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Passive citizenship

Mike Davis discusses the malaise of democracy in Britain

One million protesters on the streets of London against the Iraq war or many thousands protesting in the 1980s, first alongside the miners then against the Poll Tax, with hundreds of thousands refusing to pay. Were these events exceptional manifestations of democratic activity or merely blips in the norm of an otherwise apathetic, acquiescent society?

Kevin Jeffreys' sober study, Politics and the People*, rather plays down the significance of such mobilisations focussing more on the traditional definition of democracy, namely elections, interest in politics and participation in political parties. The latter he sees at best as a one in ten phenomenon, the former of marginal interest. The book provides a welter of evidence to underline the thesis that democracy, as defined by Westminster and local government is a sideline for most people. His thesis is of an enduring model of passive citizenship. His findings underline the reality of 20th century British politics as dominated by the Tory and Labour Parties, and their various embraces of statist, top-down politics. Attlee and Wilson saw holding the reins of the state as the means to social reform, while Thatcher talked anti-state but built an authoritarian version. Both discouraged active engagement in the democratic political process.

Great upheavals

Ironically it was Thatcher's pursuit of the strong state that fostered widespread mass actions to rival the great upheavals of the 1930s and pre-WW1 era. This was all grist to the democratic mill, but only enjoys a walk-on part on Jeffreys' stage.

Starting his study in 1918 means Jeffreys also misses the sustained demonstrations and syndicalist strikes that characterised the immediate years before WW1. It also misses the great protests of the suffragettes' campaign for the female franchise or that of Irish nationalists. The Fabian and Stalinist politics that dominated the British centre and far left was either uneasy or hostile to much independent popular street and trade union activity. Ramsay McDonald, who split the Labour Party in 1931 to join a National government refused even to meet the Jarrow hunger marchers a few years later.

‘In 1945 many were prepared to cross oceans to fight for democracy but they were not willing to cross the street to vote for it'. This is Jeffreys' terse verdict on the '45 landslide Labour election victory that brought Attlee to power. GDH Cole, the veteran socialist writer, reflected on the '45 election in scathing terms. He was ‘quite unable to recognise the many millions of voters who voted...at the election as constituting a democracy. [They were more the victims] of a system that was still denying them the means to become a democracy.' He saw low levels of political knowledge as partly the responsibility of the emerging mass media and partly the political establishment. While the election was about bread and butter issues—‘homes fit for heroes' and a dream, the mass of the people were rapidly turned off politicians.

Jeffreys convincingly challenges the myth of 1945 as a time when the British people embraced politics. They remained ‘good subjects' rather than active citizens. While acknowledging that many people ‘didn't know and didn't care', there are dangers in allowing this to become the dominant perspective on popular politics in this period. Compared to the decades before which saw the growth both in the LP and Tory Party memberships, the proportion was double that of the inter-war period and voters surged to the polls in 1950 and 1951.

However, this was no golden age. People were prepared to vote, but not much more. Only one in ten adults expressed a serious interest in politics. At least half expressed no interest at all. Jeffreys puts high memberships down to a period of intense class divisions and the two party battle after the war. The decline of voting and party membership ‘exposed the enduring absence of a vibrant citizen culture.'

The chapter headings of the book: ‘No time for politics' ‘Don't know and don't care' and ‘Content, complete, complacent' emphasise the disengagement of people from political action. The majority are either happy or willing to leave a dwindling number of politicians to make decisions for the apathetic or alienated millions.

Making tea

A closer look at the Labour Party provides some explanations. Little wonder women showed less interest in politics as politics showed little interest in them. Trade unions and Labour were overwhelmingly male dominated and showed little inclination to involve women beyond making tea and organising jumble sales.

As for youth, Labour increasingly failed to communicate in the right language. In practice the party consistently failed to connect, where it did it sought control and when that failed it sought to repress. The story of the Labour League of Youth from the 1930s to the early 1950s is similar to that of the Labour Party Young socialists. The former slid from a peak of 800 branches in the late 1940s to 237 in 1955. Not long after it was closed down. Continual conflicts and efforts to contain characterised the story of the LPYS. Much the same could be said of women's organisation. This all contributed to the growing alienation from party politics

As far as LP grass-roots organisation is concerned, from Attlee to Wilson it was a voluntaristic approach which spurned organisers and political education. This led to stagnation and insularity. Local and small family elites meant many areas of party activity resisted expanding membership. Jeffreys quotes the classic response of a ward in Salford in 1957 used as the pretext to terminate a CLP recruitment drive—‘full-up' they declared.

The advent of TV politics in the 1950s further eroded a desire for active engagement. Jeffreys quotes Almond and Veblen, two US sociologists – who developed a rosy view of active ‘civic culture' in Britain. Others countered this view seeing disinterest and politics as a marginal pastime, a minority interest with only a few activists. Carole Pateman dubbed the problem 'democratic' elitism—a reliance on centralised and hierarchical form of government to provide strong leadership. This lies at the heart of the problem of Labour's statist politics and has been evident in spades with New Labour.

Coupled with the well-publicised phenomenon of sleaze in public life. The Tories had the main problem first with Profumo affair of the early 1960s revealing incompetence and double-standards. It was to be one of the biggest factors in the undoing of Major 30 years later. Political satirists now had access to the mass media. Sleaze gave them a field day. TW3 illustrated the move from deference to ridicule. Most mass newspapers served up a gruel heavy on opinion, celebrities and trivia increasingly light on political facts and information. The growth of an anti-establishment mood developed which Wilson capitalised on but not to the degree of mobilising political action.

Motoring through the 1970s and 1980s Jeffreys focuses on the steady decline in both electoral turnout and party membership, particularly in the Labour Party. By the mid 1990s, despite nearly 20 years of a crusading neo-liberal government, after which the trade unions had been thwarted and disorientated, New Labour emerged.


Aware of the need to reinvigorate civic life, break from sleaze, and the accompanying distrust and apathy towards politics and politicians Blair brought about institutional changes: devolution, citizenship education, Lords reform proposals. But they proved insufficient to change the political culture.

Increasingly New Labour tended to pander to what Ed Murrow, of Good Night and Good Luck fame, dubbed ‘videomalaise'. Namely, the tendency of TV, and the tabloid press, to oversimplify and sensationalise political events. Coupled with this trivialisation of politics has come an over-centralisation of local government, a domination of Downing Street over parliament and the Number 10 team over the Labour Party. As the US model of politics has found greater favour, the traditional institutions of political and social action—trade unions and a huge variety of voluntary and community organisations have been downgraded or under-valued. A cynicism and alienation from party and Westminster politics has grown. This has been particularly evident with young people. The Iraq war and more recent events around the Labour Party have done little to retrieve the situation.

Popular politics

What Jeffreys' book reveals is that the context of popular politics has changed enormously since 1918. With mass media, TV, new technology, telephones and mobile phones, the Internet and blogs, communication is instant and worldwide, while participation can take more private forms. Whilst he sees collective forms of democratic action to have declined, individualist forms like ‘consumer citizenship' have grown. However, seen alongside the misnamed phenomenon of ‘social' networking, this does not signify the much needed revolution in civil society.

While participation in traditional political life might continue to be a marginal, largely middle class and predominantly male pursuit there have been glimpses of a renewed democracy finding its voice: anti war protesters, green activists, civic action groups, empowered devolved government in Scotland and Wales, renewed trade union activism. These are the shoots of democratic renewal. It will take a brave government to provide the fertiliser.

Book reviewed: * Politics and the People: A History of British Democracy since 1918, Kevin Jeffreys ( Atlantic Books, £25 hb)