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 clever ideological trick that could save the Labour party

The Co-operative party could suddenly get a lot more popular. 

It’s do or die for the party’s moderate MPs, who have lost the fight for the soul of Labour and must quickly move on. 

The 172 Labour MPs who backed a no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year may not like their newly elected party leader much, but they loathe John McDonnell. 

So it is little surprise that one of them, John Woodcock, reportedly looked “sick to the stomach” when the Shadow Chancellor tenderly invited him for a cuppa in his office following the leadership election result at conference. Reading the tea leaves tells me those talks aren’t going to go well.  

Yet moderate MPs would do well to revisit McDonnell’s off-the-cuff comments from a few years back: “I’m not in the Labour party because I’m a believer of the Labour party as some supreme body or something God-given or anything like that,” he told a small audience in 2012. “It’s a tactic. It’s as simple as that. If it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on.” 

Two feather-spitting former frontbenchers called for McDonnell’s resignation when these comments emerged in March, saying they revealed his Trotskyist tendencies. "The context (a hard-left gathering) and the company (which included Gerry Downing, expelled from Labour for his comments on 9/11) didn’t make for great publicity, no," a Leader’s Office staffer privately confesses. 

But McDonnell is right: There is nothing necessary, natural or divinely ordained about Labour’s existence lest it can get things done. Which is why the parliamentary Labour party cannot botch its next attempt at power. 

In the wake of Corbyn’s re-election, Labour MPs face a fork-in-the-road: fight this civil war until its bitter end - play the long game, wait until Labour loses the next general election and challenge Corbyn again - or start afresh. 

It is a bleak, binary choice, akin to a doctor delivering test results and declaring the illness is terminal as feared: the patient can go down fighting and die a slow death, notwithstanding a medical miracle, or instead take part in a pioneering new drug trial. This carries the risk of dying immediately but promises the possibility of life as well. Both options are fraught with danger.

The problem with the first option is that moderates have all but lost the party already. A poll reveals Corbyn won 85 per cent - 15 per cent among members who joined after he became party leader and lost 37 per cent - 63 per cent among those who were members of the party before the last general election. The result: victory by 119,000 votes. 

Corbyn has already announced he wants to give these foot soldiers far greater firepower and told Andrew Marr he had asked the NEC to draft plans for increasing the membership and including it in “all aspects of party decision making”. Labour is transitioning apace into a social movement: free of formal hierarchy and ambivalent about parliamentary power. 

So why wait until 2020? There is every chance that MPs won’t any longer have the power to challenge to Corbyn within four years’ time. If Momentum has its way with reselection and shadow cabinet elections, leading rebels may not be around to begin with. 

Even if MPs mount another leadership challenge, few believe organisations like Saving Labour or Labour First could put together a sizeable enough electorate to outgun Corbyn at the ballot box. He would be voted back in by a landslide. 

The alternative is for MPs to create a new centre-left force. The main plan under consideration is to join the Cooperative party, Labour’s sister party, and sit as a bloc of “double hatted” MPs, with their own policy agenda on Brexit and the economy. This new bloc would apply to the Speaker to become the official opposition. 

Plenty of MPs and members recoil at the idea of a semi-split like this because of the mixed message it would send to voters on the doorstep. "So you don’t have faith in Corbyn, but you’re a Co-op MP campaigning on behalf of his Labour?" Many believe a full-split would be worse. They fear being pitted against Corbyn-backed Labour candidates in local constituencies and splitting the left vote, opening the door to Ukip or the Conservatives in marginal seats. 

But if moderate MPs mean what they say when they warn of total electoral wipeout in 2020, risking a new centre-left grouping is intuitively worth it.  What do they have to lose? And how many more times can Labour’s moderates cry wolf - Labour "risks extinction", Sadiq Khan said yesterday - until voters call their bluff and tell them to quit complaining and fall in line behind their leader? 

While Corbyn’s polling remains disastrous, a Co-op/Labour party would boast a mandate of 9.3m people, a policy agenda in line with Britain’s political centre of gravity and a chance of becoming the official opposition: a risk worth taking in the face of electoral oblivion. 

A handful of battle-bruised MPs are talking about coming together. "Time to unite," a deflated Hilary Benn tweeted this weekend. There is a precedent for this: first past the post means the party has always been composed of uneasy coalitions of different groups - take the trade unionists, liberal cosmopolites and ethnic minorities of the New Labour years - and it is arguably no different now.  

Yet this is not about a coalition of diverse interests. It is about two parties within a party, each of which believes Labour is their rightful inheritance. Of the two, moderates are least likely to gain anything by engaging in an all out war. It is time they took a leaf out of McDonnell’s book and accepted it is time, regrettably, "to move on". 

Gabriel Pogrund is a journalist at The Sunday Times and a Google News Fellow 2016.