The electorate has changed and parties are struggling to catch up

Alberto Nardelli, election data guru extraordinaire, has a piece in the Guardian which is worth reading on the way that the electorate has changed and will keep on changing.

The face of Britain’s electorate has changed and there is a fundamental mismatch between voters and the options on the ballot paper. Labour and the Tories would be naive to cast all this aside as a series of protest votes that will fade away – and to ignore the divides that define the country, battling instead to occupy a political space that is rapidly shrinking.

Because all these different threads will shape not only the next government, but will weave together the fabric of the UK for many years to come.

Read the rest…

Dissolution of Parliament and the pre-election period

Today is significant not only because it’s the launch of the Democratic Society’s 2015 General Election blog (hooray!), but also because it marks two other important events in the general election calendar: the dissolution of Parliament in the United Kingdom, and the beginning of a pre-election period commonly known as ‘purdah’. But what are these political phenomenon?

Dissolution of Parliament

Parliament is responsible for checking the work of the government on behalf of UK citizens, partly to ensure it’s doing a good job. It also examines, debates and approves new laws.

There are three parts to Parliament:

• The House of Commons, composed elected Members of Parliament (more commonly known as ‘MPs’)
• The House of Lords, composed of unelected members
• The Monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, who signs the laws that Parliament vote for.

According to the law of the United Kingdom, an election for members of Parliament (MPs) must happen every five years. Dissolution is the official term for the end of a current Parliament, which must happen 25 working days before the date of voting for each general election. Once the Parliament has been dissolved, it will generally not meet again until a new government is formed. The only reason that Parliament would be recalled is if there was a matter of urgent public interest such as war or a natural disaster, which has happened a few times.

As a result of the dissolution of Parliament, all MP’s are required to leave their post. This means that the UK currently has no MP’s and, if they want to ever return to Parliament, they must stand for re-election and be voted in. There are no changes to the House of Lords during this period as the members are appointed, not elected.

It is worth nothing that whilst the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly also go through a period of dissolution, they hold their elections at a different time to the UK general election, so they are currently functioning as usual.

If you would like to know more about the dissolution of Parliament, there is further information on the Parliament website.

Pre-election period (purdah)

Today also marks the official start of the official pre-election period, also known as ‘purdah’. As the time between now and polling day (Thursday 7th May) is very politically sensitive, it is important that local authorities and central government departments do not do anything that might affect public support for a political party or candidate. There are restrictions placed on some of their work by law.

Local services will continue to operate and normal council business can take place. The main restrictions are around communication and the use of resources.

During this period your local Council, for example, must ensure that they don’t publish any controversial issues or proposals which could be linked to a candidate or political party; are not releasing communications involving political parties or candidates that could affect impartiality; and avoiding the organisation of events involving select local elected representatives. This means that the Council could not call a photo call for a councillor attending the opening of a new service, or publish a news item on its website attributing work to a particular candidate. You can find out more about what local and central Government should consider during purdah in guidance produced by the Local Government Association.

Individual candidates and councillors are allowed to continue to use resources which are not connected to local authorities or central government departments in a personal capacity. This might include personal blogs, social media and local press.

If you would like to read more about what happens during the pre-election period, you can find further information on the Parliament website or in this recent article.

Citizen action for democracy: a recent experience

Camilla Child of The Tavistock Institute writes about a recent experience of citizen action for democracy in this guest blog post for Demsoc. You can find her on Twitter @CamillaChild

At the last election, the newly created Hampstead and Kilburn constituency was a closely contested three-way marginal. Labour’s Glenda Jackson had a majority of 42 votes over the Conservative candidate, and the Liberal Democrat was only 841 votes behind her as well. This makes it both the most marginal seat in England (and third in the UK) and the closest three-way marginal in the UK parliament. The constituency itself is located mostly within the London Borough of Camden with just three of Brent’s wards within the boundary. I live in one of these.

