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Political Participation in the UK Essay

In a country based on representative democracy, a ‘fair’ system, it is questionable to say we as the public make the most of this opportunity. Whilst other nations are fighting against the intense grips of dictatorships, as we have seen recently in Libya and Egypt, we live in a system in which to instigate change, we simply have to turn up at a ballot box and cast a vote. But with voting numbers continuously dwindling, does the United Kingdom have a participation crisis? The most efficient way to judge this is to go straight to the figures, and on first glance the statistics are startling. The percentage of people that voted in 2001 was an astonishing record low of 59%, down over 10% from the previous election in 1997. Comparing both of these results to a 83.9 voting percentage of 1950, shows a dramatic change in the value the British people place in their vote. The two recent elections however in 2005 and 2010 have bucked this trend, achieving percentages of 61.5 and 65 giving the impression that voting is on the rise.

But with only these two results showing increases in recent history, it is impossible to view this as a positive correlation. When looking at these figures we have to look at the groups of people who didn’t exercise their right to vote, with the majority of them falling in to the 18 to 24 year old category. Only 44% of the 18 to 24 age group casted a ballot in the 2010 election in comparison to the 76% turnout figure of the over 65’s. The general consensus of the political spectrum of the youth population is that it is firmly to the left. Given these facts it is arguable to say that if the turn out for the 2010 general election had been higher, we could have easily had a Labour or Liberal Democrat government which would have had major effects on the current policies in place in the UK. To go even further, if the voting percentage had been 100% in all the previous elections, it is claimable that every government the UK has had would be different, effectively changing nearly every policy that has been put into place in the past.

When looked at with this perspective, we can see the incredible importance of voting and political participation has in our lives. When looking simply at the turnout figures of the recent general elections we can see that participation in the UK is in a dangerous decline. Another factor we need to take into consideration is the decline of party membership in the UK. Similar to the steady decline of voting figures since 1950, all three major parties membership has dropped significantly over the last six decades. The Conservative party has seen the most severe decline in membership, from having over 2,900,000 members in 1951 falling to a mere 250,000 in 2008. This trend is shown within the ranks of the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties as well, with the only noticeable exception is the rise in the Labour party in 1997, rising from 280,000 to 405,000. This however, can be contributed to the rise of Tony Blair with ‘New Labour’ and ‘Blairism’ which gripped the country in the late 20th century. Following this though, the Labour parties membership continued to fall and by 2008 had reached a low of 166,000.

Tony Blair’s biographer Anthony Seldon has made the link between declining levels of public trust in formal politics and the decline in party membership, however it is difficult to prove a simple link such as this exists. With these dramatic declines in voting participation and party membership, some would claim that it is difficult to argue that there is not a political participation crisis gripped the UK. On the other hand though, there has been rises in other forms of political participation. Whilst collective acts such as party membership has been on decline, individual direct action, in some cases has been on the rise. With consumer issues being one of the main causes the public has more intensely rallied around. The Power inquiriy in 2006 highlighted these changes in political participation, with traditional forms such as party membership seeing dramtatic decreases, whereas involvement with pressure groups and protest movements seeing dramatic increases.

In the year 2000, 31% of the public claimed that they had boycotted products for ethical reasons, whether this can be contributed to the rise of the media and social desirability or not it shows a dramatic rise from the 4% that boycotted products in 1984. This shows perhaps that although a part of society has lost faith in the political process and the value of their votes, they instead prefer to take actions they believe that they will be directly making a difference and contributing politically. The phenomenon of the rise of the media and the internet over the last 60 years has allowed new systems of political participation to develop. An example of this is e-petitions. E-petitions are an easy way for anyone to influence government policy in the UK. With anyone being able to create an e-petition about anything that the government is responsible for, it allows people to get involved at a more direct level and definitely attracts the younger generation to get involved.

If a petition gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons. These ways of participation makes it easier for people to get involved and allows the public to voice their opinions on particular subjects, almost seeming like a direct democracy in comparison to the representative democracy we have in the UK. Another argument that there is not a participation crisis in the UK is the huge turnouts in political protests over the last decade, with possibly the most poignant of these being the protests against the Iraq war in 2003. With over one and half million people taking to the streets of London, the British public showed they are not afraid to have their voices heard. A more recent example of a political protest, is the student tuition fees demonstrations in 2010, with over 50,000 taking to the streets. A British Election Study stated that in 1979, 20% of respondents would be willing to go on a protest demonstration, this number had risen to 33% by 2000.

Added to this, an increase in illegal political demonstrations, notably the London riots earlier this year, shows us that people are much more likely to take to the streets to demonstrate than they were in previous decades. This shows that although different forms of political participation are on the rise, they are arguably much less important than voting. Taking into consideration that the government merely acknowledged these particular protests and continued with their policies anyway, shows us the lack of impact these forms of participation have in contrast with voting. In the UK today we can see a growing trend of a decrease in traditional participation, but an increase in new forms and less traditional participation. This can be contributed to a number of factors, including the decline in public trust in formal politics and the rise of the media and internet, which allows people to organise and take part in other types of participation.

This shows that generally there is not a participation crisis in the UK, with the majority of the public getting involved in some sort of political participation, with only 15% taking no political actions in the year 2000. However, the forms of participation that are growing in popularity are shown to have less effect on the political process of the UK, with the Iraq demonstrations of 2003 and the Student Protests of 2010 resulting in no change of political policy and the e-petitions only resulting in a political debate. This highlights the importance of traditional participation and the problems with the more popular forms of participation.

Perhaps a more poignant question would be, does our representative democracy really represent the views of the public, as in reality these new forms of participation should have resulted in more of an effect on UK policy. To describe the current political participation as a crisis is far to extreme, as the figures show the majority of the British public readily get involved. At the present time there is not a crisis in the UK’s political participation, but if the trends continue, we could be faced with one in the coming years, but as long as the public remain involved at some level there can be no crisis.


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