Our democracy has become increasingly divided. The 2015 general election confirmed the growth of sharp inequalities in voice and political influence by age and class over the last quarter-century. Less than half of 18–24-year-olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of ‘AB’ individuals who were registered to vote actually did so, against just over half of ‘DE’ registered voters. In 1987, by contrast, turnout inequality by class was almost non-existent and age-based differences were significantly lower.

Today’s unequal electoral participation rates reflect underlying inequalities in levels of political participation more broadly, and – critically – perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling published in April 2015 (see Lawrence 2015) showed that a striking 63 per cent of ‘DE’ individuals think that it serves their interests badly, while ‘AB’ voters are evenly split. Ingrained political inequality in the UK is undermining the legitimacy and vitality of our democracy.

What we mean by ‘political inequality’ is the extent to which certain individuals or groups participate more in, and have greater influence over, political decision-making – and through those decisions, benefit from unequal outcomes – despite procedural equality in the democratic process. Its existence therefore undermines the democratic ideal of equal political citizenship, whereby political decision-making reflects collective, equally weighted preferences.

The purpose of this report is to present new case studies on how political inequality manifests itself in the UK and, more importantly, to set out ways in which we can begin to combat it.

Our argument is that political inequality is product of a political system whose institutions and technologies are primarily inventions of the 19th century, consolidated in the 1920s when universal suffrage finally came into force. This system has aged poorly. Given the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century – our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever-more variegated and complex – it is inadequately representative, responsive and engaging.

The post-democratic drift of political culture, which is common across developed democracies, has accentuated the faultlines of inequality in participation and voice by age, class and region. Politics has become professionalised, class identities have weakened, and political parties have drifted from their anchors in civil society. Meanwhile, the evolution of the UK’s political economy has shrunk the scope and influence of collective political action and democratic participation.

Therefore, if we accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. We reject this settlement. Instead, in this report we argue for reform focussed on updating the civic, institutional and technological architecture of democracy in the UK, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are heard in the political process, and with a premium placed on institutional reform that can foster and sustain powerful democratic relationships in society.

To further that goal, IPPR has previously argued for the introduction of proportional representation and compulsory voting. Similarly, reforming party funding and democratising the second chamber – the House of Lords – would help to update our democracy. However, given the results of both the 2011 referendum on the electoral system and the 2015 general election, it is clear that these are longer-term ambitions for reform. In the meantime, substantive institutional reform and innovation can deliver more broad-based participation and representation in political life. To achieve this, we need to make the electoral system more representative and participation less unequal, thereby ensuring that the voting process becomes more inclusive, with lower barriers to participation. We also need to create new institutions and reform existing ones in order to strengthen democratic relationships. To that end, we make the following recommendations.

  1. The UK’s boundary commissions should be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of a seat when reviewing constituency boundaries – a process that begins in the spring of 2016. At present these commissions have a duty to consider only the geographic coherence and electoral size of a constituency. Where these two duties can be met, the responsible commission should seek to redraw a ‘safe’ seat to make it a ‘marginal’. ‘Gerrymandering’ safe seats out of existence where possible will help increase the competitiveness of elections and reduce the oversized electoral power that voters in marginals currently have, and as a result it is likely to improve participation rates.
  2. The single transferable vote system should be introduced in England and Wales for local government elections. The proportional system is already successfully used in Scotland and Northern Ireland – introducing it to the rest of the UK would enhance the representative quality of local democracy and reinvigorate political competition in parts of the country where the first-past-the-post system grants certain parties unearned monopolies on local authority power that are not merited by their vote share.
  3. Reforms should be made to ensure that the transition to the individual electoral registration process does not disenfranchise people – and estimates suggest that those who are currently unregistered are more likely to be younger, poorer, and from a BME background than the average registered individual. We therefore recommend that, in the short term, the deadline for registering under the new system should be extended to December 2016, and the ringfenced support to assist registration efforts that was made available to local authorities in the run-up to the 2015 election should be offered again, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration. In the longer term, greater accountability and a clearer delineation of responsibilities regarding the registration process is required. We therefore recommend new duties for electoral registration officers, through which they can improve the registration process, and new powers of oversight for the Electoral Commission.
  4. Establish a ‘Democracy Commission’ to facilitate democratic participation, with the goal of increasing levels of political participation and deliberation in the UK. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than just the electoral process. A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could support the growth of democratic relationships and forms of power in society by fulfilling three key functions:
  • conducting and publishing research into what initiatives are successful at increasing political participation
  • advising public bodies and institutions regarding how to better democratise their functioning
  • providing resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase levels of democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

The ultimate goal is to advance the fundamental ideal of political equality, whereby the preferences and interests of each person is given equal consideration, and each has equal voice and weight in influencing collective political decision-making processes. Today, under our divided democracy, this is nothing more than an ideal. However, in time, and with patient commitment, our political system can be renewed, and the goal of democratic equality advanced.