In my opinion, as an active voter keen to encourage democracy, attention to process and trust in it is of utmost importance. Making sure that voting arrangements are clear and simple so that everyone understands who is doing what, where and how, is key to this. Important everywhere, but especially so where the vote is likely to be so close. I imagine no Returning Office wants to be pulled up on a technicality. So when we received our polling cards marked with the London Borough of Camden I wondered if it might cause some confusion. Within no time a couple of neighbours mentioned it to me on the street and wondered if there was a mistake. We are Brent residents after all. Together we thought it might put off the many people already mistrustful of local democracy, as well as providing a reason not to go, for those wavering about bothering to vote.

As I had already promised my student daughter I would check on her postal vote, I phoned up Camden electoral services. For that, they said, I had to phone up Brent electoral services as they were in charge of Brent postal votes. But, I said, I thought you were in charge of everything and I mentioned the poll card. That person said he had already received several calls from Brent people querying it, and no, it wasn’t just me. Together we also agreed the website wasn’t particularly clear. I phoned Brent and the operator said the same, that she had already had plenty of queries and would I please mind mentioning it to the electoral services in Brent who she put me on to.

So I wrote an email to Camden and Brent and contacted one of the party agents. I suggested greater clarity on the website, and a letter sent to everyone in the three Brent wards to clarify that Camden is responsible for running the election for our constituency. After all, what harm could it do? And it might even make the difference to the election result, who knows?

Only Camden replied to say they thought it was reasonably clear and it had been like this last time we voted. Yes, I replied, but we didn’t know then just how close it would be.

The next day though, a different response came through. An email from the Principal Electoral Services Officer saying that a letter to everyone in the Brent wards would be sent to explain the situation. And this morning it arrived!

A small victory for both for democracy and citizen action.  And well done to Camden Council for listening and taking action.

Reaching to the Converted: Turning Young Peoples Social Media Engagement into Democratic Participation

Demsoc’s Kelly McBride (@Kelly_McB) takes a look at the development of digital and social media initiatives to encourage young people to get registered and voting in the 2015 General Election.

The 2010 General Election was heralded as the first of the social media age and arrived with an accompanying buzz about how it would change political engagement in the 21st century, especially among young voters. However, it wasn’t quite the revolution that some may have hoped. Despite a respectable level of engagement, the turnout for 18-24 year olds at the General Election was 44% – the lowest of any age category.

Fast-forward to 2015 and it seems like politics has upped its hashtag game. With latest figures from the Office of National Statistics showing that young people “lead the way across all categories of internet use”, organisations and some politicians are heeding the data and going digital. A recent report by cross-party think tank Demos concluded that the youth vote could swing the 2015 general election, so it’s clear that digital engagement is worth the effort.

In the run-up to an uncertain General Election, and faced with the biggest changes to voter registration in a generation, both the political and non-partisan are out to get young people ‘engaged’ and voting, and young people themselves are increasingly debating, creating and sharing political content through social media.

Some recent UK digital and social media based voter initiatives

Bite the Ballot’s National Voter Registration Day achieved 166,000 sign-ups in a single day (plus a grand total of over 500,000), and they gave young people the opportunity to question political leaders through #LeadersLive. They have also taken the time to assess the manifestos of some political parties to see what they are offering to young voters, and produced Verto, one of many new Voter Advice applications to spring up this year.

The British Youth Council adopted voter registration as a priority campaign, whilst asking parties to introduce online Youth Manifestos, and encouraging young people – including under 18’s – to voice their opinions with ‘Make Your Mark‘ and the ‘League of Young Voters‘.

Facebook have worked with Sky News to host an interactive #AskTheLeaders debate, and teamed up with the Electoral Commission to prompt all UK users to register to vote – moves primarily aimed at young voters.

Youth volunteering charity vInspired are utilising YouTube and Tumblr with the ‘Swing The Vote‘ campaign; and the National Union of Students’ are pushing #GenerationVote.

On 28th April, Channel 4’s digital service teamed up with alternative youth news network Shout Out UK to stream Britain’s first ever debate between youth leaders, with representatives from 7 political parties. A concurrent conversation took place on Twitter (#‎YouthLeaders). The organisers of the debate expressed frustration about the lack of young voices in British politics and a concern for voter disengagement.

