THE next election is set to be the most unequal for more than six decades, due to a ballooning turnout gap at elections and the growing role of money in British politics, according to a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).
Detailed analysis of every election since the 1960s shows a stark rise in the turnout gap based on age, income, education, class, home ownership and ethnicity.
IPPR finds that nine in every 10 people in the top third of the income distribution voted in the two most recent general elections compared to only seven in the bottom third.
In the 1960s, the turnout gap between social groups was negligible. By the 2010s, it had grown to 18 per cent between the top and bottom third of earners; to 23 per cent between renters and homeowners; to 15 per cent between those who did and did not attend university; and to 28 per cent between those who are 61 or older and 18-24 year-olds.
The bottom third of earners are around three times more likely to say it is not worth voting than the top third. The report finds a similar difference between those with and without university degrees. Renters are also more than twice as likely as homeowners to say it is not worth voting.
Differences in who speaks in UK democracy extend far beyond voting. Almost one in three university graduates has directly contacted a politician, while around one in 10 has joined a protest or lawful public demonstration. By comparison, only one in seven people without degrees have contacted a politician and fewer than one in 25 has joined a protest.
One consequence of these growing gaps is that government policy is more responsive to the preferences of the well-heeled than of the worse off.
The outsize influence of the better off is one way to explain the puzzle of rising inequality in UK democracy, according to IPPR. Income and wealth inequality has grown and remains high, despite a majority of the lower two third of earners supporting greater redistribution consistently for the last three decades, compared to a minority among the top third, according to new analysis.
This reality is compounded by a concentration in party memberships, political donors and career politicians:
- The number of MPs entering parliament from working-class jobs has fallen twice as quickly as the share of the public working in similar jobs. Only seven per cent of MPs can be considered working class compared with 34 per cent of working-age adults, according to IPPR estimates.
- The proportion of the electorate that is a member of a political party has fallen from around one in 12 citizens in the 1950s to around one in 50 today, finds IPPR. Another study estimates 86 per cent of Conservative and 77 per cent of Labour party members are middle class.
- Just 10 per cent of donations – those from the largest donors – account for more than half of the total received by each of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties a study found. There is also evidence of a strengthening relationship between campaign spending and votes won in the UK, and growing concentration of wealthy donors over the past decade, especially for the Conservative party.
IPPR says the UK risks entering a ‘doom loop’ where policy is becoming ever less responsive to citizens, in turn stoking populism and further undermining faith in democracy.
The think tank says snapping out of it will require a new wave of constitutional reform, tightly focused on levelling up power and influence in the UK. The report argues the UK’s “democratic machine needs rewiring” if living standards and life expectancy are to start improving across the board again.
Dr Parth Patel, senior research fellow at IPPR, said: “For the first time since the birth of democracy in this country, people do not expect their children to be better off than them.
“In the face of insecurity, people naturally want control – to take back control of a political process that has allowed wages to fall after flatlining for a decade, and locked generations out of owning a home.
“There are real differences in who gets their way in our democracy. Policy is more responsive to preferences of the well-heeled than of the worse off, and people know this – but it seems to be a blind spot for most politicians.
“No matter who’s in power, our democratic machine needs rewiring. If people are once again to be authors of their own lives, and to feel secure, they must sense their influence in the collective decision-making endeavour that is democracy.”
* Read: Who decides? Power, influence and inequality in British democracy here.
* Source: Institute for Public Policy Research