Monday, February 27, 2006

Political system faces 'meltdown'

From the beeb:
"Britain's political system is in danger of "meltdown" if major changes are not made, an independent report says.

The Power Inquiry, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, says voters feel they have little influence over decisions affecting their lives.

The inquiry's Power to the People report calls for a shift in control from ministers to parliament, and from central to local government.

State funding of political parties and a voting age of 16 are also suggested."
Hmmm, now shifting power from the executive to Parliament and from central to local government are like motherhood and apple-pie: who would disagree? But whether it would have the regenerating effect that the report implies, I'm sceptical.

The report argues that people turn out to events like Live8 and antiwar marches and so on because there is some sort of untapped desire to participate in politics that the party system isn't harnessing. But this doesn't explain why all forms of civic participation are declining: membership and participation in friendly societies, clubs, churches, charities, and trade unions are also in decline, yet every time there's a demonstration, it seems new records are broken.

It can't be the case that all civic institutions have somehow ceased to function properly - and some of the measures often cited as increasing participation have already been tried in Scotland and they don't work. Power has been devolved from Westminster to Holyrood, which is elected on PR. The result? Turnout is lower than in Westminster elections. Rather those political scientists who have observed this across the board decline in participation often argue that it is the rise in individualism that has done for trade unions, political parties and so on.

The increase in participation in single-issue causes should be understood in this context: many people feel unable to associate themselves with the political programme of a party but do feel able to march on a single-issue campaign because apart from agreeing with the objective, no further compromise is necessary.

Which is not to say that some of the measures outlined in the report wouldn't be welcome - they are sensible and democratic - but can we nail this ridiculous idea that the voting age should be reduced to sixteen? All the evidence suggests that the younger you are, the less likely you are to participate in elections so enfranchising sixteen and seventeen-year olds would be likely to reduce average turnout.

And although you might reasonably think I would say this, I really don't agree with those who claim participation in the antiwar marches is indicative of political maturity. A whole lot of kids at my school bunked-off to go on the march the day the war started. But how many could have found Iraq on a map? Or told you what countries share a border with Iraq? (My own unscientific straw-poll conducted at the time would suggest precisely none.)

One of the deep-thinkers who absented himself from classes that day informed me that in his considered opinion he didn't think, "There should be a war", on the grounds that "it's pure gay".

Now while I'm happy to concede that there were a couple of good arguments against the invasion of Iraq, I have to insist you accept that it being "pure gay" was not one of them.

Why did they bunk off? Because they could, that's why.

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