This is just a snippet of what has happened so far, and some of these initiatives have been positively recognised by Government in their response to voter engagement in the UK. The Government itself has even produced some interactive resources to use in schools under their election-focussed Rock Enrol! initiative, although the uptake and impact has yet to be concluded.

Is this enough to encourage widespread youth democratic participation?

In any discussion of digital engagement, it would be remiss not to consider the potential for exclusion. The ‘second-level digital divide‘ recognises that digital engagement benefits those who possess good internet skills and use the internet for political purposes, and excludes those who do not. We have yet to discern the impact of digital and social media efforts translating into voter turnout or sustained political engagement, but whatever the conclusions post-election we should bear in mind what the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said in an article last year:

The most brilliant apps for democratic participation could be built but […] getting people to use them and […] use them well, is a political and social challenge rather than a technological challenge.”

Whilst some of the initiatives already mentioned have developed alongside some on-the-ground action in communities and schools, we must be aware of the complacency in thinking that digital and social media platforms are the key to ensuring an informed, involved and influential young electorate. There is work to be done outside of the digital realm to ensure that any transfer of democratic participation to a digital space happens alongside adequate investment in education, complementary educational policies, discursive communities, and well thought-out political system reform; one which is ideally co-created with the young people it is supposed to work for, and which revitalises interest from the groups who feel the current system is not working for them.

We must also be aware of inflated impressions of political power that we give to people when we encourage political participation solely in an online environment, considering that Government is not compelled to listen to or act on online activity (despite having its own e-petition site). Whilst the internet is a valuable tool in raising consciousness and connecting some communities, we need to think more deeply about how our online activity will develop into tangible democratic action for all communities.

Recent contributions to the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy contain suggestions for getting young people actively involved in democratic practices, and studies like this one in 2010 examining the influence of social media and digital engagement on election outcomes, can provide evidence bases from which to work.

Democracy should not just mean voting in elections, and many of the excellent discussions that have taken place in the run-up to this General Election have set the foundations for an on-going public conversation about making democracy fit for the UK in the 21st century.

This leaves us with some thinking to do. How does the democratic sector work alongside schools, local authorities and youth organisations ‘on the ground’ to reach beyond the ballot box and enable young people to become active participants – and perhaps even co-creators – in a digital democratic future?

We have cause to celebrate the latest digital innovations, but it is integral that we also equip young people with the skills and knowledge to take advantage of them, and continue to encourage the Government to lead its own modern evolution.

Demsoc is interested in gathering information about all UK projects aiming to get young people more informed and involved in political and democratic activities. If you know of any other digital or social media based initiatives not mentioned in this article, please let us know in the comments or email

Why manifestos are important

– Niamh Webster (@niamhwebster) explores the importance of political party manifestos in the countdown to the general election

The manifestos are out, but reading them all means reading seven or more long documents, some up to 150 pages. At about 185,000 words, the collected manifestos are about three times the length of Brave New World. For most people, there aren’t enough hours in the days left to read them.

Who reads manifestos anyway, you may ask – yet the manifestos are an essential ingredient in why elections bring democratic legitimacy, for three reasons: accountability, transparency and participation.

Accountability, because political parties must produce material to which they can be held to account on delivery, if elected.

Transparency, because manifestos force parties to be clear and open about their priorities, enabling voters to identify with the parties in an open and transparent way.

Participation, because at the height of the campaigns, the media coverage makes the upcoming election impossible to ignore.

Manifestos present an opportunity for the public to engage and learn about the parties and scrutinise their policies. Involving voters in a debate that can sometimes seem restricted to academics, media and politicians enables voters to compare and contrast the manifestos in a national conversation – and to attack what they don’t like.

There is a caveat to all of this; in the changing political party system of British politics, it is no longer always possible to hold politicians to account on the basis of their manifesto.

The General Election may produce a coalition government or a minority government, ruling on a basis of confidence and supply with the support of another party. In this case, as a recent Constitution Society paper explains, parties in Government will have to compromise on their policies to reach agreement. As is clear from the example of the recent coalition, the Lib Dems compromised on a major policy – tuition fees – which many of their supporters felt was a betrayal of a central manifesto promise.

