We live in a Britain where a clear majority see themselves as working class, where trust in politicians continues to plummet and where new generations are the least likely to have party loyalties and to vote at general elections.
Lack of endorsement of the current political system of representative democracy is the clear message that shines through the latest British Social Attitudes survey that tracks people’s views, comparing data gathered over a 30-year period.
What emerges is a snapshot of an electorate that is independent, interested in politics but increasingly disconnected from existing institutions and the way they are ruled. The politics chapter is worth studying in detail. Key findings include:
- 75% agreed that the political parties are only interested in votes, up from 64% in 1987.
- Two-thirds of those in the early 20s or early 30s identify with a particular party, compared with 85% in the same age group back in 1983.
- In 1987, almost half (46%) of the British public said they had a “very strong” or “fairly strong” identification with a party. That’s now down to 31%.
- Fewer people have voted in the last three general elections than they have in the past and researchers say we could be on a “downward trajectory”.
- There’s been a long-term decline in the numbers saying it’s their duty to vote, falling from 76% in 1987 to 62% in 2011.
- Interest in political issues has actually risen, with 36% saying that have a great deal/a lot of interest compared with 29% in 1986. Most of the increase is to be found amongst older people, however.
- Non-electoral participation has largely increased over 30 years. Many more now say they have signed a petition on taken part in a protest.
When it comes to “trust” in politicians, the figures are quite remarkable. One in three (32%) say they almost never trust government, up from a mere 11% in 1986. And the proportion who “just about always” or “most of the time” trust government has almost halved, falling from 38% to just 18%.
So that’s over eight out of ten voters who don’t care to lend their trust to government. This scepticism is currently reflected in the polls that reject any plans to attack Syria, whatever the situation over chemical weapons.
Contemporary Britain, says the BSA report, is “marked by strong and pervasive class
divisions” - where 60% think of themselves as working class - which in turn “lead to sustained and possibly increasing inequalities across classes”. The authors find it a “paradox” that at the same time fewer people identify with any political party.
There is a relatively simple explanation for this, however which the report does not delve into. Labour in particular has made strenuous efforts to distance itself from representing the interests of the working class. This morning, Labour leader Ed Miliband is, for example, telling the trade unions that their traditional membership links with the party have to change so that he can stand a better chance of winning the next election.
Behind Miliband’s shift is a more profound process that’s been under way for about the same period as that covered by the BSA, namely corporate-driven globalisation with its dependence on deregulated markets, low wages and fewer and fewer workplace rights.
New Labour bought into this and became a neo-liberal, capitalist party. This is something union leaders still find hard to stomach or acknowledge while ordinary working people clocked on to it some time ago. No one should be surprised that fewer and fewer people want to “identify” with Labour in these circumstances.
The BSA survey is a valuable piece of research. It paints a picture of a democracy in decline, with the major parties committed to the status quo. Giving the right to vote a new significance will require a fundamental shift in the political system, along the lines of creating a real democracy. You could do worse than support projects like the Agreement of the People for the 21st century campaign and others fighting for democratic emancipation.