To celebrate National Voter Registration Day, we are hosting a two-part blog on the importance of political education. In the first instalment, Titus Alexander, Associate Fellow of the Crick Centre wades through the muddy waters of political education to highlight why it is crucial that citizens have a good understanding of politics. Moreover, he argues that specifically in the run up to the 2015 general election, understanding how politics works could not be more important.
Why do we need good political education?
A general election is an unrelenting struggle for political mis-education in which parties try to trip each other up, avoid pratfalls and persuade the public to trust them. For three months the parties, press, pressure groups and social media will compete for attention about who to trust with responsibility for our security, economy, health services and over £700bn of public spending a year. That’s about £11,000 for every man, woman and child in Britain, more than £55,000 over the next five years. As Douglas Carswell points out, that’s the biggest purchase most of us make in our lives.
Most people have largely made up their mind about how they will vote and look for confirmation rather than weigh up the options. About third of the electorate may not vote at all, and on past form, the outcome will be decided by about 200,000 people in marginal constituencies. But with three months of campaigning, the rise in support for UKIP, SNP and Greens, and collapse of the LibDems, as well as the ability of Twitter to skewer unwary wanabies, this election is wide open. The public could respond with a collective snore and let turn-out drop below the 61.4% of 2005. Or people could be fired up, engage with the issues and drive the vote closer to the 84% who turned out in the Scottish Referendum. This is unlikely, but the more active the debate and higher the vote the better for democracy.
Broadcasters, the press, artists, politics departments, schools, adult and community education, pubs and clubs can make this election one where people wake up the politicians with a vigorous debate about what kind of country people want. Insurgent parties like the Greens, Plaid, SNP and UKIP are shaking things up with competing claims to know how create a better future. But how is the citizen to know which to believe?All parties have an interest in tailoring their message to what the public can hear and believe. All will seek to “educate” the public that their particular bitter pill is the better medicine and the others’ could kill. But they are all spin doctors. Who knows where to get authoritative, independent advice on what will work and what is best for people?
Why is political education particularly important during election season?
Elections are a time to debate the big issues facing the country and decide how best to respond. Parties which offer solutions that reflect the public mood are more likely to win, so they will adapt. During elections ruling elites and their challengers develop policies and priorities in dialogue with the public, interest groups and opinion leaders. Individual politicians rise or fall during the election, and with them the things they stand for. Politicians are at their most attentive and receptive during elections, particularly if they are hungry for power. They listen and respond more positively than they ever will once in Parliament. They will be wary of making commitments they cannot keep, remembering the horrible fate of Nick Clegg and the LibDems, but if a policy is feasible, attractive and costs little this is the time to pitch it.
The media also depend on public support and are influenced by public opinion as well as influencing it and mediating the dialogue with politicians. Social media and campaigning website such as 38 Degrees and Change.org can mobilise public opinion outside the established channels, opening up the political space to new voices and influences. The public can therefore shape party policies and priorities during the months before the election. People influence candidates at doorsteps, on the street and through social media, so that their representative in Parliament carries the stamp of their constituency as well as a party badge. As national politics becomes more volatile, local loyalties and positions become more important. All of this creates opportunities for democracy to come alive and give people a greater voice in what their Member of Parliament and government does after the election. Good political education can help people seize the opportunities an election creates.
The first task of political education is to convince people that politics matters and they can make a difference. People who understand the political system have more say in what happens than those who do not. Companies, industry associations, unions and pressure groups employ lobbyists and campaigners to influence decisions. They know that political ability, knowledge and contacts make a difference to them. Companies, trade unions and wealthy individuals also fund political parties to ensure that their outlook is represented. Spending on lobbying and PR is 100 times more than the combined turnover of the three main parties, and large individual donations accounted for 25 to 60 per cent of the two larger parties’ income. In this context education institutions, public service broadcasters and civil society organisations can help to create greater equality of influence by increasing political understanding and ability among the wider public so that they can learn how to have more influence.
Some politicians say political education is unnecessary or even dangerous, that it is a cover for propaganda or party politics, and people can make up their own minds. Of course they can, but good political education does not take sides on issues but gives people access to more sources of information and analysis, as well as better understanding of the issues and political process.
Titus Alexander is the Convener of Democracy Matters, an informal network of over 30 organisations promoting political education. Titus has a long history working in political education and citizenship, and as a result was asked to join the Crick Centre as an Associate Fellow. He can be followed on Twitter at @
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog, email our editor Nicholas Try at firstname.lastname@example.org