Parties could also make manifestos easier to read. Most people will not read all the policies – that is left up to the experts. Most will never hold a copy in our hands. Not many of us will receive a full manifesto through our doors, and although they are available online, this leaves out a large proportion of the offline public without access.  Easy read versions and braille copies attempt to address the lack of accessibility, yet this cannot fully be remedied with such lengthy documents.

The manifestos might take a while to look through, but the political parties have spent even longer analysing, costing, researching these policies and making them as open and as detailed as possible to inform and involve potential voters. The information is crucial to the decision-making process in an open and democratic election. They are vying for your vote – take the opportunity and read, criticise and challenge.

Posted on July 23, 2015 by Matilda Murday

The new and trending ‘#Milifandom’: a fresh wave of young Labour supporters, or just another ironic hashtag?

 – Guest post by Emily Evans (@EmzieEvs)

The new and trending ‘#Milifandom’: a fresh wave of young Labour supporters, or just another ironic hashtag? For those of you who aren’t completely up-to-date with internet slang, this refers to a “fandom” (a group of dedicated, often obsessive, fans) devoted entirely to Ed Miliband (‘milifan’- Miliband, get it?) and the Labour Party. As a member of “today’s youth”, and proud fangirl, I must admit that I was immediately excited by the prospect. It’s always an intriguing experience to observe internet culture integrate with the world of politics.

As the 2015 General Election creeps up on us, parties and democratic societies have been scrambling around in an attempt to (at last) capture the Youth Vote. However, this surprising wave of popularity for the Labour party has not come from the party itself, but from 17-year-old twitter user, and Labour fanatic, Abby (@twcuddleston), who kick-started the hashtag in an attempt to debunk Ed’s “distorted media portrayal” and help to inform young people of what the Labour party has to offer them. #milifandom appears to have become an online phenomenon, reaching UK “trending” status practically overnight, which leads us to question why the major parties struggle to capture young supporters, and wonder whether the supporters themselves should be leading the campaign strategies, especially in an increasingly digital world. The 2010 General Election witnessed it’s first ever televised leaders debate and now, five years later, the online media has never been more vital to politics. Hashtags such as ‘#BiteTheBallot’ and ‘#GE2015’ have dominated the youth political scene, along with an array of online media campaigns from every side of the political spectrum.

But what does this all mean for the future of political engagement for young people? In my honest opinion, I believe politics will continue to integrate into a much more informal, engaging, and possibly transparent nature, ready to engage the 18-25 year old voters who have fallen behind on turn outs for so many years. When answering why Miliband’s “fandom” has been such a hit, I’m afraid that I’m at a loss. However, I can only assume that it is simply because it reached out in a new, original, and relatable way that cannot be replicated in the same way by any other party, and has thus captured the attention (and hearts) of many twitter users across the UK.

Are you ready for a Constitutional Convention?

– Titus Alexander, Convenor of Democracy Matters, asks if we are ready for a Constitutional Convention in this guest blog for Demsoc.

The footprints of history spook this election: the next parliament runs from the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta on 15 June to the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, when Scotland proclaimed independence.  Next year is the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, then part of the UK. This led to Irish independence in 1949, seventy three years after Ireland first elected a majority of MPs calling for Home Rule within a federal UK. These events will resonate in a Parliament next year. If a majority of MPs from Scotland are from the SNP, and a majority of English MPs demand English votes for English laws, the current constitution could be unworkable, particularly if no party has an overall majority.

Although no one is talking about it, the footprints are leading to a constitutional convention after the election. All three main parties promise devolution of powers to local councils and communities as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All parties promise more “power to the people”. Labour promises a “people-led Constitutional Convention” on the future of UK’s governance. The Conservatives “will build an enduring settlement for the United Kingdom” and an in-out referendum on EU membership in two years. These are big constitutional issues which cannot be contained.

Less than a quarter of voters are satisfied with the state of British democracy according to research by the University of Edinburgh: 77% are dissatisfied, with little variation across the UK. Somehow the whole system needs a major overhaul.

