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 tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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