On Thursday lunchtime I discovered that Claus Offe, one of the world’s most famous political sociologists, as giving a lecture entitled Participatory inequality in the austerity state about a hundred metres from my office late on Thursday afternoon. I thought it would be interesting to trundle along.
As it turned out “austerity state” made for a good title but was not hugely central to the talk. The talk focused on two well-known problems.
First, participation in the institutions of liberal democracy is in decline across the western world. It isn’t just the proportion of the population who bother to vote that is in decline, seemingly inexorably. In fact, voting holds up better than most of the other indicators you might look at, such as political party membership or other more active forms of political engagement. Britain is not at all unusual in now recording less than 10% of the population as being political party members. That is now the norm. Political parties are now more likely to be guided by polling, focus groups and a rather desperate pursuit of the swing voter and the mythical middle ground than they are to represent a set of values to which millions of people actively subscribe.
Second, the decline in participation is not uniform. It is sharpest among the young, those on lower incomes, with fewer skills and lower levels of education. Hence Offe’s reference to participatory inequality.
The challenge is that the system is locked in to a self-reinforcing, path dependent process. At least that is how I’d describe what Offe was saying, even if he didn’t quite put it in those terms. As participation declines, it makes sense for politicians to offer policies that appeal to those who are still most inclined to vote – older, better-educated and better-off households. That in turn means that voters in other social locations – the poor and unskilled workers – perceive politics to be a game run primarily for the benefit of the rich, and hence disengage further from the process. Continue Reading →