The establishment is preparing

There has been a lot of quiet preparation for a constitutional convention over the past few years:

The LSE is crowdsourcing a written constitution at where the public can post ideas, comments and vote on proposals for ten topics: Head of State, The government, Parliament, Devolution, Local Government, Elections, International Relations, Rights and duties, Values and The Judiciary. The most popular ideas, as voted by the crowd, the public can refine them before the constitutional convention.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has published a valuable document on the UK Constitution in the last week of Parliament. This summarise a massive report on “A new Magna Carta?”, setting out three options for a future constitution. The committee wants people to take a Survey Questionnaire  and continue the conversation on social media using #UKconstitution

The House of Lords Library published a useful briefing on 20 March 2015 (LLN 2015/008) to inform the process (this is more detailed than the shorter note for the House of Commons (19 March 2015 SN07143). It includes a summary of where the parties stand, the major issues to consider, the experience of other countries and further references.

Constitutional reform is accelerating. The only question is whether it continues in a piecemeal ad-hoc fashion, with the possible departure from the EU and break-up of the UK, or whether we have a national debate about the issues and create a new settlement. The Scottish referendum campaign in 2014 showed how a constitutional debate can engage people in politics. That was a slow process over several decades, including a Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989, funded by local authorities, churches and trusts. Its report, Scotland’s Right, was published in 1995 on St Andrew’s Day and laid the basis for the Scottish Parliament in 1999. If the British Parliament does not create a new federal constitution in the next five to ten years I predict that Scotland will vote for independence and we will have to have a new constitution anyway.

So are you ready for a Constitutional Convention?

Read more at the Democracy Matters blog, Hung, quartered and re-drawn: remaking the British constitution

The Guardian is wrong, women are voting, but they're still not being heard.

Today the Guardian has published an article by Polly Toynbee entitled Millions of women fail to vote. Did the suffragists suffer in vain?.

I was surprised, because according to the British Election Study (BES), there is no meaningful gap between the genders when it comes to voter turnout – with 77% of men and 76% of women turning out to vote in the 2010 General Election.

The House of Commons Library data, cited by both Harriet Harman, Polly Toynbee and numerous media outlets, of ‘1 million missing women voters’ is taken directly from the BES data, but with artificial weighting added to make up for a potential gap between what people claim they have done with what they have actually done.

This is unvalidated data. Yes, there may be a gap between the numbers who say they vote and those that actually do, but to extrapolate from this unvalidated weighted data that there are ‘1 million missing women voters’ is careless at best.

There are a number of reasons I believe it is important to counter the idea that women are less likely to vote with the facts that we can verify. Whilst the Guardian may believe that they are encouraging female voters to get out on election day, the implication women aren’t voting could have a genuinely detrimental effect upon debates about real inequality of representation in British politics.

First, this form of disinformation is Christmas for those who wish to prove that conversations about gender inequality are built on quicksand. One of the statements of opposition to giving women the vote was that they wouldn’t use it, that women simply don’t care enough to vote. There is no proof that this is the case. Some women don’t vote, but nearly the same number of men don’t vote. It’s not a women’s issue, it’s a democracy issue.

Second, there are real reasons why women are less likely to become MPs, and we need a genuine debate about how to combat those if we want to create gender equality in our democracy.

For example, the ERS has published a fascinating study about the effect of first past the post voting systems on the gender make-up of parliament. The Labour Party, which runs all-women shortlists for Parliamentary candidates, has a higher proportion of female MPs than the other two main parties although, granted, it is still far from equal. In the recent French local elections, parties ran “binômes” – male/female paired candidates that ensured that all councils were 50% male and 50% female.

There are other issues: the incompatibility of family life and Parliament (including the additional pressure on women as parents); and the antisocial behaviour in the House of Commons are just two examples.

The answer to improved representation is not simple, it is a cultural, structural and political. All of these topics need to be debated, in the open, and solutions found. False claims that women do not vote allow those who would not want to tackle the issue of gender inequality in our system to claim that such work is unnecessary, because women are not interested in politics.

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