Saturday 27 September 2014

The decline in political participation and the rise of the non-traditional parties

The last five decades has seen a spectacular decline in public political participation. Membership of the three Westminster establishment parties has fallen from almost 10% of the electorate in the mid 1960s to less than 0.8% in 2013. This fall in political participation has resulted in the UK falling from one of the countries with the highest rates of political participation in Europe, to the one with the lowest of all.

As membership of the three Westminster parties has dwindled to a miniscule fraction of the millions they had in the 1960s, several smaller parties (The Green Party, UKIP and the Scottish National Party) have experienced dramatic increases in their membership over the last decade.

In this article I'm going to examine the decline in popular political participation and the rise of "non-traditional" parties, move on to examine how the Westminster establishment parties have maintained their vice-like grip on political power despite the fact that the tide is clearly turning against them, then conclude by offering some suggestions as to what we can do about the problem.

The decline in political participation

In the mid-1960s the trade union movement included over ten million people, the Labour party had over 750,000 members, the Tory party boasted over two million members, and even the Liberals had well over 200,000 members.  By 2013 the number of trade union members had fallen to seven million, Tory party membership had plummeted by well over 90% to 134,000, Labour party membership had fallen to 190,000 and the Liberal Democrats had just 43,000 members.

This massive decline in direct political participation has coincided with a large increase in voter apathy. In the mid 1960s fewer than 25% of the electorate refused to vote in General Elections, in the last three General Elections (2001, 2005, 2010) between 35% and 41% of the electorate didn't bother.

There are numerous different potential explanations for the decline in political participation and the rise in voter apathy, but my personal view is that the public have become ever more tired of the three establishment parties, but because the archaic non-proportional voting system 
("safe seats" and "wasted votes") used in Westminster elections has allowed the establishment parties to keep their unbroken monopoly on the levers of power, more and more people have become completely disillusioned with politics in general. 

Since the mid 1990s the three establishment parties have all adhered to almost identical brands of the same right-wing economic orthodoxy (privatisation, financial deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, regressive taxation for the rest, attacks on labour rights and the right to protest and turning a blind-eye to corporate tax-dodging), making the parties ever more indistinguishable from each other. This homogenisation of the three main political parties has made voting look even more like a waste of time, even to the minority who are lucky enough to live in marginal constituencies where their votes are not completely wasted anyway.

One of the strongest illustrations of the uniformity of the three Westminster establishment parties is the way they stood side-by-side to fight against Scottish independence, using the same fearmongering tactics and making the same promises that they had no intention of delivering.

The rise of the non-traditional parties
Since the turn of the Millennium four non-traditional political parties have experience huge increases in their party membership, however one of them, the BNP, suffered an equally rapid decline from their high-water mark of 12,600 members in 2009. The other three, have continued their rise in popularity for well over a decade now.


The rise of UKIP from a small single-issue fringe party of Thatcherite extremists to a party with over 30,000 members and the most seats in the European Parliament of any UK party is as impressive as it is alarming. What makes their rise in popularity so alarming is that a great number of UKIP supporters seem to be completely unaware of what the party stands for, or how the party is funded.

Of course the name tells us that they are an anti-EU party, but the abandonment of their entire 2010 manifesto before the 2014 European Election and their dogged silence on issues like TTIP make it difficult for supporters and critics alike to properly scrutinse their underlying political objectives. For all the effort they've spent trying to make political capital out of child grooming cases to win by-elections, they've done little to publicise and explain what their actual economic policies might be.

One strong indicator that many UKIP voters don't really understand what they're voting for is the fact that 73% of UKIP voters support renationalisation of the rail network (making the average UKIP supporter a lot more left-wing than the leadership of the New Labour party). The problem with this is that the policy of renationalisation is entirely at odds with the extreme-right economic ideology of the UKIP leadership and their financial backers, who are people who consider themselves the heirs to Thatcherism.

Another indicator that a lot of UKIP supporters don't really know what they're supporting is the fact that so many of them describe UKIP as "an alternative" or even "the only alternative" to the Westminster establishment. Imagine how politically confused you'd have to be to believe that "the only alternative" to the establishment is a party led by a privately educated, ex-stock broker and former Tory party activist, stuffed full of Tory party rejects (Neil Hamilton, Roger Helmer, Janice Atkinson, Bill Etheridge and countless more) and bankrolled by a rogues gallery of former Tory party donors.

