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Democracy is not so much a stable political system as a work in permanent progress. It takes decades, even centuries, to embed in a society - but, even then, it is never settled and never totally secure. Indeed the distinction between democratic countries and non-democratic countries is a blurred one and it is better to see nations on a spectrum from fully democratic to outright authoritarian. Positions on that spectrum can and do change, sometimes - for good or bad - very rapidly.

This is very obvious with nations that have only recently attempted democratic forms, such as Russia, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. What is much less well understood is that even the older democracies are facing serious challenges which, in some cases, amount to a crisis. Sadly this is the case in many of the nations of Europe and much of the remainder of the developed world including the United States.

The initial focus of this essay is the political situation in Britain, but many of the factors identified are relevant to most older democracies.

What are the threats to such democracies?
  1. Many citizens do not even manage or bother to register to vote. According to figures released by the Electoral Commission in 2014, some 7.5 million eligible UK voters were absent from the electoral register. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government changed the law so that Britain now has individual voter registration rather than household registration. This is estimated to have taken 1 million off the electoral register in just a year. Many of these were young people and students. However, nearly 20% of black and ethnic minority adults are not registered to vote. In the last couple of General Elections (2017 & 2019), great efforts have been made to arrange last minute registration. Over in the USA, since 2008, states across the country have passed measures to make it harder for Americans - particularly black people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities - to exercise their right to cast a ballot. Over 30 states have considered laws that would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Studies suggest that up to 11% of American citizens lack such an ID and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain one or forego the right to vote entirely.

  2. A growing number of citizens are not voting whether or not they are registered. Between 1922 and 1997, turnout in British general elections remained above 71% (in 1950, it was actually 84%). At the 2001 General Election, the turnout fell dramatically to 59.4%. Since then, it has gradually edged upwards back to 69% in 2017. In the American presidential election of 1980, turnout was 63%, but these days it is typically around 50% (although, in the last three elections, it was more like 55%), In the case of mid-term Congressional elections, turnout typically falls to around 40% and, in 2014, it was a mere 36.4% - the lowest for 72 years. In Switzerland, which is often thought of as a particularly democratic nation, since compulsory voting was abolished in the early 1970s, turnout for parliamentary elections has never exceeded 50%. Turnout in the General Election in Japan in December 2014 was only 52%, which was the lowest since the Second World War, although it rose a bit to 54% in the General Election of October 2017.

  3. Turnout is very differentiated among different segments of the electorate. Younger citizens are much less inclined to vote than older people; the poor, the unemployed and those on benefits vote less than those in work and on decent incomes; minority ethnic groups frequently have low participation rates in elections. In the United States, in 2008 and 2012 voting by African-Americans was higher than in the past, as a result of Barack Obama being a candidate for the presidency, but turnout rates among Hispanics and Asian-Americans continues to lag behind that of the general public by a substantial margin. Such differential turnout has a real impact on the language of politicians. In Britain, one hears lots of references to "hard working people who do the right thing" with the implication that, if one is not in work for whatever reason, one counts for less. In the USA, there are constant references to "the middle class" even though most of the population is working class.

  4. There is a much weaker identification with a particular political party. This is demonstrated in many ways: fewer people are members of a political party so that, in 1950, one in five Britons was a member of a political party but nowadays that figure is just 1% while, over the lifetime of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, Tory membership fell from 177,000 to 149,000 while Lib Dem membership fell from 65,000 to 44,000. For some years, the exception in the UK has been Scotland with spectacular growth in Scottish National Party membership and, more recently, since the election of Jeremey Corbyn as leader, membership of the Labour Party has soared, although it is now falling again. There are fewer workers in election campaigns (in the 2015 General Election, the Conservatives even imported some workers from the young Republican movement in the States). Fewer voters display a placard or poster for a party or candidate. Instead many citizens identify not so much with political parties as particular causes or issues such as Extinction Rebellion.

  5. Political opinion is much more volatile. At one time, a large majority of electors voted consistently from one election to another for the political party that they felt represented their class or values. These days, it is much more likely that someone will vote in response to their feelings around this particular election, often as a result of their view of a party leader or a specific issue. Political opinion can shift substantially in a short period of time. We have seen this in Britain particularly in relation to the UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party with spectacular rises and falls in levels of support. This has made opinion polling much more difficult and less reliable.
Why are these threats manifesting themselves?
  1. The old class divides have blurred so the identification of party with class has dissolved. Intiially the reasons for this were that class identification has become less pronounced as abject poverty has been substantially reduced in most developed countries, membership of - or at least identification with - the middle class has grown, and - rightly or wrongly - people feel that there is more social mobility. More recently, we have seen the rise of what one can call identity politics with people voting against their economic interests whether it is working class British voters backing Brexit or working class American voters backing Donald Trump. In many European countries such as France, Germany, Austria and Hungary, identity politicians have stirred up feelings against immigrants or in favour of nationalism to secure votes. So now, many voters do not see themselves as Left- or Right-wing because they have a particular view as to how society should be run, but instead decide how to vote on how a politician appeals to their sense of identity.

