PCC elections reinforce need for proper discourse on British democracy

I listened with intent this morning as Damian Green MP did the rounds on television.  He had the unenviable job of trying to paper over the cracks that have emerged since yesterday’s Police Crime Commissioner elections.  These elections have proved, once again, that we need a real conversation in this country about our democracy.

Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are another bright idea of this Coalition government, first confirmed as Conservative policy way back in 2010.  On paper, it sounds wonderful – making democracy more local, having an assigned person in control of policing priorities for specific areas.  Well and good.  But the success of such policies hinges on a naive belief that local electorates are interested and educated enough about PCCs to want to vote in such elections.

PCC elections took place yesterday across a swathe of localities.  Turnout was expected to be 18.5 per cent according to the Electoral Reform Society – but the first few results have proved this to have been an optimistic estimate at best.  In Wiltshire, turnout was just 15.2 per cent – 78,794 people voted out of a possible 520,000 registered voters.  In Greater Manchester, turnout was 13.5 per cent.  In the West Midlands, this figure dropped lower, with some election turnouts at a meagre 12 per cent.

So I was highly amused this morning to hear Mr Green come out with this hilarious quote:

“The measure of this policy is not the turnout, it’s what the police and crime commissioners achieve over the next few years.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20352539)

Amazing.  Yes, Mr Green, we’re all looking forward to seeing how this experimental policy plays out over the next few years.  But what you fail to understand that, actually, the success of a policy must begin with its own legitimacy.  How can we seriously say that PCCs have a right to decide force budgets, appoint chief constables, and set local policing priorities when barely 15 per cent of the electorate gave them a vote?  How can an MP imply on live TV that a core tenet of our democracy can be dismissed as long as a policy is successful?  If you’re willing to admit on national television that turnout – whatever number – can be overlooked, what other democratic processes are similarly being overlooked?

These elections again prove the need for a proper discussion on where democracy is heading in this country.  I have read from a range of sources about the reasons people did not turn out for these elections.  Many voters did not know what they were being asked to vote for.  Candidates were unknown to potential voters.  Information was not given out on candidates and their manifestos.  How can we ever expect people to get out and vote when they don’t know what they’re voting for?

We had a similar situation with the electoral system elections and I fear that we will see a continuation of decreasing turnout in parliamentary and European elections.  We need to seize this opportunity in the wake of the PCC election results to ensure that your average Joe on the street is informed about why they’re voting, what exactly – in the most explicit terms – they are voting for, and who their choices are as candidates.  This is especially important in the case of PCCs, some of whom will be earning a £100,000 pay packet in these roles.

Apathy and disenfranchisement are crippling our democracy.  Confidence in our elected officials is at a low.  It is absolutely crucial to the future of the British political system that action is taken now to prevent these turnout figures being repeated elsewhere.  Tackling apathy starts in the classroom.  We must arm future generations with the basic facts about the country they live in and the democracy within which they will eventually participate.  If we cannot do this, then we are betraying the democracy and the freedoms which we have fought hard to keep over successive centuries.  It’s time to act now.

Voting

This blog seems to be turning into a series of rants about what’s wrong with the British political system today.  Yesterday’s blog got me thinking about voting and the problems we’ve experienced in this country, which invariably relate to disillusionment and ignorance.

Voting turnout has been on the decline since the early 1990s, and dropped to a historic low in 2001 when turnout of registered voters was just 59.4 per cent.  In 2005, this figure rose to 61.3 per cent, and in 2010 rose again to 65.1 per cent.  Turnout for the recent referendum on the voting system – 42.2 per cent – exposed a deep apathy  in our country towards the country’s political system.   Many people expressed confusion about the referendum, its purpose and its consequences.  This is a complex issue and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.  But how can we ask our citizens to vote on electoral reform when so many don’t even understand what electoral reform is?

I doubt we’ll ever see a return to the days when turnout reached high percentages during the 1950s.  But I think there is one fundamental change to be enacted within our education system which could improve both voter turnout and wider political engagement.

Quite simply, some form of politics/sociology/citizenship module needs to become compulsory in secondary schools.  I remember doing some work on citizenship during my high school years, alas it was neither memorable nor in-depth.  Young people need to be taught from an early age about the basics of politics – our institutions, their history, elections, political parties, and wider concepts within the political echelon (ideas of freedom, equality etc).  No doubt this will lead to criticisms along the lines of “brainwashing kids” and encouraging them to lean left or right depending on the personal political views of their teacher.  Steps would need to be taken to keep this in check.  I know from experience how this can happen.  My A Level politics teacher was unashamedly left wing and this did have an effect on our class.  By the time we left college, I would say 80% of our class had left or centre left views.

Not all pupils will enjoy this, and many will hate it and find it boring, but kids say the same things about a variety of school subjects.  I loathed maths (and still do).  But this knowledge has to be provided, at least.  Should pupils choose to reject it, then that is their prerogative.  We tried.  We gave them some basic knowledge about what politics means and how it affects our day-to-day lives.  Until we offer this as a mandatory part of secondary school education, we will continue to fail future generations.