The Independent View: Political inequality threatens constitutional holy cows

ipprIt is time to put some holy constitutional cows out to pasture. The traditional liberal reform agenda remains necessary, but it is no longer enough to reanimate our democracy. Too many of its solutions remain insensitive to how class and demography intimately shape how our political system operates; structural political inequalities in who participates and has voice will not end with a codified constitution and a more proportionate electoral system. Liberals of all party stripes and none need a new political agenda squarely aimed at reversing ingrained political inequality, a phenomenon that threatens the integrity of British democracy.

Last week, President Obama said: “it would be transformative if everybody voted. If everyone voted, that would completely change the political map in this country.” He’s not wrong. “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” he said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.” America is already a divided democracy, and the UK is headed in the same direction.

Political inequality is where despite procedural equality in the democratic process, certain groups, classes or individuals nonetheless have greater influence over and participate more in political decision-making processes, with policy outcomes systematically weighted in their favour. As such, it undermines a central democratic ideal: that all citizens, regardless of status, should be given equal consideration in and opportunity to influence collective political decision-making.

IPPR’s new report, Political Inequality: Why British democracy must be reformed and revitalized, shows the scale of the problem: class and age powerfully structure who participates and who feels they have influence politically in the UK. For example, our polling suggests only one in four DE voters believes democracy addresses their interests well, a 20 point difference compared to AB voters. A striking 63% think it serves their interests badly, while less than one in ten think politicians understand the lives of people like themselves.

Perceptions that democracy is rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and the well connected arguably underpin growing electoral inequality. For example, in 1987, there was only a four-point gap in the turnout rate between the highest income quintile and the poorest; by 2010 this had jumped to 23 points. Meanwhile just 44% of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election, compared to 76% of those aged 65 and over, almost double the gap from the 1970s. What’s more, the warning signs are flashing: polls are currently predicting very substantial turnout inequalities by age and class again in May.

Political inequality is, of course, a broader phenomenon than just turnout inequality.  Yet as our report makes clear, the same pattern repeats itself. Whether it is in who funds political parties, who participates in political activity more broadly, who is represented in elected office, or who has access to political decision-makers, the young and less well-off are systematically under-represented. By contrast, wealthier and older citizens enjoy disproportionate influence over the political process.

As political inequality becomes more entrenched then, the old fear of liberal democratic theorists, that democracy would lead to the tyranny of the majority, has increasingly been replaced by a fear of the tyranny of the minority; we have gone from Mill to Piketty, from a fear of the masses to the problem of the 1 per cent as the chief threat to democratic equality.

In such a context, we will need more than discrete constitutional reform of the institutions and practices of representative democracy to reverse political inequality. If each citizen is to have the ability to exercise and influence political power in the ballot box but also beyond it, reform cannot stop there. Countervailing democratic institutions and practices that are more participatory, deliberative and powerful will also have to be experimented with that can better disperse and democratise political power, both within but also beyond the channels of representative democracy.

Similarly, reform must be far more attentive to redressing class and age-based inequalities of influence. This might require radical institutional intervention, such as compulsory first time voting, to substantively boost the influence of the presently politically excluded. It could also involve political parties becoming far more porous and pluralistic, being willing to be led by civic society, not constantly trying to lead it.

There are many options to explore. A second IPPR report in spring will set out a strategy and a series of explicit recommendations which will suggest which avenues would be most effective to pursue. However, what is clear based on the evidence presented in our new survey report is that regardless of the outcome in May, reversing political inequality is central to broader democratic renewal. It will not be easy. Nonetheless, the problem of political inequality makes the task all the more vital if democracy is to live up to its ideal.

* Mathew Lawrence is a Research Fellow at IPPR

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16 Comments

  • jedibeeftrix 6th Apr '15 - 1:38pm

    “the tyranny of the majority, has increasingly been replaced by a fear of the tyranny of the minority; [we] have gone from Mill to Piketty, from a fear of the masses to the problem of the 1 per cent as the chief threat to democratic equality.”

    Who is this “we” of which you speak?

    Our family earning place us firmly in the middle decile for earning*, i live in an area where the parties of my choice are not contenders, an area that objective 1 as defined the EU due to deprivation, and yet i am quite attached to politics.

    It may not be popular, but a collective message of “pull your socks up” might go a long way!

    * http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/mar/25/uk-incomes-how-salary-compare

  • Matthew Lawrence you state that in 1987 there was a four-point gap in turnout rate between the highest income quintile and the poorest and by 2010 it had risen to 23 points. Possibly in 1987 this was because that two of the three main political parties were still talking about reducing unemployment as an aim of economic policy and they hadn’t accepted the neo-liberal idea that society has to have a large pool of people who are unemployed to ensure inflation is kept under control. However by 2010 none of the three main political parties were suggesting we could have full employment where if a person lost their job one week they could be employed again within a week or two. They were no longer giving hope to the poor. After the Labour government attacked those on benefit hope for these people has been killed.

    With regard to the young voting, it seems from your graph 1.5 that in 1992 the different between those aged 22 and those aged 52 was about 28 points. In 2001 the difference between those aged 21 and 61 was about 29 points, and those aged 51 about 26 points. In 2010 the difference between those aged 20 and 50 was about 22 points. It also shows that about 60% aged 22 voted in 1992 and about 60% aged 20 voted in 2010. I think that the reason a large number of young people don’t vote is because they are single and have no children, but when people have children they are more likely to vote.

