Why we hate politics

Monday 9 March 2009

The blame for the rise of an anti-political culture in Britain rests with politicians not voters, two leading experts will argue at a debate at the forthcoming Economic and Social Research Council's Festival of Social Science (6 - 15 March).

The marked drop in voter turnouts levels and the sharp fall in trust in the political system, they contend, is due to a disenchantment with the conduct of politics and politicians rather than simply a rise in political apathy or a decline in civic virtue. 

Politics has become "depoliticised" because key decisions have been sub-contracted to independent bodies immune from scrutiny, according to Colin Hay of Sheffield University and Gerry Stoker of Southampton University.

Hay and Stoker, acknowledged authorities on British politics and government, will explain the sources of the current political disaffection and offer ideas for what might be done to re-engage citizens in democratic politics in front of an audience on 12 March at the event at the Showroom Cinema, Paternoster Row, Sheffield.

Titled 'Re-engaging citizens in democratic politics', the evening event aims to create an interactive debate between the presenters and members of the audience.

Professor Hay, author of Why We Hate Politics, said that he and Professor Stoker, author of the award-winning book Why Politics Matters, will give brief presentations, before giving the audience an opportunity to debate. 

"The event is designed to stimulate a lively discussion, about what might be done to re-animate our polities and to re-engage citizens in democratic politics, especially the young ones whose levels of participation are currently the lowest," he says.

Voter turnout at the 2001 and 2005 General Elections was 59.5 per cent and 61.4 per cent of the electorate respectively, the lowest ballot box participation since the Second World War. Among people aged 18-24 those figures fall to just 39 per cent and 37 per cent according to estimates by Ipsos MORI.

Hay and Stoker will tell the audience that politicians are wrong to blame the contemporary political disaffection on a decline in civic virtue or on political apathy.

Instead they say that by handing over decisions on key issues such as health, housing, land use planning and interest rates to non-elected agencies, politicians are saying they have little faith in themselves to make these calls.

"Politicians offload decisions to others because they no longer trust themselves to govern effectively and in the collective interest," says Stoker.

At the same time politicians have insisted on sticking to "stubbornly national" political institutions and debates at a time when globalization has made governance of issues such as financial crises and climate change trans-national and when devolution has fuelled a demand for greater power to handed down to a local level.

"Electoral competition has increasingly been reduced to the level of a beauty content between candidates whose claim to distinctiveness is based less and less on differences in political conviction and a substantive policy platform," says Hay.

"If we are to reanimate and revitalize our politics, then we need to recreate the space for public and visible decision-making. In short we need to recreate the space for politics."

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Notes for editors

  1. The Festival of Social Science is organised by the Economic and Social Research Council, and runs from 6 - 15 March, alongside National Science and Engineering Week. It celebrates some of the very best British social science research, as well as highlighting the ways in which social science makes a difference to everyday lives. Press releases detailing some of the varied events are available at the Festival website or for more information please contact the ESRC Press Office.
  2. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million.  At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes.