Political pundits in Britain often frame competition in elections as a fight for ‘middle England’. Each election, they invent names such as ‘Essex man’ or ‘Worcester woman’ to describe archetypal voters representative of marginal constituencies necessary to win a parliamentary majority. Bettws ward in Gwent, Wales, may not be the typical bellwether for the nation’s politics, but its significance rose with the first ever election of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) across England and Wales. Sadly, with turnout at a meagre 14%, participation in Gwent proved entirely consistent with the national picture. Less ordinary, however, was turnout in the quiet, provincial suburb of Bettws. Not one single resident voted.
The story sounds all too familiar: Bettws is emblematic of apathetic Britain. Yet another case of civic decline in a nation unsure of its place in the modern world. Her people, it is often said, increasingly care little about politics, witnessed by disengagement at the ballot box from village hall to Westminster Hall. But this analysis is too easy. Bettws is significant because it tells the story of a people who are hurting from change they don’t understand and which feels beyond their control.
Look at almost any metric, and traditional forms of democratic engagement appear to be in terminal decline: Electoral turnout, party membership, average voter age – take your pick. Like those excruciatingly awkward teenage years, the British body-politic is growing in ways which see old norms rub against the new as we experiment in unfamiliar ways. A national assembly here, a referendum there – we dip our toes into the icy waters of reform, but don’t quite want to take the plunge. The clothes just don’t fit any more. Despite setbacks, slowly but surely, as year follows year, the clamour for reform persists. No matter in which direction your political compass points home, the current democratic framework appears incapable of realising the hopes, and assuaging the fears, of the British people.
The journey so far…
The last 15 years have witnessed a flurry of reform initiatives, some cosmetic, others lasting. We’re left with a patchwork of incongruous electoral systems and political norms. New Labour’s introduction of devolved national assemblies in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the late 1990s signalled the starting-shot to a race for reform. Initiated through referenda, they introduced proportional electoral formulae and ‘re-centralised’ power away from London, to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. The system was designed to both satisfy the needs of citizens, whose daily struggle seemed a long way from the neo-gothic corridors of Westminster, and to neuter separatists’ calls for independence. Yet, devolution backfired spectacularly in Scotland on the second count, with the nationalist leader Alex Salmond now firmly ensconced in the parliament at Holyrood. Devolution shook the kaleidoscope of politics in Britain. We are yet to see how the pieces settle.
The record for reform looks a bit like this: Three devolved national assemblies, the London Assembly, rejected regional assemblies and a rejected referendum on the AV form of proportional representation: A mixed bag. Most recently, attempts to introduce a largely elected second chamber in the legislature were [wisely, in my view] rebuffed by the House of Commons. As we saw earlier, the PCC elections were anything but enthusiastically embraced. Most intriguing was the recent rejection of directly elected mayors in some of England’s biggest metropolitan centres, with Bristol the notable exception. However, this was hardly surprising coming from that great bastion of West Country non-conformity, which elected an independent candidate as its inaugural mayor. This was the real tragedy of a decade of botched reform. Elected mayors have a record capable of renewing the faded promise of our urban heartlands, yet were rejected by a frustrated populace sceptical of yet another ill-defined initiative from the centre.
The civic tradition
In a decade which saw London finally grow comfortable in its own skin – as a truly global, outward looking, metropolis – it is hard to doubt the role of the two mononyms, ‘Ken’ and ‘Boris’, in City Hall. The recent mayoral reforms should never have been put to referenda, which in Britain sit anathematic to our representative system – a ‘get out of gaol’ card for politicians with insufficient political capital (or stomach) to take the tough decisions. Whilst on the local level proportional representation may well help build fairer representation, as a panacea for national revival, it seems like a hopelessly wonkish debate, far removed from people’s daily concerns. As for Lords reform and PCCs, people want politicians to get on and govern. Party-political division and further entry-points for careerists and hacks – whether in Westminster or Holyrood – are not the answer.
It comes down to leadership. Leadership at the top, as the country struggles with the amorphous effects of global change, and leadership at the local level, through a politics tailored to the concerns of the places we live. At their best, mayors give us a mirror to hold up and reflect on the look, shape and feel of our communities – whether we identify with what we see and, if not, give us the tools to force change. So, back to Bettws ward and Newport.
The way forward
It should come as no surprise when people reject change when given the choice from the top. Whether in electing PCCs or city mayors, we have so spectacularly failed to build a narrative of what is means to be a citizen in Britain today. If Bettws is significant in its reticence to change, so too the path to revival lies in listening to its people’s concerns. Reform must compliment Britain’s organic model of representative democracy, rather than replicate the poisonous divides of our national party politics.
Bettws may be too clunky a name to be adopted by pollsters, but with the spectre of the next election looming, its message is clear: People are struggling to see how the democratic framework works for them. Ill-defined reforms entrench disengagement with the politics of the centre and, by failing to fundamentally shift the balance of power, exhaust political capital running in short supply.
Jonnie Beddall is an MPP student at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.