British democracy in crisis, possibly as healthy as ours

A report by the Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom concludes that democracy in Britain is in “long-term terminal decline.”

Among its concerns, identified from databases of official statistics and public surveys, were that Britain’s constitutional arrangements are “increasingly unstable” owing to changes such as devolution; public faith in democratic institutions “decaying”; a widening gap in the participation rates of different social classes of voters; and an “unprecedented” growth in corporate power, which the study’s authors warn “threatens to undermine some of the most basic principles of democratic decision-making”. In an interview with the Guardian, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, the report’s lead author, warned that Britons could soon have to ask themselves “whether it’s really representative democracy any more?” 

“The reality is that representative democracy, at the core, has to be about people voting, has to be about people engaging in political parties, has to be about people having contact with elected representatives, and having faith and trust in elected representatives, as well as those representatives demonstrating they can exercise political power effectively and make decisions that tend to be approved of,” said Wilks-Heeg. “All of that is pretty catastrophically in decline. How low would turnout have to be before we question whether it’s really representative democracy at all?” The UK’s democratic institutions were strong enough to keep operating with low public input, but the longer people avoided voting and remained disillusioned, the worse the problem would get, said Wilks-Heeg.

Some of the data involved is explained here and comparisons to the Canadian situation do not particularly flatter our democracy. The average turnout for British parliamentary elections in the 2000s is 60%. In Canada, the average is 61.3%. Twenty-two percent of MPs in Britain are women. Here it’s 25%. In 2011, Canada and the United Kingdom both ranked 26th in press freedom according to the Freedom House Index (in the latest rankings we’ve moved up to 25th and the UK has fallen back to 31st). Only on the corruption perceptions index does Canada fair markedly better: sixth compared to 20th for the UK in 2010.

As noted earlier today, the Canadian Election Study’s survey results on politics and government in Canada are here. The CES also asked respondents about their political involvement and activities.

Have you signed a petition in the last 12 months?
Yes 31.0%
No 68.1%

Have you volunteered for a party or a candidate in the last 12 months?
Yes 6.3%
No 93.4%

Have you bought products for political, ethical, or environmental reasons in the last 12 months?
Yes 51.9%
No 47.3%

Have you taken part in a march, rally or protest in the last 12 months?
Yes 8.8%
No 90.9%

Have you used the Internet to be politically active in the last 12 months?
Yes 25.5%
No 74.1%

Have you volunteered for a community group or a non-profit organization in the last 12 months?
Yes 50.9%
No 49.0%

Have you ever been a member of a federal political party?
Yes 16.7%
No 82.9%

All those numbers come from the post-election survey, in which 89.8% of respondents claimed to have voted. If you believe these respondents were telling the truth, then perhaps these results reflect the actions of a more political engaged sample; perhaps the general population is even less involved than these numbers suggest.

One thing the British audit focus on is party membership numbers. Unfortunately, those are hard to come by here. The New Democrats had about 130,000 members at the time of their spring convention, which would seem to put them ahead of the Liberal Democrats, but behind both the Labour Party and the Conservatives.

The folks at Samara are pursuing a Democracy Index for this country, with plans to launch it in 2013.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.