Political inequality: Why British democracy must be reformed and revitalised

Published Mon 6 Apr 2015
Growing levels of electoral inequality by age and class, falling political participation rates and low levels of belief in the efficacy of democracy all reflect an ingrained sense that the political process is rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and the well-connected. This report seeks to define and explore the concept and impact of political inequality, a problem which remains under-addressed in the UK.

Political inequality is when certain individuals or groups have greater influence over political decision-making and benefit from unequal outcomes through those decisions, despite procedural equality in the democratic process. As such, it undermines a central democratic ideal: that all citizens, regardless of status, should be given equal consideration in and opportunity to influence collective political decision-making.

What is clear from our research is that differences in participation and influence by class and age are evident in almost all aspects of the political process. Political inequality appears ingrained, to the detriment of British democracy.

This report sets out the nature and scale of the challenge, ahead of a second report later this year, which will make specific recommendations to address the problem.

We begin by defining the concept of political inequality and why it matters, both from a democratic perspective and on acount of its effect on social and economic outcomes. This relationship between political and economic inequality is a focus of our wider review of the literature in this area.

We also publish the results of original polling on political participation, engagement and trust. This highlights, for example, that almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of DE voters believe that democracy addresses their interests 'badly'.

This analysis helps us to identify areas of thinking or potential action which are not prominent in current debates about political reform. The depth of political inequality that we set out in this report makes clear that a proactive strategy for democratic revival – rooted explicitly in tackling inequalities of participation and influence – is desperately needed.

We argue that key features of this strategy should:

  • be far more sensitive to the effects of class and age in terms of who participates – and has influence – politically
  • recognise that political inequality is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon that is intimately bound up with other socioeconomic inequalities
  • embrace devolution as a critical opportunity to combat political inequality, potentially by giving people a greater say over political decision-making locally and helping to redress the overcentralisation of power in Whitehall
  • seek to 'reboot' representative democracy more broadly.

 

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