What politics needs – Part I: Participation

Written by: Marc Stears on 10 May, 2012
Filed under Democracy

“Oh, no, I don’t vote.”  That’s how people chose to respond to the BBC’s Allegra Stratton’s enquiry as to why they didn’t participate in last week’s elections. Not, “I didn’t have the time” or “I didn’t like the candidates” or even just “I didn’t want to vote this time”. But “I don’t vote.” As Stratton said, it was a lifestyle choice.

This is the greatest challenge now facing Ed Miliband and the Labour Party after an otherwise excellent electoral performance. It is not enough for the people of Britain to reject the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. They must begin to believe that it is worth making a positive effort for Labour once again. And at the moment far too few people think that. In fact, when it comes to local elections, the vast majority would prefer not to participate at all. Labour isn’t for them. Politics itself isn’t for them.

Turning that feeling around will take more than a policy review and more than a few good speeches. It will take a transformation in the way that Labour conducts its politics.

For far too long, politicians have believed that the way to attract the public is by finding out what a large number of them want in a focus group or an opinion poll, then passing that information to self-described “policy-makers” who dream up a programme that seems to fit and which is then sold back to the electorate as slickly as possible. That was the kind of politics that seemed to work so well for Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.

We now know, though, the problem with this approach. It kills the very features of our democratic life that encourage people to participate.

The first feature it kills is the sense that participation makes a difference. Why should we bother to get out and vote, let alone knock on doors, staff polling stations, make speeches or convert our friends, if everything that really matters is decided by a gaggle of political elites and their opinion pollsters?

What people need to participate in politics is power. They need to feel that things which really matter have a chance of being shaped according to their own aspirations, on their own terms, as a result of their own efforts. The desiccated party politics of the last few decades simply doesn’t deliver anything close to that feeling.

The revival of Labour Party politics will begin, therefore, when more and more people really believe that they have a chance of meaningful influence.

That will happen only when they have practical opportunities to campaign directly and personally on issues that they care about.

The living wage campaign has seized people’s imagination for just this reason and the party should be radically expanding beyond its original London base. Ed Miliband’s idea of local Labour parties working together with community groups to tackle fuel poverty through collective purchasing of electricity is another excellent starting point.

Proper party reform enabling people to play an active role in candidate selection at all levels would play a crucial part too. Encouraging local parties to listen intently to their own communities and to act immediately on their concerns way beyond the electoral cycle would be the culmination of this transformation.

For too long, many of our elite politicians have presumed that participation has had its day. People don’t have the time or the inclination to get involved, they’ve argued. More people vote on Britain’s Got Talent than in formal elections, they’ve complained.

Now is the time to put that initially self-serving but ultimately self-defetating myth to rest. Now is the time to start building a new politics of participation.

Marc Stears is a professor of political theory at the University of Oxford.

Read the second part of Marc’s argument here.