I imagine that the majority of UKIP voters would reconsider their support for the party if they knew anything about UKIP's appalling voting record in the European parliament (the worst voting record and the lowest attendance record of any party in the entire European Parliament). But it's proven extraordinarily difficult to get Ukippers to read anything that is remotely critical of their party.

UKIP are certainly a non-traditional party, but it is clear that they are not an alternative because they peddle a slightly more extreme version of the same right-wing economic ideology adhered to by the three Westminster establishment parties, and because their ranks and party coffers are so grossly swelled by former Tories and their money.

Although the majority of UKIP voters seem to be confused about the real identity of the party they support, one thing is absolutely clear, UKIP could never have become so popular without a huge amount of public dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the Westminster three.


The rise of the Scottish National Party has been even more dramatic than the emergence of UKIP as a political force. UKIP may now have the more MEPs claiming expenses in the European Parliament than any other UK politcal party, but the SNP is the only party to hold a majority government in the whole UK.

Between 2002 and 2013 SNP membership rose from 16,000 to 25,000, which is a less dramatic rise than UKIP or the Green party have managed, but in that time they have firmly established themselves as the leaders of the Scottish parliament, first with a coalition government in 2007, and then by forming a majority government in 2011 (which many had said was impossible for any party to achieve in the Scottish Parliament).

In the aftermath of the Scottish Independence referendum the SNP reported a huge 66% surge in membership to overtake the Liberal Democrats as the third biggest party in the whole of the UK in terms of membership, which is a remarkable achievement given that the SNP only represent Scottish constituencies, and not constituencies across the whole of Great Britain like the Liberal Democrats do.

In some ways the SNP offer a clear alternative to the Westminster establishment, but in others their agenda looks decidedly orthodox.

There is little political similarity between the SNP and UKIP, however the fundamental issues that drive both parties (Independence from Europe and Independence from the United Kingdom) clearly set them apart from the three establishment parties and allow them to present themselves as "alternatives to the status quo". Another similarity is the way that both of the party leaders have been happy to suck up to Rupert Murdoch, indicating that they're just as willing to subscribe to the crony capitalist economic agenda peddled by the Murdoch press as the three establishment parties have proven themselves to be.

There may be two stark similarities between the SNP and UKIP, but the differences are plain for all too see. The SNP have adopted a centre-left Social Democratic stance that is way to the left of the territory now occupied by the Labour party, while UKIP adhere to an extreme form of the right-wing the Thatcherite ideology that is still hated across the majority of Scotland. Their two forms of nationalism are completely different too. The SNP have striven to present themselves as inclusive civic nationalists focused on making Scotland a better place for all, whilst UKIP have never been afraid to feed off the xenophobia and fear inspired by endlessly harping on about immigrants and Islamist extremists.

I tend to find that one of the most objective ways to judge a political party is through scrutinisation of their voting record. A look at the way that the six SNP representatives have cast their votes in Westminster shows that they have opposed the majority of the most outrageous legislation tabled by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition. Here are a few examples:
  • Bedroom Tax: Despite the SNP and the majority of Scottish MPs voting strongly against this vindictive scheme to financially penalise social tenants for "under-occupation" of their property (even when there are insufficient smaller properties for them to move into), it was still imposed in Scotland.
  • Secret Courts: The SNP were vocal opponents of appallingly illiberal piece of legislation designed to allow courts to decide people's fates without allowing individuals or their lawyers to enter the court, to see the evidence or even to know the charges against them. To put it into perspective how draconian and right-wing these new powers are, even the Daily Mail took an editorial line against Secret Courts describing them as "dangerous", "unnecessary" and "an affront to our liberty"
  • DRIP: When the Labour party once again colluded with the Tories in order to allow the secret services to continue mass-trawling the private communications data of millions of innocent people with complete impunity, the six SNP MPs were among the tiny minority of 51 MPs to vote in opposition.
Despite their impressive voting record in Westminster I still have a lot of doubts about the SNP. For every principled stance against the latest piece of illiberal legislation from the Coalition government, there's an example of them sucking up to people like Rupert Murdoch, Brian Souter or Donald Trump. And for every progressive policy there seems to be some ridiculous scheme like planning to cut corporation tax to 12.5% or talking about TTIP if it's some kind of marvelous opportunity rather than a secretively negotiated corporate power grabPerhaps the change in leadership triggered by Alex Salmond's post-referendum resignation might allow the new SNP to attempt to distance themselves from Rupert Murdoch, and focus on presenting a stronger more coherent alternative to the right-wing economic policies favoured by Murdoch and the three Westminster parties.

