Recently, on the 15th and 16th of March another student and I were fortunate to attend the Dicey Conference at Trinty college, Oxford, which is run by The McWhirter Foundation. The title of the conference was: ‘Is British Democracy Ripe for Reform?’
We had the opportunity to listen to four different people who looked at different aspects of British democracy but the speaker I am going to focus on is Areaq Chowdhury who is the founder of WebRoots. In his lecture he focused on political participation, examples of where it has improved, how it is changing, examples of where it is low and possible changes that can be made to increase participation.
Firstly, political participation can include a whole range of things from standing for public office to merely voting. It also includes joining pressure groups, picking candidates, voicing your demands by contacting your local MP, writing for newspapers and commenting on articles.
This is where the internet has made such a massive impact on political participation. Social media websites such as Twitter has meant that many people who would have struggled to get their views heard before can contribute to online discussions and these websites also make it easier to start online campaigns. 38 Degrees is an example of this where members come together to promote certain campaigns and make a difference. The government also has a website through which you can petition Parliament. After 10,000 signatures petitions get a response from the government and after 100,000 signatures petitions are considered for debate in Parliament. Some people argue that this is evidence that political participation has not decreased and is merely changing.
Others, however, point to recent elections which show that political participation in the form of voting is still a major issue in UK politics. The main reason that this is such an issue is because if elected officials are not voted into office with a high voter turnout then their mandate to govern is brought into question. Recent police commissioner elections have seen some of the worst voter turnouts. In Gwent (2012) the turnout was just 14.3 per cent overall and one polling station in Newport was visited by no voters at all. Areaq Chowdhury also talked about the 2010 Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition and the questions surrounding its legitimacy and mandate. No one voted for the joint rule of these two parties and so they lacked a mandate.
One way that some people suggest voter turnout may be increased is through the increased use of referendums. This form of direct democracy allows people to have a real impact on the eventual decisions and the argument is that people will therefore be more likely to vote unlike in general elections where they are only picking representatives. However, some referendums have received shockingly low turnouts. For example, the 2011 AV referendum vote received a voter turnout of just 42.2 per cent. This is opposed to the 84.6 per cent voter turnout at the Scottish independence referendum. This shows us that the extent to which people engage with referendums relies heavily on the issue.
Other ideas which have been suggested which could possibly increase political participation include lowering the voting age to 16. People argue that this, combined with increased education, would result in higher turnouts because young people would feel as though they have been given more responsibility as well as being more engaged in issues that they understand. Also, online voting for elections and minor referendums to explain to MPs how to vote in certain situations have also been proposed. Although there are security fears concerning the former and the influence of party whips on important and polarising issues would affect the latter.
I would like to thank The McWhirter Foundation and all of the speakers for their time and if you would like to hear more about political participation you can visit Araeq Chowdhury’s HuffintonPost page here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/areeq-chowdhury/
ED & ES