The Resurgence of UK Democracy
Democracy in the UK has been on a rocky road in recent years. Historically, turnout in recent decades when it comes to elections has never been particularly good. Turnout in general elections fell on average from 75% between 1945 and 1997, to a very poor 59% in 2001.Though it has improved since, it marked a very low period in democratic participation. Meanwhile, engagement in referendums has been rather fluctuant, from the disappointing 42% turnout in the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011, to the impressive 84% turnout during the Scottish Referendum in 2014. From the 2014 referendum onwards, however, turnout has increased noticeably, with the 2017 general election having the highest turnout since 1997 at 69%. And with the UK now participating in European Parliament electionslater this year in light of an extension to Brexit negotiations, turnout could potentially be at its highest in the history of this election. In other words, the UK might just be entering a revival period of democratic participation and it is very necessary given the lingering uncertainty over Brexit and the performance of this government and other political parties.
So how do we keep the momentum going forward with regards to improving participation in elections and indeed democracy? Looking at several solutions, one in particular appears to be lowering the voting age to 16. This occurred during the 2014 Scottish Referendum, which saw 75% of 16 to 18-year-olds vote, a promising indication of young people being more interested in politics. Considering that at 16 you can get married and join the military, albeit with certain conditions such as not being able to go to the frontline or requiring parental consent to marriage, voting in elections might connect well with these other opportunities and responsibilities at this age. On the other hand, critics argue that being 16 is not the point of complete independence, and that it is too young, and the lack of life experience means that they are more easily swayed to idealistic visions. Nevertheless, it could be the key to unlocking greater youth participation in democracy, and that sets a very important precedent for decades to come.
Another solution could be compulsory voting, which is in effect in countries such as Australia and Argentina. In Australia, those over the age of 18 are legally obligated to vote on election day or are subject to fines. This has led to turnout ranging between 94% and 96%.This could be a positive in the UK as it will ensure stronger mandates for government, it will force all political parties to broaden their target base, and it will promote voting as a civic duty in similar ways to taxation for example. On the other hand, it arguably undermines democracy by forcing someone to do something they may not want to do. It may also lead to a decline in the quality of votes, as many might spoil their ballots. Fundamentally, the issue of informed voting will remain a problem as many who previously did not vote may enter the elections with limited knowledge.
Perhaps the best solution is to simply change the electoral system. First Past The Post is used in UK general elections, and generally promotes a two-party system between the Conservatives and Labour, thus marginalising smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, the latter particularly at their height in 2014 and 2015. Arguments against the system centre around the lack of importance for smaller parties, and it creates safe seats. However, what other system would take its place? AV, as shown in 2011, did not receive a warm welcome, but there are promising systems out there such as Scotland’s hybrid electoral system. Ultimately, it might be the necessary change to give other parties a chance to shape the political future of this country.
Overall, the UK still has a long way to go in terms of revolutionising democratic participation. It remains a problem, particularly as frustration grows amongst much of the electorate towards politicians and the government on issues like Brexit and their effectiveness in resolving them. However, the light is beginning to appear at the end of the tunnel, and with the prospect of a second referendum, another general election and participation in European elections this year, democracy might just be experiencing a massive revival. And my goodness do we need it.