The Green Party

Between 2002 and 2013 membership of the Green Party increased from 5,900 to 13,800 and the party gained their first MP (the admirably tireless Caroline Lucas) and they also gained minority control of Brighton Council. 2014 has seen a strong surge in Green party membership. In the nine months to September 2014 the Green Party of England and Wales had a 42% increase (to over 19,300), while the Scottish Green Party saw membership increase an incredible 429% (from 1,178 to 6,237+), largely as a result of their pro-independence stance.

The Green party support both of the main policies that mark UKIP and the SNP out as "alternatives". They support a referendum on membership of the EU and they promote Scottish independence.

In terms of presenting other alternative policies the Green Party beat UKIP and the SNP hands down. I'll outline a few of the policies that really mark them out as a party determined to present a bold progressive alternative to the Westminster consensus.

  • Renationalisation: Despite the relentless pro-privatisation agenda of the Westminster establishment and the mainstream media, the vast majority of the UK public believe in the renationalisation of fundamental services like health, energy infrastructure, public transport and water.

    The Tories and Lib-Dems have totally ignored this widespread public opposition to privatisation in order to privatise the Royal Mail, huge swathes of the NHS, and over 3,000 primary and secondary schools. They also plan to sell off the profitable parts of the probation service too before 2015, if they can get away with it. New Labour kicked off most of these privatisations (PFI hospitals and schools, private sector health providers, academy schools, Royal Mail privatisation plans), and even now, all they dare offer is ridiculous pseudo-socialist tinkring like freezing energy prices for 20 months instead of the renationalisations that the public want to see.

    Anyone expecting UKIP to set off on a renationalisation agenda is living in cloud-cuckoo land. This leaves the Green party as by far the biggest party in the United Kingdom offering the public what they actually want; a party to renationalise vital infrastructure and oppose further privatisations.
  • Basic Income: If the primary objective of the welfare state is to eradicate absolute poverty, and the government is committed to achieving this objective in the simplest and most efficient manner possible, Basic Income is an elegant solution. As far as the Westminster establishment is concerned, the glaring problem with providing all citizens an unconditional basic income is that it completely removes their ability to coerce the public into working for low wages, or for no wages through the threat of absolute destitution.

    Studies have shown that Basic Income helps to promote entrepreneurship and small business creation, and that the only people who choose to work less when their basic needs are met are youngsters in full-time education and the mothers of young children. The Green party have accepted the evidence and adopted Basic Income as one of their core policies. The Westminster establishment on the other hand would rather everyone believe their narrative that the unemployed are feckless layabouts who need to be punished and abused into working for no wages at giant multinational corporations (like Warburg Pincus, the US based owner of Poundland) in order to teach them a lesson about the value of hard work. 
  • Opposition to TTIP: Another thing that makes the Green party really stand out as an alternative is the fact that they are by far the biggest party to explicitly oppose the TTIP corporate power grab. The Tories and the Lib-Dems are firmly in favour of it, the SNP have made lots of positive noises about it, the UKIP leadership have remained completely silent about it (because openly expressing their support would betray their utter hypocrisy) and the Labour party only seem to want to ensure an exemption for the NHS. The Green Party are the largest political party to explicitly oppose TTIP, rather than openly supporting it, refusing to talk about it, or cherry-picking one small aspect to quibble about whilst supporting the rest of it. 
In blind tests it turned out that the Green Party has by far the most popular policies, however hardly anyone votes for them. In my view two of the main problems are the fact that the mainstream media completely ignore them, and that when they are talked about, people like to lazily caricature them as a bunch of hopeless tree-hugging hippies instead of spending a few minutes bothering to learn anything about their actual policies.

Aside from offering genuine alternatives in this era of economic uniformity, the Green party has the additional appeal that unlike Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond, the leader of the Green Party has never been seen cavorting and cosying up to Rupert Murdoch, which is probably one of the reasons that they are ruthlessly excluded the political coverage provided by the Murdoch empire.

How the establishment parties have maintained their grip on power

In this section I'm going to briefly outline some of the factors that have allowed the Westminster establishment parties to maintain their grip on political power, despite the fact that they have seen their combined party membership drop from almost 10% of the electorate in the mid 1960s to just 0.8% in 2013.

Our laughably outdated voting system: The single most important factor that has allowed the three establishment parties to keep their stranglehold on political power is the archaic and non-proportional voting system used in Westminster elections. A voting system that marginalises the majority of voters into "safe seats" where their votes don't count is an ideal system for resisting political change. Even if some 20% of the public across the entire UK voted for a new political party, they'd be lucky to win a single seat out of 650.

