Pundits can scribble about politics all they want and commentators can podcast till they’ve said it all, but what’s the point if no one is listening? Following politics often feels like a hobby more than an imperative part of sustaining democracy.
Social media (especially Twitter where there is most political discussion) can create the illusion of a world where politics is mainstream, but the reality is that it still exists in a bubble.
This can be seen when you look at the numbers of people who are members of a political party in the UK. Party membership is nowhere near the levels that it was in the twentieth century, but numbers have increased in the past few years. 1.7% of the electorate were members of either the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats in 2017, up from 0.8% in 2013. Nonetheless these numbers are a tiny fraction of the electorate (never mind the entire population) – politics is very much a niche.
Party membership levels are a basic indication of the health of a democracy: they represent the wider electorate, how engaged and active people are in politics.
A tiny group of people are engaged, but it’s easy to see why most don’t feel obliged to take an interest in the day-to-day workings of our politics. It seems to be the same stories constantly retold just on different news channels: Brexit, Brexit, scandal, something Boris Johnson said, Brexit. No wonder few people pay close attention to anything other than the headlines. Many just really don’t like politicians and more often than not they’re quite right.
However, political participation is in some respects increasing. In the 2001 election the turnout was 59.4%, compared to 68.7% in 2017.
If politics comes up in our own lives, then we know what sorts of perspectives and discussions to expect in the company of family and friends. Yet often we have people in our lives that don’t seem to care about politics at all (and maybe don’t even vote) and it can be utterly perplexing how they are so unfazed by it, so disinterested in the things that will affect them. Are you ever keen to know someone’s perspective on a certain topic because you genuinely think they could make a decent contribution to the discussion and offer some new insight? Do you ever want to get the bottom of what someone’s political beliefs are and their opinions on issues? Not to be contentious but because it’s a way to learn more about who they are.
Maybe this is an odd way to socialise – it’s probably easier to chat about films – but for those few who enjoy getting to know people by discussing their politics then party conferences are ideal.
Spring party conferences are just around the corner. They’re an important part of our democratic system. With delegates debating issues and often deciding the policies of their party. The social aspect is important for many people. Being a member of a political party is about belonging and identifying with what you believe in, what you’re passionate about, more than opposing other parties.
But most people still see politics as remote and elitist – something that happens to them beyond their control.
Yet something profound is happening across the Atlantic.
After the horrendous school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, the up-and-coming generation in America have had enough of a status quo of the normalised, and even expected, slaughter of school kids because of such easy access to firearms.
They’ve created a media storm to challenge complacent politicians and the gun lobby that owns them. Their speeches and rallies have been inspiring and empowering; they have directly challenged the politicians who have seemed so untouchable. They can harness the influence and reach of social media with the advantage of being been born into the digital world. They’re keeping the topic of gun control from being lost in the news cycle as it usually is after a mass shooting.
Out of a tragedy a powerful new movement of young activists could potentially change the course of America’s future. Even from afar, they are the hope we all need to restore lost faith that politics can create change, if we want it to.
By Chris Park