  2. The differences between political parties are not so great. In Britain, at least until the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party, all the major political parties supported a mixed economy which looks much like today's economy: the Conservatives were not pushing major new privatisations and Labour was not backing any major renationalisations. All parties say that they support the National Health Service and differences are over precise funding levels and a limited role for provision by private contractors. There is a marked reluctance by any political party to do much about changing basic levels of income tax; the debate is more about tackling tax evasion and new taxes affecting small numbers. So, while it is not true that all the political parties are the same, there is much more convergence of policy than was the case after the Second World War and during the Thatcher era. In Germany, the differences between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats have been perceived as relatively small and there is now a backlash with a new radcial leadership for the Social Democrats. Similarly, in the United States, the diffrences between Republicans and Democrats have often seemed too minor which could be behind the recent shift of the Democratic Party to a more radical agenda.

  3. National parliaments and governments alone cannot solve many of the most challenging political problems. In the 28 Member States of the European Union (and especially the 17 Member States in the Eurozone), electors feel that the crucial decisions are not taken in their own parliaments. Both inside and outside Europe, there is a recognition that many of the most serious political challenges of the day - the state of the global economy, the stability of the financial system, the war on drugs, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, migration from troubled countries and, perhaps most notably, climate change - cannot be solved on a national basis through a national parliament. This can lead to a sense of disenfranchisement and disillusionment.

  4. Citizens have less trust in and respect for establishment politicians. Politicians used to be quite distant figures who were generally respected because we knew so little of their private lives. Now, with the explosive growth of radio stations, television channels, web sites and most especially social media (notably Facebook and Twitter), every misdemeanour or inconsistency of public figures is laid bare. Too often, there are real scandals, such as in the UK the exposure of substantial unjustified expense claims by Members of Parliament. Meanwhile there has been the explosive growth of fake news - especially on social media - and examples, such as Boris Johnson in the UK and Donald Trump in the USA, of a tendency to mislead or lie with such frequency that there is a need for so many declared 'facts' to be checked by independent sources.
What are the results of these threats?
  1. Fewer and fewer are voting for the major political parties. In the British General Election of 1945, 83.9% of those voting backed Labour or Conservative. In the General Election in 2010, that proportion had fallen to 65.1%. But, in the General Election of 2017, it rose back to 82.4%. Around the world, we have seen some spectacular collapses in support for traditional political parties such as the Christian Democratic Party and the Communist Party in Italy, the socialist parties in France, Greece and Israel, and the Liberal Party in Canada.

  2. New political parties and movements have emerged and sometimes shown rapid growth in support. It is now possible to create a new political movement without having vast funds or elaborate organisation. Although the circumstances were extraordinary, in Britain the newly-formed Brexit Party managed to win the European Parliament election of May 2019 just a few weeks after the party's creation. In France, the Republic On The Move was founded just over a year before the last Presidential and National Assembly elections by Emmanuel Macron who had never been elected to any office but he won the presidential election in May 2017 and his new party won the National Assembly elections in June 2017. The Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain, and White and Blue in Israel have all achieved substantial electoral success in a very short period after their formation. Where there has been massive opposition to austeriy - such as in Greece or Spain - new parties can be created which almost overnight win incredible backing. In Britain, the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party and, in the USA, the astonishing success of Donald Trump in winning the White House plus the very strong showing by Bernie Sanders in the last and current Democratic presidential primaries are further dramatic examples of an anti-establishment wave sweeping through many democracies.

  3. More are voting for newer or more extreme political parties. In Britain, for a time we saw substantial growth in support for the anti-immigration, anti-Europe UK Independence Party (UKIP) and its successor the Brexit Party. But, across Europe, we have seen dramatic increases in backing for new or extreme parties: in Belgium, the far-right Flemish-language Vlaams Belang; in France, the National Front; in Germany, the racist Alternative for Germany; in Italy, the populist Five Star Movement; in Greece, the radical left SYRIZA and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn; in Spain, the left-wing Podemos; in Austria, the far right Freedom Party; in The Netherlands, the right-wing Freedom Party; in Sweden, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats; in Norway, the Progress Party; in Denmark, the Danish People's Party; in Poland, the right-wing Law and Justice Party; in Hungary, the racist Jobbik.

  4. Majority governments are becoming less likely. In the British General Elections of 2010 and 2017, no political party won a majority of seats (even with a first-past-the-post electoral system). Most European Union states have hung parliaments including Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and The Netherlands. And even some other countries with Westminster-style systems are well used to hung parliaments too. Canada, for instance, has had four minority governments since 2000, while New Zealand has had seven hung parliaments in the past 20 years. Israel usually has coalition governments because of its electoral system but two General Elections in a year has failed to give sufficient support to the larger parties to enable a coalition to be formed.


    Last modified on 6 December 2019

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