A first-time voter goes to the polls in 1970, the first year that eighteen year olds were able to vote. Photo:Getty
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British democracy is nearing a crisis point

The young and the poor are increasingly turning away from democratic politics, incentivising politicians to focus on the rich and the old.

If Yeats was alive and observing the general election today he may well ask ‘what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Westminster to be born?’ Falling participation rates, declining belief in the efficacy of democracy generally and political parties in particular, growing electoral inequality – all are worrying symptoms of a deeper problem: stark, ingrained levels of political inequality in our political system that threatens the integrity of the democratic process. As the phony war ends then and electoral battle is joined in earnest – hi-vis jackets and all - we risk sleepwalking towards a divided democracy. 

Political inequality is where despite procedural equality in the democratic process, certain groups, classes or individuals nonetheless have greater influence over and participate more in political decision-making processes, with policy outcomes systematically weighted in their favour. As such, it undermines a central democratic ideal: that all citizens, regardless of status, should be given equal consideration in and opportunity to influence collective political decision-making.  

IPPR’s new report, Political Inequality: Why British democracy must be reformed and revitalized, shows the growing scale of the problem: in 1987, there was only a four-point gap in the turnout rate between the highest income quintile and the poorest; by 2010 this had jumped to 23 points. Meanwhile just 44 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election, compared to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over, almost double the gap from the 1970s. Despite the admirable efforts of groups like Bite the Ballot, the warning lights are flashing: on current predictions, the pattern of stark turnout inequalities by age and class is set to repeat itself.

The perception from some parts of society that democracy is rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and the well connected arguably underpins growing electoral inequality. For example, our new polling with YouGov suggests only one in four DE individuals believe democracy addresses their interests well, almost half the rate of AB voters. A striking 63 per cent of DE voters think it serves their interests badly, while less than one in ten think politicians understand the lives of people like themselves.

Political inequality is, of course, a broader phenomenon than just turnout inequality or perceptions about the efficacy of democracy.  Yet as our report makes clear, the same pattern repeats itself in many facets of political life. Whether it is in who funds political parties, who participates in political activity more broadly, who is represented in elected office, or who has access to political decision-makers, the young and less well-off are systematically under-represented. By contrast, wealthier and older citizens enjoy disproportionate influence over the political process.

Although an unfamiliar concept in the British context, then, IPPR’s new report argues that political inequality offers a new lens to understand familiar debates during the general election about political disenchantment and electoral disengagement, suggesting there are deeper structural reasons for these phenomena than simply a dislike of today’s political class or public apathy. Rather they are rooted in inequalities within how our democracy actually operates, with some groups having more influence over – and consequently benefiting more from – government decision-making than others, through sustained, differing levels of participation, representation and voice in the political process.

Regardless of the outcome in May, reversing political inequality is central to broader democratic renewal. That will require more than discrete constitutional reform of the institutions and practices of representative democracy to reverse political inequality. Countervailing democratic institutions and practices that are more participatory, deliberative and powerful will have to be experimented with that can better disperse and democratise political power, both within but also beyond the channels of representative democracy. 

Similarly, reform must be far more attentive to redressing class and age-based inequalities of influence. This might require radical institutional intervention, such as IPPR’s argument in favour compulsory first time voting, to reverse electoral inequality and substantively boost the influence of the presently politically excluded.

Last week, US President Barak Obama said “it would be transformative if everybody voted. If everyone voted, that would completely change the political map in this country.” He’s not wrong. “The people who tend not to vote are young, they're lower income, they're skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” he said. “There's a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls." America is already a divided democracy, and the UK is headed in the same direction.

Mathew Lawrence works at the IPPR. He tweets at @dantonshead.

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The 8 bits of good news about integration buried in the Casey Review

It's not all Trojan Horses.

The government-commissioned Casey Review on integration tackles serious subjects, from honour crimes to discrimination and hate crime.

It outlines how deprivation, discrimination, segregated schools and unenlightened traditions can drag certain British-Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities into isolation. 

