues of our time - the impending environmental catastrophe, threats to our health , millennium bugs - are presented as perils that stand above politics. It is widely believed that the world is out of control and that there is little that human beings can do to master these developments or influence their destiny. Deprived of choice and options, humanity is forced to acquiesce to a world view which Margaret Thatcher aptly labelled as "Tina" - There is No Alternative.

And if, indeed, there is no alternative, politics can have little meaning. Without alternatives, debate becomes empty posturing about trivial matters. Critics of Tina often fail to realise that there is an essential truth - even if not the one pointed to by Thatcher - in this assessment of events. There can be no alternative when the political imagination has become exhausted. And not surprisingly, when Politics - with a capital P - does not seem to matter, people become estranged from public life.

In contemporary Britain, this social disengagement has encouraged the expression of private grievance and frustration. Consumer anger at unresponsive institutions is symptomatic a pervasive sense of powerlessness. A society which celebrates the litigant and the complainer has more or less acknowledged that the give and take of democratic politics has little meaning for its citizens.

The writer is reader in sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury

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