The House of Lords: The House of Lords is an absolute joke of an institution. The idea that the Prime Minster of the day can appoint as many members as he likes to the institution that is supposed to hold his government to account is complelely absurd. Some 90% of the current Lords have been appointed by just eleven Prime Ministers, and the only even remotely democratic element is the fact that the 92 hereditary peers get to elect hereditary replacements for deceased members. However in order to qualify for the hereditary peer election process the candidate must come from an old establishment family. People in countries with elected upper houses (the majority of the world) must find our bloated, shambolic and profoundly anti-democratic House of Lords quite extraordinary.

Our malleable political constitution: The fact that the UK has no single political constitution means that what passes for our constitution is highly flexible and can be continuously amended to suit the interests of the ruling minority. The constitutional safeguards that mitigate the excesses of the ruling establishment in other countries can simply be rewritten or removed from the UK constitution.

Lack of English devolution: One of the most ridiculous results of the malleable UK constitution is that England suffers an extraordinary democratic deficit in comparison to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these countries has their own proportionally elected parliaments, whilst England has none. The devolution of some political powers to smaller national parliaments with modern voting systems has allowed the public to elect members of alternative parties. If England had a parliament of its own, or a number of regional parliaments, then the English electorate could elect alternative parties too. The results of the 2014 European election demonstrate that when the English electorate are allowed to vote in a fair voting system, non-traditional parties can do very well indeed (UKIP finished first, and the Green Party leapfrogged the Liberal Democrats into 4th place). Given the success of the SNP in Scotland and the non-traditional parties in the European elections, it's absolutely no wonder that none of the three establishment parties want to loosen their stranglehold on political power by allowing English devolution.

Mainstream media complicity: One of the really big factors that keeps the Westminster establishment in power is the bias of the mainstream media. The public are continually drip-fed with the assumptions that underpin the right-wing economic agenda that has become the Westminster consensus. If any politician or political party steps out of line they are either vilified or just completely ignored by the mainstream press. The complicity of the mainstream media can be summarised with a Noam Chomsky quote; "the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum".

Fearmongering tactics: The Scottish independence referendum was a classic example of how the Westminster establishment use fearmongering tactics to maintain their grip on political power. After I wrote an article describing the Scottish independence debate as a contrast between hope and fear, a lot of unionists criticised me for it, saying that it was unfair to describe the No campaign as a campaign of fear. After the independence referendum concluded, the director of the No campaign publicly admitted that fearmongering tactics were essential to the success of the anti-independence campaign. A look at the demographics show that the majority of under-55s voted for independence, whilst a large majority of over-55s responded to the "fear-bombing" campaign about how their pensions would fail in an independent Scotland, and voted no, meaning that the Westminster establishment could keep overall control of the Scottish economy.

What can we do about it?

The first and most obvious tactic is to stop voting for the three establishment parties. If you vote for any of them, you're voting for the continuation of the unacceptable status quo.

Another strategy could be to write to your political representatives (your local MP, your regional MEPs ...) and urge them to support constitutional reforms such as electoral reform, the democratisation of the House of Lords, and/or the establishment of a devolved English parliament, or regional parliaments.

If you've become so disillusioned with politics that you no longer vote in elections, it is worth considering casting your vote for a smaller party to register your discontent with the system, rather than just staying away from the polling station altogether and getting lumped in with those who are too ignorant or apathetic to bother voting. Non-participation is a particularly poor form of protest because it simply hands more political power to those who can be bothered to vote. Even if 99.2% of the public refused to vote, the 0.8% who are paid up members of the establishment parties would still vote for their own parties and maintain their grip on political power.

Another thing you could do is to become a non-traditional political party, or even to become a party activist. The more support the smaller parties get, the more votes they are likely to receive, and more opposition they will be able to offer against the Westminster establishment parties.

I know that my suggested solutions involve political engagement of one sort or another, so I'll leave you with this quote from Plato by way of explanation: "
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors".

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Reasons to vote alternative
Why 73% of UKIP voters should actually vote Green
The "New Labour are left-wing" myth

A letter to fans of Workfare
The "unpatriotic left" fallacy 
Why don't UKIP oppose TTIP?
Why the rise of Podemos in Spain should be an inspiration to the UK left
TTIP and the EUs contempt for democracy
The Tory ideological mission
Margaret Thatcher's toxic neoliberal legacies

Note: I used this source for a lot of the party membership statistics

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