Why Politics Still Matters

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by him here.


 

One of UK comedian Bob Monkhouse’s better jokes goes something like this: ‘People laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian; they are not laughing now’. When I published the first edition of Why Politics Matters in 2006- which looked at rising negativity towards democratic politics- there was polite interest at presentations made to politicians and journalists but a sense that my concerns were not exactly the pressing issue of the day. As I publish the second edition for 2017 negativity about the practice of politics is a major news item and anti-politics and post truth politics are terms that have entered everyday debate.

Some politicians are taking advantage of the mood of anti-politics by offering populist stances on issues and by distancing themselves very clearly from something called the ‘political establishment’. The top nominations for 2016 might well have been Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in Britain, leading the Leave campaign in the EU membership referendum. Other politicians offer convoluted apologies to public audiences for being a politician. Isobel Harding, a journalist at a meeting I was chairing in 2016, argued that she would throw up if she heard another politician explain how they only took up the job ‘by accident’. They were an engineer or doctor – or some other occupation deemed socially acceptable – turned up at some political event and then, seemingly through forces outside their control, found themselves as a candidate for election and then eventually an elected representative.

If politicians fear they are social pariahs as a group, then most citizens would not try to persuade them that the situation is otherwise. In 2011–12, we asked some people in focus groups to indicate what words they associated with politics. The eight most popular grouping covered: deception, corruption, feather-nesting, self-serving, politicking, privileged, boring and incomprehensible. Not a terribly positive list, I think you would agree. We know that millions around the world like the idea of democratic governance in the abstract but struggle to be convinced by the politics essential to its delivery. Why Politics Matters tries to understand this contradiction and, because politics matters, it asks what, if anything, we could do to make it work better.

While the problems and solutions to the current malaise of democratic politics will vary from country to country, I believe that my focus on common features and key comparisons provides a good starting point for discussion of where we are, and what needs to be done. The negative response to politics that many of us share is, I think, a very human reaction to the way politics works. As an intricate mechanism in our multifaceted and complex societies, politics exists because we do not agree with one another. Politics is about choosing between competing interests and views often demanding incompatible allocations of limited resources. Crucially, because it is a collective form of decision making, once a choice has been made then that choice has to be imposed on us all. In the context of greater individualism and a determination to make your own choices the mechanics and institutions of politics can appear out of touch. Yet although social media may be changing the technological expression of politics but it does not mean the fundamental nature of politics has changed. It’s still about making and then imposing collective decisions.

Perhaps there is something in addition about the way that politics is done today that moves citizens from being slightly irked by politics to outright annoyed People don’t like to be taken for a sucker or treated like an idiot. Politics as experienced daily often seems calculated to do exactly that. When politicians debate issues in simplistic terms, when they imply that we can have it all at no cost and appear to manufacture arguments they think will play well to different groups, it is hardly surprising that we think they are taking us for a ride. Nor is it odd that cynicism becomes a common coping response. My book does not berate citizens for not engaging in politics but tries to understand why they often don’t but also how they might be persuaded to do so more. You can’t have democracy without politics. In this light, it’s clear that we need to change some of the practices of politics.

The Second Edition brings into play new research conducted with colleagues over the last decade.  It offers a more comprehensive portrait of rise of political disenchantment in different countries. It provides a fuller and better organised account of many of the competing explanations of that rise in anti-politics. It is updated to deal with the rise of social media, changes in party politics and the rise of populism. Finally, it offers a more extensive discussion of some of the democratic innovations that are being trialled to bring new life to politics.

In truth, the book ends on a slightly more pessimistic note than the First Edition. The Trump campaign and the EU referendum in 2016 seems to have established a new low in politics which is pulling many other actors towards it in a cycle of misinformation, dishonesty, and fear mongering. However, a favourite saying is: ‘a week is a long time in politics’. Perhaps if I ever get round to a third edition I will have something more positive to report. There are many people out there who care about creating a better politics. If my book gives them any ammunition in their battles I will be a happy author.

Gerry Stoker Why Politics Matters Second Edition is available from Palgrave https://he.palgrave.com/page/detail/Why-Politics-Matters/?K=9780230360662

 

 

Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission- Energising the Debate on Youth Political Participation

By Dr. Andy Mycock, University of Huddersfield

As part of its on-going commitment to promoting political activism and democratic engagement, researchers representing the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance (C2G2) have played a leading role in the development of a Political Studies Association (PSA) project seeking to enhance youth citizenship. Gerry Stoker, Professor of Governance and Director of C2G2, and postgraduate research student, Emily Rainsford, have contributed chapters to a new volume, Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission: Young People and Politics. The publication is edited by Professor Jon Tonge (University of Liverpool) and Dr Andy Mycock (University of Huddersfield), who between 2008 and 2009 served on the independent Youth Citizenship Commission (YCC) formed by the last Labour government. The volume builds on the work of the YCC and applied research by members of the Political Studies Association and seeks to further energise debates about young people and democratic participation. The C2G2 played an important role in developing the project and publication of the volume, kindly co-sponsoring the hosting of a workshop for contributors in London in January 2014.

Contributions to the volume provide short opinion pieces on a range of youth citizenship topics and offer policy proposals to encourage governments, political parties and youth stakeholder groups across the UK to adopt more dynamic approaches to encouraging young people to get involved in politics. The volume addresses issues such as votes at 16, political participation of young women and BME groups, citizenship education in schools and universities, youth social media, and compulsory youth voting.  Policy proposals include a referendum on votes at 16, compulsory electoral registration in schools, and a call for the Westminster All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament to establish an inquiry to encourage more young women to participate in politics.

Gerry Stoker’s contribution to the volume explores political citizenship and the innocence of youth. He argues that rather than despairing about the relative non-engagement of young citizens in formal politics, there is a need to recognise the positive aspects of their relative divorce from politics and their relative lack of cynicism and fatalism. Gerry suggests that young people are more open to the prospects for change and doing politics differently. A different political order could, he suggests, be stimulated by reforms such as lowering the voting age to 16 and young people’s national representative parliaments, assemblies and forums across the UK being given the right to call annual ballots or referenda on topics of their choosing.

Emily Rainsford draws on her doctoral research to identify a number of reasons why political parties are struggling to recruit young people to their ranks. She suggests that the relationship between young people and political parties is complicated but there is an urgent need to address the causes of party political disengagement. The need for new approaches to youth political party membership requires an acknowledgement that young people are adopting distinctive forms of political activism. The terms of party membership should therefore be reviewed to increase opportunities for young people to be able to influence the design of policy and develop forms of participation that reflect their interests.

The volume was discussed at a special panel at the Political Studies Association conference in Manchester on April 16th 2014. A panel of respected academics, including Gerry Stoker and Jon Tonge, discussed youth citizenship issues with representatives from the Manchester Youth Council and local schools. The panel also included Sam Johnson, a young councillor from Manchester City Council and Ian Wybron, a member of the Demos Generation Citizen project.

The volume will be officially launched at an event in Westminster in the summer and other events will be hosted in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. Chapters from the publication will also be hosted in an exciting series of on-line debates on the Democratic Audit and PSA blogs, with leading politicians, academics, and youth organisation will respond the policy proposals.

An electronic copy of the Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission: Young People and Politics volume can be downloaded here.

For further details of PSA youth citizenship events linked to the project or to ask for a hard copy of the volume, please contact Dr Andy Mycock.