Democracy is hailed as the cornerstone of modern society. For centuries people have campaigned for the right to vote – perhaps most famously in the UK with the Suffragette movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. The ‘suffragettes’ initially used constitutional campaigning, like leafleting, organising meetings and presenting petitions to gain Women’s suffrage but later resorted to more radical and militant tactics. In 1928, the Conservative government passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act giving the vote to all women over the age of 21.
Which begs the question, why is there so little engagement in modern politics and why do so many people not use the right to vote that so many fought (and in some cases died) for?
Today Church of England bishops issued a 52 page “pastoral letter” which amongst other things urges people to visit the polling booths on 7 May, stating it was the “duty” of every Christian adult to vote. The bishops attacked a “growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations” and warned that people “feel detached” from politics. The Bishop of Norwich said it was intended to “counter” arguments from those, including Russell Brand that suggest people should not bother to engage with politics.
In actual fact I would suggest that Russell Brand’s anti politics “revolution” campaign is actually intended to engage more people in politics as evidenced by his support for the New Era Housing Association which ultimately secured the futures of 93 families who faced eviction. The campaign involved multiple street demonstrations and a petition to Number 10.
Closer to home up to 20,000 people gathered in Downpatrick on Saturday to protest against the reduction of services at the Downe Hospital. Despite the publication of the Donaldson report which says there are too many hospitals to service our population of 1.8 million, it will be a brave health minister who enacts the recommendations in their entirety.
The point is twofold. Firstly getting involved in politics can make a difference if the correct tactics and organisation are deployed. Secondly such involvement seems to only happen in exceptional circumstances and all too often issues that affect people on a day to day basis are not challenged.
This vacuum in political engagement has allowed groups that may be termed ‘extremist’ and set the political agenda and the Church of England has criticised all parties for offering only “sterile arguments” that are likely to make voters more apathetic and cynical in the run-up to the general election. On immigration, the Bishops write: “The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as ‘the problem’ has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration.”
While I would agree with the Bishops that parties “have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see” I would argue that it is too simplistic to merely blame politicians (although it is very tempting to do so!)
It is not enough that people merely turn up every four or five years to vote, there is much more to get involved in.
Why not as well as voting, get involved in campaigning, consider creating and signing petitions, form or support a pressure group on a cause you feel passionately about, and (dare I say it) join or volunteer for a political party (there’s a good one I could recommend).
Before you criticise a politician for being ‘useless’ ask yourself ‘what could I do to make a difference’?