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.

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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.

Mathew Lawrence is a founder of Common Wealth, a think tank designing ownership models for a democratic and sustainable economy.