Would making the things we care about democratic tackle political apathy?

Can we learn from the German example of civic engagement to strengthen our democracy?

Can we learn from the German example of civic engagement to strengthen our democracy?

By Sam Tomlin

While politicos clamour over the winners and losers of #Vote2014 in the national and local elections, it is clear in my mind that far from UKIP, Labour or Conservatives coming out on top, once again the winner was apathy. 65 per cent of the electorate did not vote on Thursday in local elections; as Jon Snow said, that is the real earthquake.

Using my borough in London as an example (for local elections), it is also clear that the areas of higher socio-economic deprivation had significantly lower turnout (in the lower 30s per cent, compared to pushing 50 per cent in the richer areas), strongly suggesting that it is people in poorer areas who feel more disenfranchised with what they are being offered by the political system as a whole.

The figures were not much better for the European elections with 64 per cent not voting. Not quite as bad as 76 per cent in 1999, but up again from 61 per cent in 2004. Not particularly inspiring reading.

I did a bit of simple number crunching comparing voter turnout in General and European elections in the UK compared to Germany in the post-war period. What I found was an almost consistently higher proportion of people turning out to vote throughout: on average Germany (only West Germany before 1990) has had an average of 53 per cent turnout at European elections compared to the UK’s 34 per cent, and 83 per cent turnout compared to the UK’s 74 per cent in general elections. Not earth-shattering, perhaps, but significant enough to stop and take notice. (There are also other countries which have higher turnout, but few the size of Britain or Germany.)

As I argued in a recent paper on football governance (see here p.18), often the reason people are apathetic about something is that they are not given a say in how it is run, leading to a sense that their contribution is futile or worthless. Unless you normalise the practice of democracy in people’s ordinary lives, showing how it can make a difference in the things we care about, it is unrealistic to expect people to participate in it when the elites tell us we should in national, local or European elections.

This can be clearly seen in the case of football: English clubs have almost always been run by ‘directors’ who make the decisions from on high with little input from supporters. In Germany they have institutionalised what is called the 50+1 rule for decades which dictates that 51% of all voting rights must belong to the supporters. Club members frequently meet to vote on matters concerning the club, for example elected directors who can properly be held to account for the ticket prices they set and club’s overall performance.

This is entirely in keeping with much of German industry (and society) in the form of the concept of Mitbestimmung or Co-determination – ensuring workers (or people judged to have a significant stake in an organisation) have elected representation on the boards of companies they work for. It is very similar to the idea of John Lewis where members get to vote for the people who run them. Could it be that this normalisation of the democratic process in the everyday lives in the institutions people care about would increase the awareness of the importance of democratic practices when it comes to political elections? A more in-depth study of voting habits would need to be conducted of course to prove the causal link, but I think it is an interesting question to ask based on the figures above.Voter turnout

It is interesting to note that in the USA, where worker representation and rights are notoriously lower, average voter turnout at presidential elections in the same post-war period is just 55.6 per cent.

Alexis de Toqueville argued along these lines when he commented on citizens participating in democracy in the 19th Century, describing how the citizen of New England: ‘takes part in every occurrence in the place; he practices the art of government in the small sphere within his reach; he accustoms himself to those forms without which liberty [or democracy] can only advance by revolutions; he imbibes their spirit; he acquires a taste for order, comprehends the balance of powers, and collects clear practical notions on the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights.’

Similar practices can be found in Citizens UK (part of the more global ‘community organising’ movement): encouraging people within communities to stand together for the things they care about and holding those in power to account.

Securing greater worker representation on boards would of course imply a collision course with the vastly powerful corporate lobby that would fight tooth and nail not to have to give up their power and control. It could not happen overnight. But if the link between co-determination and co-operative values in people’s everyday institutions (like football clubs), workplaces and communities, and greater participation in democracy is correct as I argue here, then it is surely a battle worth fighting for a richer and deeper democracy – one based on solidarity and the common good, as opposed to those who have the resources to make the most noise and support the apathetic status quo which suits them just fine.

I am indebted to conversations with Dave Boyle for most of these insights, who is an expert in civic participation and co-operative movements.

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2 comments
  1. senex72 said:

    If democracy is rule of the people by the people for the people then the fault lies in the electoral system itself. In Sefton for example UKIP held 21% of the votes cast, the Tories and Labour 16% each, LD’s trailing. Yet UKIP did not “win” a single “seat”. The implications of this seems to me to go far beyond the usual talk of the ignis fatuous of proportional representation, boundary adjustments etc. Quite simply UKIP won the arguments but lost the “election”, and have begun to show the public debate is not, repeat not, contained in the party system, refuting the (false) claim that voter apathy is unjustified. Political parties (of which some 360 existed at the last General election, though far fewer “competed”) have pretty well collapsed. The three “main” parties have a tiny, shrinking membership, between them amounting to a few hundred thousand all told. Compare that to charities and civil associations whose membership numbers can amount to more than a million per association, and growing; and it is these organisations the party oligarchy is currently seeking to repress especially at election time, obviously with good reason from their own survival point of view. Survival for them means dominating the nomination procedures not just at elections but for a host of semi-government bodies, for the so-called “Lords”, and for inquiries etc. The dominance of certain of these trivial and unaccountable political party groups would appear to result from their role as cats paws for competing sets of wealth and influence. In this context it might be worth recalling that in the Classical world (from which democracy came) elections were seen as infallible sign of oligarchy because of the power of wealth and influence and patronage. they resulted in rule by skilled liars.(This did not apply when citizens were choosing a technical expert for a specific task of course.) The working alternative is sortation, hedged about with intensive reviews of conduct to punish oligarchic tendencies.

    I suggest it is not that citizens are uninterested in the decisions of their polity. Theyare well aware of their inability to make the decisions under the party system and its institutions, which they then sporadically overturn. UKIP appears to be repeating (at least on euro-elections so far) the kind of transformation we last saw domestically in the social-liberal victory of 1906 and the elimination if the veto-power of the Lords. Progress seems on that reading not to see UKIP (or similar) as simply filling the vacant seats left by the false-flag politics of Clegg, but as moving towards the replacement of the party-system of elected “representatives” ,who claim some mystical shamanic political nous, by a new set-up enabling the actual rule of the citizens within an existing structure of law. Could we carry this forward to the redistribution of power and land and an end to censorship of speech?

    Many models exist – deliberative democracy, the selection of local watch-committees by lot from the jury-list for annual service with powers to summon persons and papers and to discipline elected and non-elected officials. An end to the silencing of juries by the judge and barristers in courts of law, giving them the power to question, inquire and research cases in the interests of truth (rather than the balance of pre-digested “evidence”) might be a step forward too.

    It would be futile to offer a constitutional handbook here of course! But perhaps these considerations might lead to a fruitful course of future speculation?

  2. senex72 said:

    Let’s put it another way: with EU officials regarding 1930 levels of unemployment and growing stagnation as normal, and with the Euro requiring dangerous levels of austerity and internal deflation, and the ECB unable (ever) to create the massive stimulus necessary, then the 2019 elections will see the elimination if the present party system, if we get that far. It depends on how soon the present world cycle turns down again ( as all cycles do) leaving the crippled EURO zone facing further cut-backs before it has even recovered from the present. That is the driving force behind UKIP and related parties’ success, which the party oligarchs are incapable (as it seems from current form) of even comprehending, let alone dealing with. It would seem wise to stop dithering and prepare alternative systems of governance.

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