  • Tony Greaves 6th Apr '15 - 2:40pm

    And the immediate relevance of this academic rambling in the middle of a GE campaign is….????

  • Philip Thomas 6th Apr '15 - 2:47pm

    The more people vote the less of them will be Tories…

  • If they can’t be bothered to vote, they get what’s coming to them.

  • Philip Thomas 6th Apr '15 - 4:32pm

    Indeed, but don’t you see our opportunity here? By strongly supporting campaigns to get the vote out, register new voters and widen the franchise, we can strengthen our position against the Tories and strike a blow for democracy at the same time!

  • “Compulsory voting seems to me to run counter to ideas of a free democracy.”

    No more so than compulsory taxing.

  • Sara Scarlett 6th Apr '15 - 6:53pm

    “Compulsory voting seems to me to run counter to ideas of a free democracy.” No more so than compulsory taxing.

    Indeed. Let’s have neither. I oculdn’t quite tell if David-1 was a troll. Now it would appear he definitely is.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Apr '15 - 7:34pm


    Perceptions that democracy is rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and the well connected arguably underpin growing electoral inequality. For example, in 1987, there was only a four-point gap in the turnout rate between the highest income quintile and the poorest; by 2010 this had jumped to 23 points. Meanwhile just 44% of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election, compared to 76% of those aged 65 and over, almost double the gap from the 1970s. What’s more, the warning signs are flashing: polls are currently predicting very substantial turnout inequalities by age and class again in May.

    In all that time we’ve constantly had the message put out that political parties must become more “professional”, by which is meant adopt a top-down leader-centred approach with the image of the party put together by professional marketing people. We’ve been told this is what is needed to get people involved and voting. We were told, timer and time again back in the 1980s, that the old model of political parties as about local activists coming together and promoting their ideas and contributing to the party nationally was off-putting, and what people wanted to see was political parties about professional politicians.

    This was very much what the debate between the SDP and the Liberal Party during the time of the formation of the Liberal Democrats was about. The SDP was all about this idea of professional top-down politics, with the Liberals more divided, about evenly, with half unhappy about that model, and half going along with it. It was much more this than about policies, although those in the Liberal Party unhappy about the SDP model of politics tended to be more to the left on economic issues, and also had a strong environmental streak.

    Well, the SDP model won out, and this is the result. We can see it in today’s Liberal Democrats, we have lost the “on the side of the people against the establishment” image that used to be key to our support.

  • I find accusations of trollery especially amusing when they come from someone whose aim is to turn the Liberal Democrats into a shadow of the Tory Party — only one that is even more ultra-Thatcherite.

    However, I am uncertain as to whether such accusations are really acceptable on LDV. If they are not, then I assume responding to them, in kind or otherwise, should be equally unacceptable.

  • I think the point about political inequality is very interesting and is a problem that needs to be addressed.
    I do not agree with compulsory voting. For those people who are not interested in politics and know little about it, it would be wrong for them to vote. It would be better if they did know something about it, and politics should be covered better in schools. But you can’t force people to be interested.
    People who are forced to vote may resent it and decide to get their own back by voting for an extreme political party. I wouldn’t want to encourage that either.
    I am not keen on “None of the above”; what if it wins? Rerunning the election will be expensive and not actually what the voters voted for.
    There is a problem to be solved, but compulsory voting is not the right solution.

  • Jonathan Brown 8th Apr '15 - 8:32pm

    Joe Otten has it right that proportional representation would enable parties to offer much more different options to people and thereby incentivise them to vote.

    I would go one step further, and allocate seats to non-voters. So with a 65% turnout, I’d rope off 35% of the seats in the House of Commons and leave them staring emptily at MPs as a constant reminder that while they may have a governing majority, they do NOT actually represent a majority in the country.

    It would also be a constant reminder to non-voters that all these rows of empty seats are all that’s representing them in key debates.

  • Julian Tisi 9th Apr '15 - 5:15pm

    Aside from compulsory first-time voting this article seems to be long on problems and short on practical solutions. It ignores and underestimates the potential impact of the reforms we as a party have championed for so long. For example, when STV was introduced in Scottish local elections recently, parties found themselves campaigning for every vote and in areas many of them had previously never visited. Voters are enfranchised in a way they may never have been before, unless they had previously lived in a 3 or 4 way marginal.

    And compulsory first time voting – no thanks. Why punish young voters for not bothering but not older voters? And why try to force young people into doing something unwillingly anyway? Better surely to give them reasons to vote

  • Australia has compulsory voting (for voters aged 18-70), has done since 1924, and it works. Citizens are simply required to cast a ballot. They are at liberty to spoil the ballot if they do not like any of the candidates.

    If there is a fear that it will lead to a less informed populace voting, then it is the task of activists and political parties to inform them, isn’t it? Perhaps the real fear is that the party isn’t up to the task of dealing with a larger electorate?

    The best thing about compulsory voting is that it utterly negates all incentives to suppress, limit, reduce, or discourage voting by any individual or group. Parties are not in a race to encourage some voters or discourage others, but simply to appeal to the hearts and minds of a group of voters whom they know will be voting.

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