Helena Kennedy: Disengagement from politics is a threat to democracy

Turnout at elections is habitually low. But this is just a symptom of a greater malaise

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If you are content to use voter turnout to measure satisfaction with our political system, this last week must have been heartening. The Americans lined up in their masses to re-elect their President, and huge numbers also used their vote to assert their opposition. And here, the people of the North-east confounded cynics and turned out in greater numbers than predicted to reject resolutely the Government's latest offering from their constitutional reform menu - an elected regional assembly.

If you are content to use voter turnout to measure satisfaction with our political system, this last week must have been heartening. The Americans lined up in their masses to re-elect their President, and huge numbers also used their vote to assert their opposition. And here, the people of the North-east confounded cynics and turned out in greater numbers than predicted to reject resolutely the Government's latest offering from their constitutional reform menu - an elected regional assembly.

Ever since the abysmal turnout for the 2001 general election, our commentators and politicians have focussed on turnout as the thing to be fixed. Postal ballots, possible text or online voting have all been mooted, and some tried, in an attempt to get the numbers up. Simply increasing turnout may make the political classes feel better about their trade - but should it really be the only focus of our attempts to reconnect people and politics?

It was the Chairman of the Yes 4 the North-east campaign who noted insightfully that the vote was a reflection of "something bigger" in the political life of this nation. Indeed it was. But what? Politicians of all creeds know something strange is going on "out there", but they are not entirely sure what. Their confusion is a symptom of the problem. The message from the voters is clear if you are willing to listen. Whether it's the monkey man in Hartlepool, Dr Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest or UKIP in the European elections, the public are voting against the political establishment because it no longer connects with their needs, values and expectations.

Of course, events of the last decade have played their part in deepening this disconnection. BSE, sleaze, and the intelligence for the Iraq war have left politicians widely perceived as ineffective at best and dishonest at worst. That judgement may be unfair, but it is often expressed, and is a shorthand for deeper disengagement.

The three main parties have seen an ongoing decline in their membership since the early 1960s. The parties are now less than a quarter of their size in 1964. And among the wider public there is a similar drop in allegiance. In 1964, 44 per cent described themselves as identifying "very strongly" with a political party; in 2001 that figure had fallen to just 14 per cent.

These figures - which are hardly a state secret - suggest that the increasing use of the anti-establishment vote or non-vote is the latest intensification of a longer-term and more gradual disengagement of people from politicians. The cause should not be that difficult to discern. Society has changed massively since the 1960s, but our politics has not. The era of the great industrial classes and social deference is gone. Yet our parties and parliament operate as though this status can still be relied upon. We have two parties designed to reflect the class conflict of the 1920s. And we have a Parliament that expects its citizens to be grateful for a vote every four or five years and never notice that they have no other formal way of influencing their "superiors" in the Commons.

It is as though our political system has expected to remain immune from the economic, social and cultural revolution of the post-war era. It is simply not a system designed for the educated, information-rich, individualistic, classless citizen of the early 21st century. Sooner or later, the gap between system and citizen would become a chasm.

The problem for the politicians is that they have no agenda with which to respond. They simply do not know what to do. The major changes to the political system of recent years have drawn directly on the constitutional reform agenda of the 1980s and 1990s. This attempted to increase the accountability and transparency of our political institutions. However, it didn't even try to address the increasingly strong desire of the citizen to have a greater role in decision-making itself. And no one has really been considering what the implications are for our constitutional arrangements, if we the people want a bigger say, more of the time.

This is why the Rowntree Trusts have established the Power Inquiry, which I am chairing. Its brief is simply to recommend how political participation in Britain can be increased and deepened. Over the next year we shall travel around the country listening to people about the underlying causes of our political disengagement. And we already know that there is some exciting work going on. Despite the politicians' bemusement, there is an explosion of imaginative experimentation with democratic processes and citizen engagement across the country.

The inquiry will question how these innovations sit alongside our existing democratic structures. The starting point is that turnout at elections is now habitually low - but that this is just a more obvious symptom of a greater malaise. Getting stuck simply on how many people vote is never going to address the more fundamental questions threatening our democracy.

To find out how to take part in the Power Inquiry, go to: www.powerinquiry.org, or phone 0845 345 5307

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