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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.

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 - many of the nations of Europe and much of the remainder of the developed world including the United States.

The 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 are young people and students. However, nearly 20% of black and ethnic minority adults are not registered to vote. 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%; in 2005, it was up a bit to 61.4%; and, in 2010, it was up further to 65.1% but still well short of average post-war levels. 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 particular democratic nation, since compulsory voting was abolished in the early 1970s, turnout for parliamentary elections has never exceeded 50%. Turnout in the last General Election in Japan in December 2014 was only 52% which was the lowest since the Second World War.

  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 American-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 bt nowadays that figure is just 1% while, even 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 (the exception in the UK is Scotland with recent, spectacular growth in Scottish National Party membership); 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. The campaign group 38 Degrees, which agitates around specific issues through petitions and e-mail, has an e-mail database four times the size of the combined mailing list of all political parties in the UK.

  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 in relation to support for the UK Independence Party in the English local elections of 2013 and the Scottish National Party in the General Election of 2015.
Why are these threats manifesting themselves?
  1. The old class divides have blurred so the identification of party with class has dissolved. 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. 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 narrow, pragmatic considerations (let's punish the government for messing things up! who can best handle the economy at the moment?).

  2. The differences between political parties are not so great. In Britain, all the major political parties support a mixed economy which looks much like today's economy: the Conservatives are not pushing major new privatisations and Labour is 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 (such as the so-called mansion tax). 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.

  3. National parliaments and governments alone cannot solve many of the most challenging political problems. In the 27 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.

  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 social media, 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.
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 last General Election in 2010, that proportion had fallen to 65.1%. In 2010, 12% of voters did not support Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates: on average, in the current polls, the number of respondents saying they intend to vote in 2015 for other parties is 26%. 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 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 by clever use of the Net and especially social media, as television personality Yair Lapid has shown in Israel and the blogger Giuseppe Grillo has shown most recently in Italy. 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 the Republican presidential primary and the very strong showing by Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary 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, we have seen substantial growth in support for the anti-immigration, anti-Europe UK Independence Party (UKIP). 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 popul;ist 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 Election of 2010, no political party won a majority of seats (even with a first-past-the-post electoral system). Most European Union states have hung parliaments. And even some other countries with Westminster-style systems are well used to hung parliaments too. Canada, for instance, has had three minority governments since 2000, while New Zealand has had seven hung parliaments in the past 20 years.


    Last modified on 5 June 2016

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