Digital technology has transformed the way we access information and interact with services. Democratic services have not kept up, risking a situation where democracy is seen as out of date. Joe Mitchell argues that it’s time to dream big: the UK has an opportunity to create a new digital-first office of civic education and democratic information, to restore trust and grow public understanding of our democracy.
What’s the biggest threat to democracy in the UK? Interference by foreign powers? Disinformation? Fake news? Micro-targeting of voters on social media? Or is it more simple than that? Is itt is just that engaging in the democratic process no longer fits with people’s lives?
Digital technology has transformed the way we live. It has changed our expectations of how we access information, how we communicate, how we bank, shop or access government services. It should not surprise us then, to learn that people expect to access information on the democratic process digitally. For example, Google News Trends published the top ten searches on Google UK on the day of the 2015 general election; these all related to the election. The most popular question was ‘who should I vote for’ — a genuinely complex question, but the following searches were straightforward: variations on the theme of ‘who are the candidates’ and ‘where do I vote’.
Worryingly, the democratic process has been left behind by digital transformation. A gulf has emerged between the way we live our lives now and the way we participate in democracy: it can feel like something from a bygone age. Notices of elections are posted to a noticeboard in front of a council building and (not even in all cases) uploaded as a PDF to a webpage buried in a council website somewhere. While the digital register-to-vote service is welcome, no state institution has taken responsibility for meeting the digital demand for even the most basic information: when are elections happening, who is standing, what was the result? How to vote is covered by the Electoral Commission’s website, but with research on voter ID showing that only 8% of voters know the voting rules, clearly not enough is being done. Continue reading →
On 18 June, the Constitution Unit and the Hansard Society co-hosted an event in parliament marking the launch of Representation in Britain, a four-year ESRC funded study of parliamentary candidates standing in the 2015 and 2017 general elections by the Representative Audit of Britain (RAB) team. Lotte Hargrave offers a summary of what was said.
Professor Rosie Campbell, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London
Professor Campbell began by introducing the motivation for the study, citing the need for a reliable source of data on the profiles, motivations, and opinions of parliamentary candidates. The RAB began as a study of candidates standing in the 2015 general election, however following Theresa May’s decision to instigate a snap election, the team also surveyed candidates standing in 2017. Campbell noted the survey’s response rates – 57% in 2015 and 51% in 2017 – figures comparable with, and in some cases higher than, previous candidate studies. Alongside the survey, in 2015, 44 qualitative interviews were carried out that proved invaluable for reinforcing the robust nature of the quantitative data. Campbell highlighted that the purpose of the Audit was not to offer policy recommendations to parties or parliament, but to provide an independent and reliable source of data on the attitudes and experiences of UK parliamentary hopefuls.Continue reading →
The United States is in the midst of its 2018 midterm election cycle, and one of the most striking features of this year’s elections is the unusually high number of women who have elected to run for office. The U.S. falls short of many of its peers in terms of gender representation in government, but women seem poised to make gains this November. Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt discuss their new book, Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office, which argues women’s perception of a more difficult electoral landscape leads them to adopt distinct, and more constituent-oriented, legislative strategies than their male counterparts.
Elections in the US
In the United States, elections are much more candidate-centered than in many European countries. In most U.S. elections, candidates decide for themselves whether to run for office, and do not need the approval of party leaders. Candidates raise their own campaign funds (at the Congressional level candidates need a lot of money, more than $1 million U.S. at least), and are also responsible for conducting the re-election campaign itself. Additionally, U.S. candidates contest two elections in each cycle – first a primary election in which candidates within a party compete against each other for the right to be the party’s nominee, and later a general election in which the several nominees compete for the office in question. Altogether, politicians in the United States have huge electoral responsibilities which they shoulder largely on their own.
U.S. politicians therefore use the perks and powers of their office to help themselves win re-election. For members of Congress, this takes many forms. For example, members devote a lot of energy to procuring government spending which benefits their local communities, and they work to impress constituents as much as to make good national policy. Members have a formal budget for communicating with constituents and travelling back and forth between Washington and their home communities so they can attend local events and meet with local groups. Members also have staff devoted specifically to helping constituents solve problems they’re having with the federal bureaucracy.
In our book, we argue that female members of Congress are much more constituent-oriented than male members are, leading them to do all of these things more than men do. Continue reading →
A surge in Green Party support over the last year has the potential to impact the outcome of next week’s election. Sally Symington explores how the candidates put forward by the party reflect their supporters and contrast with other parties.
The surge in support for the Green Party in the 2015 general election has not gone unnoticed. Currently polling at 5% nationally, there are only a handful of seats where Green candidates will challenge for the top spot, but who are the 570+ candidates standing for election in 2015? Do Green Party candidates offer something different than the ‘typical’ politician—white, male and middle-aged with a lifetime’s experience in jobs ‘instrumental’ to a career in politics? Drawing on data from the UCL/Birkbeck Parliamentary Candidates UK project, we look at the social background of Green Party candidates in comparison to candidates from other parties, and in comparison to the party’s supporters. We ask, who are Green Party’s parliamentary candidates?
Gender With genuine descriptive representation, the numbers of male and female MPs, would reflect their proportions in the wider population. Of the five mainstream UK-wide parties, the Green Party has the highest percentage of female candidates, at 39%. This is a stark contrast with UKIP which has 13% female candidates – the lowest percentage of any party. 26% of Conservative candidates are female and Labour stands at 34%. However, both parties retain a large number of incumbent MPs (265 and 219 respectively) as 2015 candidates, and therefore their percent female candidates contesting 2015 is lower than the percent of new female candidates selected.
Much of UKIP’s appeal has arisen from positioning itself as the ‘anti-Westminster party’ but to what extent do UKIP candidates differ from those put forward by the ‘traditional parties’? Sally Symington and Jennifer Hudson assess the backgrounds of UKIP candidates using the data available and suggest that they may in fact reinforce the ‘male, pale and stale’ image of parliament.
UKIP is no longer a peripheral party and will, for the for first time in a British General Election, have a measurable impact on the outcome, both directly, through winning seats, and indirectly by influencing the behaviour of the other major parties. According to recent polling data, support for UKIP is at 16% and Ofcom has endorsed it as a ‘major’ party, including UKIP in the prospective TV leader debates. A recent poll of pollsters predicts UKIP will win five seats in May.
Much of UKIP’s appeal has arisen from positioning itself as the outsider or ‘anti-Westminster party’. After the Clacton by-electon in October 2014 Nigel Farage claimed, ‘We have a career political class of college kids who have never had jobs in their lives with absolutely no connection to ordinary people’. In this blog, we look at the backgrounds of UKIP candidates and ask to what extent are they different from candidates representing the traditional three parties? Are they less likely to have gone to university and worked outside of politics? Are UKIP candidates really different or do they reinforce the ‘male, pale and stale’ image of parliament?