Why does this election mean so little to me?

by | 24 May 2024

I work in politics, do politics in my spare time, believe that only democracy can save us. Nominally this is a pivotal election - so why do I find myself struggling to care?

First published by Common Weal

Let me be honest with you; objectively this could reasonably be argued to be the General Election at which the most is at stake for decades. It’s the combination of the scale of the social, economic and environmental issues facing us combined with the first moment in a decade where there is a real chance of the fall of dominant parties both in Britain and in Scotland.

So why do I feel so unengaged? There is no political party in this election for which I could vote with any real conviction right now, but that has been the case in previous elections as well and I didn’t feel this unconnected to what was going on.

Plus unless literally everyone I speak to or correspond with is very weird, I’m most certainly not alone in this. How can so much be at stake in so many ways, with so much opportunity for change yet so much voter disillusionment with the processes of democracy in Scotland? And, perhaps more importantly, what can we do about it?

There are easy and obvious ways to answer the first question – that Keir Starmer’s Labour seems actively to want not to be seen as interesting or exciting or planning anything much. That the SNP is badly misfiring and seems complacent. That it’s first past the post so basically that’s your lot and anything else is either reinstating Tories or protesting.

Sure, but is that really the story? When you try to explain phenomenon based on a set of circumstances then the phenomenon better not predate the specific circumstances. Yet it does; disengagement from politics is not a ‘last 24 months’ sort of problem.

There are, in turn, easy and obvious ways to explain the long term decline in politics, from the fragmentation of society through to the impact of new technologies on public debate and onwards past ‘plus the parties increasingly take broadly the same stance on most issues’. But there is usually a single way to sum up a process like this, which is by finding the emotional or psychological way that a citizen frames this to themselves. What is that?

My guess is that it would be something close to ‘they run this place for themselves in any way they want and I don’t matter to them’. It’s the sense that the powerful keep getting caught out in corruption and yet never pay a price.

The reason I wanted to get to that point, to the point of how the public feels, is to explain why I think much of the problem with democracy just now has little to do with democracy or the processes of electoral politics, or even government. My argument is that it is not just, and possibly not mainly, politics which is fuelling our disengagement but economics.

Because with all of the above arguments about the various reasons people don’t feel good about democracy just now keep leaving breadcrumbs which, if you follow them, lead to the door of corporate lobbyists. Keir Starmer’s Labour goes out of its way to be boring and uninteresting because that’s what they think the banking sector wants.

Over the last three or four decades everyone in politics has more or less agreed as one that the people who should face the consequences of corruption by the rich and powerful is, well, you

The SNP got away with this for a while because post-indyref the economy question largely drifted off the agenda. The SNP adopted more or less the exact same economic programme as run by the previous Labour administration. I mean foreign investment, being open for business, backing six priority industry sectors, talking about linking the economy and universities – almost line for line the same.

And the UK clings to first past the post as a voting system exactly because it is the voting system of elite oligarchies – realistically you can choose between two parties and they’re largely bought and paid for. The fragmentation of society has been driven by the economy and hypercosumerism, the sense that no-one is working for you is seen again and again as the rich get caught out in corruption but never pay a price for it.

In fact over the last three or four decades everyone in politics has more or less agreed as one that the people who should face the consequences of corruption by the rich and powerful is, well, you – or ideally someone like you but poorer.

There are only really two moments in the last decade around which any group of people across Britain felt any enthusiasm, and it is notable that both were basically anti-corporate. One was the hope of Brexiters that Boris Johnstone would deliver the break with the old economic order they hoped and the other was Corbyn who did promise to reform that economic order.

The outcome was predictable; Boris never meant it and went straight back to running the economy for the corporations which didn’t want Brexit in the first place, and an almighty and concerted smear campaign finished Corbyn.

In a lot of ways those two examples illustrate the problem – that to all intents and purposes Britain is an oligarchy of a hyper-rich financier and corporate leaders who will either bribe, coerce or destroy anyone who isn’t subscribed to their version of acceptable government.

It is the outcome that is the problem. It doesn’t matter whether it is the sense of powerlessness this induces in the public or the material conditions of 30 years of stagnant wages and declining public services which has resulted, the public feel shut out of power and sense the impact of this is their interests being sidelined.

Plus don’t underestimate how much politicians were starting to like low-engagement politics. Term two Blair almost fetishised it, claiming that low turnout was actually a satisfaction rating on the job being done. It wasn’t.

The decline in democracy, the decline in trust in institutions, the decline in social cohesion – all track closely to the arrival of neoliberalism and globalisation

All of this is a disaster for society, and as is often the case with disasters, its effects break through at the weakest points in our democracy – the angry, conspiratorial parts. It has resulted in the rise of the ‘angry right’ and the proliferation of seemingly crazy conspiracy theories. Our societies are falling apart because of it, all across Europe. The US has basically already fallen apart.

So what do we do about this? You may be expecting me to run round our usual set of democratic enhancements that can bring power closer to people, and I recommend you look at them and get a sense of how much more power citizens in Scotland could wield, and the positive impact that is likely to have on people’s perception of democracy.

Which means yes, create some proper Scottish local democracy (with some urgency about it), yes put in place a second Citizens’ Assembly as a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament, and yes put in place mechanisms to require much more participatory democracy, from citizen’s juries to participatory budgeting.

But if my analysis above is right, it won’t be enough in itself. If the fundamental problem is not just the process but what 40 years of that process has done to people’s experience of life, reforming only the process won’t have the impact it needs to, or not fast enough.

No, if we want serious democratic reform we need serious economic reform. The biggest step would be mandatory industrial democracy – requiring every business with more than ten staff to have a third of its Board elected by the staff (this is the model used in Germany, Austria and the Nordic Countries).

This gives workers an immediate sense that the economy is not just something that is done to them but something they’re part of. But that isn’t enough in itself because the economy is still dominated by overseas corporations which aren’t particularly responsive to any host nation’s democracy.

That is what leaves me a difficult ultimate conclusion. The decline in democracy, the decline in trust in institutions, the decline in social cohesion – all track closely to the arrival of neoliberalism and globalisation. These are fundamentally theories that the only valid way to run the economy is to not run the economy but to stay out of the way (except when corporations ask you to do something).

This ‘corporations as a proxy for the public good’ model of politics is undimmed. For some reason the Scottish Government under John Swinney still thinks the only way to improve public services is for ever-greater economic growth resulting from precisely the practices which have undermined public services.

Making major changes in our economy is not impossible. Make any form of public support for business conditional on increased industrial democracy, perhaps create a consumer agency to fight relentlessly for the interests of the public over corporations, create an industrial strategy to run more of the economy in a ‘foundational economy’ mode (i.e. specifically for the public good).

After all, globalisation is basically over with the US and its new-found love of tariffs on Chinese imports, and neoliberalism is undermining the strength and effectiveness of its strongest advocate nations in Europe and the US. Something else is coming, one way or another.

If it is worse, there is a good chance the century-long democratic experiment in Europe is at risk. If it is better, perhaps an engaged nation of civically-active citizens will fuel a health democracy again. It doesn’t feel like that’s what we have just now.

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