Will Populism Fix the Participation Crisis in UK Politics?

Ahyan Sikandar - Oct. 23, 2023 - 4 min read - #Politics

Populism — a school of political thought that strives to appeal to the commoner — is undoubtedly highly divisive. Its rise globally has caused voter turnouts, with people flocking to the poll stations to exercise their right to suffrage to vote for and against populist leaders like Trump and Farage. However, with many other pressing issues, it would be unfair to say that populism is the silver bullet to patch this issue altogether.

A standard view amongst those who seek to promote populism for its qualities in terms of increasing participation is that populism brings people to vote for a plethora of reasons. Initially, it appeals to a new audience that has often seemed forgotten; ‘the average Joe’. Populism’s core philosophy is to build upon the desire to gain power; however, it also marginalises many other groups. A perfect example of this is Trump’s abhorrent, openly racist and sexist views that got him widespread support from the extreme members of America’s ordinary men. However, this marginalisation also attracts voters from marginalised communities as they attempt to elect the opposition, one of the biggest reasons Biden was elected in the 2020 American Presidential Elections. This larger voter turnout can be seen in the fact that the 2020 election had the second highest-ever turnout at 62.0% and the largest since 1960, which was less than a per cent lower. This does suggest that populism would fix these issues. However, despite the vast successes of populism elsewhere, this success has not been reciprocated in the UK, with the closest the UK has to a populist candidate for Prime Minister in Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party between 2015 and 2020, winning only 202 in his second and last general election, the party’s lowest since 1935, exemplifying a distaste for his populist views within the general electorate, especially when your take into account the fact that Johnson — the winner of the election - ended up being largely unpopular during his tenure at 10 Downing Street. As well as this, Britain’s most prominent populist personality in politics, Nigel Farage, has never once been elected by members of the seven different constituencies he has fought in, with his highest-ever votes coming in 2015 at 32.4%; his popularity is an apparent reflection of the role populism has to play in UK politics or the lack thereof.

Therefore, to fix this crisis, first, we must look at the causes, the largest being a lack of political education amongst the electorate. The easy fix would be to make political education compulsory within schools and standardise the system. As well as this, making voting more accessible by either introducing online voting or increasing the number of days people have to vote would go a long way, as it would mean people who are unavailable on the day of the election would still be able to participate. Lastly, one of the most detrimental notions about voting is the idea of a ‘wasted vote’. In areas like Kensington, where the Conservatives have won all but one election, many of the electorate that would vote Labour feel there is little to no point taking time out of their day to vote. However, moving to a different electoral system could avoid this. Despite the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum deciding to stick with the traditional First-Past-The-Post system, many have put this down to a lack of awareness about the different voting systems in the electorate. If improved political education is combined with a new referendum, we could end up with the most significant change to the UK’s electoral process since the Representation of the People Act 1928, an end to a participation crisis and a restoration of faith amongst the public, in politics.