World Europe

Another year, another vote. Is democracy burning out Brits?

how others see it

After the Brexit vote, the 2015 general election, Scotland’s referendum on independence, party leadership contests, and many byelections, next week’s snap parliamentary elections have many Britons feeling overwhelmed.

British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke at an election campaign event in Wrexham, Wales, last week. The Conservatives’ lead over the opposition Labour Party has narrowed in polls ahead of a June 8 snap election.
Toby Melville/Reuters
|
Caption

Houda Salehi knows she should vote in Britain’s June 8 general election.

But following the national race just two years ago, the Brexit referendum last year, and the immediate change of power that generated, the graduate student says she is simply overwhelmed by the number of votes and uninformed about the stakes.

“I will try to vote, but I’m just not even sure what I am voting for and why,” says Ms. Salehi at British Library plaza in central London on a recent day. Plus, she adds, it’s the end of the year and time to buckle down. “I have to pass my master’s!”

As Britain gears up for another electoral season – after a new election was called by Prime Minister Theresa May, a U-turn from her pledge not to hold a vote until the current term’s scheduled end in 2020 – many Britons have experienced a degree of democratic whiplash. 

It’s a sign of the angst of the political era, not just in Britain but around the world. As party allegiances have broken down and a mistrust of politics in general has grown, leaders have depended more heavily on votes or referendums to consolidate power and steer their nations, from everything from independence to controversial foreign policy decisions.

But the proliferation of votes is feeding electoral fatigue, leading to greater disillusionment in politics and more urgency to find a solution. Just as the financial crisis profoundly shook people’s faith in market capitalism, there are increasing doubts that politics today is working as it ought to be – and nowhere is that clearer than in Britain.

“We’re having lots of elections, lots of referendums, but what is not changing is people’s sense that they’re having a say and they’re influencing change,” says Alexandra Runswick, director of Unlock Democracy, a nonprofit in London seeking to make politics work better.

‘Not another one!’

Not only will Britons have had three national votes in two years, the various polls of the devolved governments in the United Kingdom have added to a perception of ceaseless balloting. Northern Ireland will have had five votes in just over two years. Scotland will also have had five since September 2014 – with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warning of another referendum for Scottish independence, which would have repercussions from Inverness to Ipswich.

At the same time, as domestic policies reach far beyond national borders today – Brexit, for example, is a political shakeup with far-reaching impact on the 27 other members of the EU – a sense of political uncertainty hangs over the country, heightened by last week's attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester which killed 22 people.

Perhaps it was “Brenda from Bristol” who captured best the zeitgeist of the moment, when a BBC reporter asked the pensioner how she felt about the snap election shortly after it was announced. “You’re joking? Not another one!” she replied in a reaction that went viral. “Oh for God’s sake, I can’t honestly... I can’t stand this.”

Polling reveals clear dissatisfaction with the status quo, though not a decline in voter participation. A 2017 audit of political engagement by the Hansard Society, a London-based charity that promotes democracy, shows 59 percent of the public saying they’d be certain to vote in June, the same percentage in last year's audit and the highest proportion on record. But the audit also showed fewer than a third of people satisfied with the way Parliament works. And the proportion of those feeling they have influence over national decisionmaking is just 16 percent, including among those respondents who found themselves on the winning side of Brexit.

When art facilitator Ali Avery and artist Alice Myers recently set off on a two-week “listening journey” across the four countries of Britain for a project called Indefinite Article, the overarching message that emerged in the 79 interviews they did was, essentially: “We desperately need change. And change is impossible.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn answers questions from the studio audience during an election program at Sky Studios in London, Sunday.
Stefan Rousseau/Reuters
|
Caption

Democracy amid uncertainty

This frustration toward politics comes at a time when, because of the electoral cycle, several Western countries have held national elections recently, or will do so this year: the US, Austria, the Netherlands, France, Britain, and Germany.

With the rise of social media in an interconnected world where politics has necessarily become transnational, the uncertainty is shared across borders, says Katharine Dommett, a lecturer in the public understanding of politics at the University of Sheffield. “I think there’s a real sense of uncertainty about what the political future holds. There are a lot of variables at play in Britain and around Brexit, but also on the international field about what’s happening and how change is occurring,” she says. While it’s not entirely new, “it feels so at the moment because we’re living through it.”

And for some, leaders have contributed to a sense of instability by holding additional votes.

Ms. May, who came into power unelected after former Prime Minister David Cameron stepped down after losing his Brexit referendum, had promised not to call another election. Now with her Conservative party the clear frontrunner, she seeks a stronger hand on negotiations with the EU.

The Brexit referendum itself, meanwhile, is part of a rise in the use of the tool across Europe. Bruno Kaufmann, a Swiss journalist and chairman of the Democracy Council and Election Commission in Falun, Sweden, says too many referendums are called by leaders to consolidate power rather than to consider public suggestions. Brexit, he says, was a question too reductive and a decision too consequential to be reasonably handled with just one referendum.

Engaging differently?

But while there is broad exasperation about the apparently endless wave of elections and referendums, that doesn’t mean that people are disengaging from democracy on the whole.

A recent YouGov poll shows mixed opinions on the flurry of votes put to Britons, with 37 percent saying there have been “too many” and 37 percent selecting “about the right amount.” For those affiliated with the parties that more strongly supported Brexit, like the UK Independence Party, support for the rate was higher.

Ms. Dommett says that “election fatigue” could lead to lower turnout, but notes that the trend is not definitively downward. Recent local elections saw an uptick in voter participation; Brexit saw huge voter turnout, she says. “A decline in turnout might not be problematic if people are engaging in different ways. Or it may be that people are not deciding to engage at a moment where they don’t feel their participation is valuable, but if something was at stake they would be back.”

And so much has changed politically since the last general election – such as plummeting support for the Labour Party – that this election may seem sufficiently different to voters. The last election “almost feels like it was a long time ago,” says Peter Sloman, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Cambridge.

To encourage more people to get involved in politics and feel they have a stake in the decisions affecting them, more participatory solutions are taking hold in Britain and beyond, from direct democracy to meetups with local MPs to sortition – a jury-type deliberative process that in some cases sees citizens acting in advisory panels to governments (as in Ireland).

“I think people are very politically aware, quite politically engaged, and almost universally disappointed in how the system is functioning now,” says Brett Hennig, co-founder of the Sortition Foundation in Cambridge.

"If Brexit goes badly, I think [Britain] could very much be open for some dramatic changes."

Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.