It shines a light on nepotistic local politics, which only entrench religious and gender segregation. It also charts the hurdles faced by ethnic minorities from school, to university and the workplace. There is no doubt it makes uncomfortable reading. 

But at a time when the negative consequences of immigration are dominating headlines, it’s easy to miss some of the more optimistic trends the Casey Report uncovered:

1. You can always have more friends

For all the talk of segregation, 82 per cent of us socialise at least once a month with people from a different ethnic and religious background, according to the Citizenship Survey 2010-11.

More than half of first generation migrants had friends of a different ethnicity. As for their children, nearly three quarters were friends with people from other ethnic backgrounds. Younger people with higher levels of education and better wages are most likely to have close inter-ethnic friendships. 

Brits from Black African and Mixed ethnic backgrounds are the most sociable it seems, as they are most likely to have friends from outside their neighbourhood. White British and Irish ethnic groups, on the other hand, are least likely to have ethnically-mixed social networks. 

Moving away from home seemed to be a key factor in diversifying your friendship group –18 to 34s were the most ethnically integrated age group. 

2. Integrated schools help

The Casey Review tells the story of how schools can distort a community’s view of the world, such as the mostly Asian high school where pupils thought 90 per cent of Brits were Asian (the actual figure is 7 per cent), and the Trojan Horse affair, where hardline Muslims were accused of dominating the curriculum of a state school (the exact facts have never come to light). 

But on the other hand, schools that are integrated, can change a whole community’s perspective. A study in Oldham found that when two schools were merged to create a more balanced pupil population between White Brits and British Asians, the level of anxiety both groups felt diminished. 

3. And kids are doing better at school

The Casey Report notes: “In recent years there has been a general improvement in educational attainment in schools, with a narrowing in the gap between White pupils and pupils from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and African/Caribbean/Black ethnic backgrounds.”

A number of ethnic minority groups, including pupils of Chinese, Indian, Irish and Bangladeshi ethnicity, outperformed White British pupils (but not White Gypsy and Roma pupils, who had the lowest attainment levels of all). 

4. Most people feel part of a community

Despite the talk of a divided society, in 2015-16, 89 per cent of people thought their community was cohesive, according to the Community Life Survey, and agreed their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together. This feeling of cohesiveness is actually higher than in 2003, at the height of New Labour multiculturalism, when the figure stood at 80 per cent. 

5. Muslims are sticklers for the law

Much of the Casey Report dealt with the divisions between British Muslims and other communities, on matters of culture, religious extremism and equality. It also looked at the Islamophobia and discrimination Muslims face in the UK. 

However, while the cultural and ideological clashes may be real, a ComRes/BBC poll in 2015 found that 95 per cent of British Muslims felt loyal to Britain and 93 per cent believed Muslims in Britain should always obey British laws. 

6. Employment prospects are improving

The Casey Review rightly notes the discrimination faced by jobseekers, such as study which found CVs with white-sounding names had a better rate of reply. Brits from Black, Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds are more likely to be unemployed than Whites. 

However, the employment gap between ethnic minorities and White Brits has narrowed over the last decade, from 15.6 per cent in 2004 to 12.8 per cent in 2015. 

In October 2015, public and private sector employers responsible for employing 1.8m people signed a pledge to operate recruitment on a “name blind” basis. 

7. Pretty much everyone understand this

According to the 2011 census, 91.6 per cent of adults in England and Wales had English as their main language. And 98.2 per cent of them could speak English. 

Since 2008-2009, most non-European migrants coming to the UK have to meet English requirements as part of the immigration process. 

8. Oh, and there’s a British Muslim Mayor ready to tackle integration head on

The Casey Review criticised British Asian community leaders in northern towns for preventing proper discussion of equality and in some cases preventing women from launching rival bids for a council seat.

But it also quoted Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, and a British Muslim. Khan criticised religious families that force children to adopt a certain lifestyle, and he concluded:

"There is no other city in the world where I would want to raise my daughters than London.

"They have rights, they have protection, the right to wear what they like, think what they like, to meet who they like, to study what they like, more than they would in any other country.”

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.