In the run-up to the general elections, a new series of day schools on the theme of ‘Politics: what is it good for?’ will be rolled out by WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) from February to the end of April 2015. These have been organised to engage members of the public in taking a fresh look at political ideas and practices, and learning about why they should exercise their democratic power as voters.

Over recent decades there has been a steady decline in engagement with electoral politics.  For example, while the average turnout for the four British parliamentary elections held in the 1950s was 80 per cent, in the last three elections (2001, 2005, 2010) the average was 62 per cent.

Some might say that 62 per cent is still not too bad a figure in terms of providing some semblance of democratic legitimacy.  But although 62 per cent – of the people registered to vote – did turn out to vote, many people who were eligible to vote had not even put themselves on the electoral register.

Most estimates put the proportion of people eligible to vote in the UK but not registered to vote at 15 per cent. Taking this into account, it means that in the last three elections, only 52 per cent of the people eligible to vote actually cast a vote, leaving 48 per cent of eligible voters not voting (comprising 15 per cent not registered, and 33 per cent registered but not voting).

And furthermore, although on average the party that has gone on to form the government (or take the lead role in running a coalition government) in the last three elections won 39 per cent of the votes cast, as a proportion of all the people who are eligible to vote that represents merely 20 per cent.

So the UK, with its purported respect for democracy, is routinely governed these days by a political party with the electoral backing of merely 20 per cent of all those eligible to vote.  Of the remaining 80 per cent: 15 per cent of them omitted (deliberately or otherwise) to register to vote; 33 per cent registered to vote but decided not to use that vote; and 32 per cent voted for other parties they would prefer to see govern the country.

On the basis of there being around 40 million people in the UK who are eligible to vote, that translates to 8 million people backing the government of the day, and 4 times that number – 32 million people – opting not to give that government their support.

In case anyone thinks this is not a fair way to present the balance of votes cast, we should remember that in 2012 Conservative-led government in Britain strongly criticised the National Union of Teachers when it went ahead with strike action after just 23 per cent of its members voted in support of the strike.  With many of the union members not voting, Conservative politicians attacked it for acting on the basis of a ‘paltry mandate’.

But by the same token, the government of Britain rests on a paltry mandate.  And though we hear a lot about the financial deficit, the question of how that and other problems facing our country are to be legitimately addressed won’t be answered any time soon if we don’t tackle the democratic deficit.

A key factor in reconnecting citizens to the process of determining who would govern them is to raise understanding of what politics is about.  ‘Politics: what is it good for?’ is a joint initiative of the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) and the ‘Question the Powerful’ education project.  Each day school will explore:

  • Political history: how did we get here?
  • Political approaches: what options have we got?
  • Political action and impact: why we can make a difference?
  • Political imagination: which future awaits us?

There is no charge to attend a day school, and refreshments are provided.  Participants will have the opportunity to reflect on and discuss what they have learnt in group sessions, and all will be invited to share their learning further when they return to their home towns and villages by setting up democratic learning sets.

The first day school event will be held in Cambridge on the 28th of February (in the Upper Hall meeting room of the Baptist Church in St Andrew’s Street, Cambridge).  Each event is self-contained, and is open to all irrespective of their party, political or religious persuasion.

The dates for the schools are as follows:

28th February     St Andrews Hall, Cambridge, CB2 3AR

14th March          Stratton Upper School, Biggleswade, SG18 8JB

28th March          Suffolk (venue to be finalised)

11th April            Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford, CM1 1SQ

25th April            The Willow Centre, Norwich, NR4 7JJ

For further information, or to reserve a place, please email: kcoles@wea.org.uk or phone: 01223 417335

By Henry Tam

Dr. Henry Tam is the tutor for ‘Politics: what is it good for?’. He is an academic at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, and his publications include acclaimed political books and satirical novels. A former senior civil servant and expert on democracy, he blogs on ‘Question the Powerful’: http://henry-tam.blogspot.co.uk/