Democracy in Britain is in serious trouble. Falling turnout at elections, dramatic falls in party membership and a growing cynicism about politician of all parties – all signs that faith in our entire political system is at an all time low. At the same time, governments of all persuasions have taken more and more decisions away from local communities, further removing people from any influence over issues affecting their lives.
Democracy in trouble: the facts
From the end of WWII until 1997, the average turnout at General Elections was over 76%, peaking at 83% in 1950. In contrast, in the last two General Elections, just 60% of the electorate voted. And for local elections, it is rare for more than a third of electors to turn up to the polling station. At the 2005 General Election, turnout among the less affluent was 54% while the percentage of those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who voted was just 47%. Even worse, a mere 37% of those aged 18-24 bothered to take part.
For local and European elections, turnout has been low for decades with rarely more than a third of electors turning up to cast their votes.
Membership of political parties has dropped even more dramatically. Across the main political parties, membership is now less than a quarter of the level seen in the mid-1960s. Membership of the Labour Party peaked at over 1 million in the 1950s but is now around 200,000. The Conservatives had more than 2 million members in the 1960s but by 2001 this had fallen to 300,000.
Trust in politicians has also plumbed new depths. A MORI poll in 2005 found that only 20% of people trust politicians to tell the truth.
There is also a growing cynicism about politicians. A Hansard Society poll last year found that only a third of people believe the “present system of governing works well”.
Power has also been inexorably shifting away from local government towards the centre. It is now central government that takes decisions about schools, roads, housing and hospitals – decisions that affect all our lives – where once these were matters decided locally. For most people, this means they believe they can have no real impact at a local level in influencing matters affecting them and their communities.
In short, there is a serious problem.
Yet paradoxically, there are huge numbers of people who are actively involved outside the formal democratic system. Membership of groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace has risen tenfold in the last 20 years while millions of people have taken part in demonstrations against Iraq and for the countryside. Twenty million people volunteer formally or informally every month. According to the POWER Commission's research, even among those who are supposedly most apathetic – those who do not vote in general elections – 37% were members of, or active in a charity, community group or campaigning organisation.
The Hansard Society research found that 56% of people were “interested in politics” and a majority have engaged in some level of political activity, from signing a petition to attending a political meeting.
So it is not that people have given up on politics entirely. It is just the current system that is acting as a turn off.
That is why we believe it is time for a change. It is time for politicians to share power with the people. OUR SAY proposals would give people real power over the most important issues affecting their communities – if you want to join our campaign, click here.
Do you want to "punish" the PM?
Ever wanted to make politicians feel the true impact of their policies? Or think that too many MPs live in their own world, isolated from the daily experiences of the rest of the population? Over-crowded tubes, dangerous streets, endless tax bills... the list is endless. Well, now you have the chance to get your own back. OUR SAY has developed a new website that lets you make Gordon Brown live in the real world - and you can sign our petition to support citizens initiatives at the same time. So if you want to "punish" the PM, click here.
Gordon Brown endorses Citizens Initiatives at a local level
In his first major speech on constitutional changes, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown has given a clear indication of his support for Citizens Initiatives at a local level. Gordon Brown proposed in the speech on 3rd July that people would be able to initiate changes at a local level through a new "community right to call for action" as well as new powers to give electors a vote on spending decisions over neighbourhood and youth budgets. In September, the Conservatives produced similar proposals, again endorsing local referendums, in their Quality of Life policy proposals.
Zac Goldsmith endorses local referendums
The renowned environmental campaigner, Zac Goldsmith, has backed local referendums as a means of giving people a say over community wide issues. In an article in the Daily Telegraph, Zac Goldsmith argues that planning issues are the best type of decision to be made by local polls. To read the full article, click here.
More Democracy = More Happiness
A new study by Professor Matt Qvortrup has established a link between direct democracy and happiness. The study, entitled the Voting Happiness Index, found that people living US states that used Citizens' Initiatives were significantly happier than those that did not use this form of direct democracy. Click here for the full story.
Put road pricing to public vote
The Government should put any road pricing proposals to a public vote following the news that one million people had signed a petition on the 10 Downing Street e-petition website opposing a road pricing scheme. Saira Khan thinks that letting the public decide would ensure that all the arguments were properly debated and would be a real legacy for the Prime Minister to leave. For the full story click here. Read Charles Moore's piece on the issue in this week's Spectator or Martin Bright in the New Statesman. Saira has also written a piece in The Guardian.
Why not support OUR SAY's petition for Citizens' Initiatives - you can log onto Downing Street's website here.
Time for supply side politics?
The Centre for Policy Studies has published a new pamphlet, Supply side politics, advocating the introduction of Citizens' Initiatives as a way of tackling disillusionment with democracy. The book is written by Professor Matt Qvortrup and argues that if Britain were to introduce this form of direct democracy it would increase turnout and improve the quality of political decisions. Copies of the book are available from the CPS website or more information here or read Peter Riddell's piece in The Times.
Helena Kennedy supports Citizens' Initiatives to revive democracy
Helena Kennedy has backed Citizens Initiatives to help revive democracy in Britain. Her support came as part of the launch of a new campaign - makeitanissue - around the proposals contained in the Power Inquiry's report last year. In an article in The Independent, she argues that it is time for politicians to share some power: "from climate change to crime, people want a proper debate and want contribute to decisions". Read Helena's article in The Independent here or log onto the Power Inquiry's campaign here.
Campaign launch wins support
OUR SAY was launched in September 2006 to push for much greater use of referendums on issues of public interest. The campaign is the brainchild of Saira Khan, star of The Apprentice and commentator on current affairs. Saira's article in The Times - click here - outlines how "citizen's initiatives" offer a constructive way of giving people a renewed stake in the democratic process at a time when confidence in politics in Britain is at a low ebb. The campaign has attracted supporters from across the political spectrum.