What is a Participation Crisis?
A participation crisis refers to a decline in the number of people actively engaging in political activities or voting in elections. It is a cause for concern as it indicates a lack of interest or trust in the political system, which can have far-reaching consequences for democracy. As a result, the debate surrounding a participation crisis is one that many political parties and democratic organisations take very seriously.
This article will look into whether the UK is experiencing a participation crisis, and the alternative ways in which people are voicing their opinions.
Turnout at UK General Elections
In recent years, the United Kingdom has experienced a worrying pattern of low voter turnout in general elections. While the turnout was relatively high in the mid-20th century, with rates reaching over 80%, there has been a significant decline since then.
In the 2019 general election, for example, the turnout was only 67.3%, the lowest since the 2001 election. This means that more than 30% of eligible voters did not exercise their right to vote. The trend of decreasing turnout has been observed in previous elections as well. The most recent high for turnout was in 1992, in which 77.7% of the electorate went out to vote. Turnout has not been this high since.
Low turnout would indicate a participation crisis, as it is the best way people can directly affect the political system. If people aren’t going out to vote in a general election, then this could be evidence towards dissatisfaction, or apathy, towards the political system.
Reasons for Low Turnout
There are several factors that contribute to the low turnout and participation crisis in UK general elections. One of the main reasons is a lack of trust in politicians and the political system. Many people feel disillusioned and believe that their vote will not make a difference.
Furthermore, there is a perception that politicians do not represent the interests of the general population but rather serve the interests of a privileged few. This has led to a sense of apathy and disengagement among the electorate. This issue was best highlighted in the 2008 expenses scandal when it emerged that many MPs were using taxpayers’ money to pay for luxury or unnecessary items.
Alternative Ways of Participating in Politics
While traditional forms of political participation, such as voting in elections, have seen a decline, there are alternative methods through which people are engaging in political issues in the UK. These reasons could be evidence that there is no participation crisis in the UK.
One such method is through e-petitions. E-petitions allow individuals to create or sign online petitions on various issues. These petitions, depending on their levels of support, can then be presented to the government, forcing them to respond. Alternatively, if a petition receives 100,000 votes, parliament will consider it for debate. E-petitions have gained popularity in recent years as they provide a platform for people to voice their concerns and influence decision-making.
A successful e-petition was one regarding the use of glue traps on animals. After receiving 10,000 votes the petition got a response from the government, and the issue was later debated in parliament. It has resulted in glue traps becoming illegal to use in the UK
Social media has also emerged as a powerful tool for political participation. Platforms like X (Twitter) and Facebook enable individuals to connect with politicians, share their views, and participate in political discussions. Social media has the advantage of reaching a wider audience and facilitating grassroots movements. Therefore, the increased levels of discussion could be evidence that a participation crisis is not present, but people are moving their participation to different platforms and places.
The Impact of Alternative Participation
While e-petitions and social media offer new avenues for political participation, it is important to recognise their limitations. They do not replace the need for active engagement in democratic processes, such as voting in elections. So it may be true that there is a participation crisis in traditional democracy.
However, these alternative methods have the potential to engage a broader section of the population, particularly younger generations who are more digitally savvy. They provide an opportunity for individuals to have their voices heard and contribute to the political discourse.
So, is there a participation crisis in the UK?
The declining turnout at UK general elections is a cause for concern and indicative of a participation crisis. While there are various reasons for this decline, alternative methods of political participation, such as e-petitions and social media, offer hope for increased engagement.
If you want to learn more about the debate surrounding a participation crisis and other discussions in British politics, check out our UK Politics course. With plenty of audio, video and text-based learning, we are here to help A Level Politics students!