Crick Centre Associate Fellow Titus Alexander considers what the 2017 election manifestos mean for political education
Britain faces huge political challenges, yet the main political parties have nothing to say about the skills and understanding needed for Brexit, devolution and a host of political problems. The Liberal Democrats are the only party to support citizenship as a curriculum entitlement, of the manifestos published to date (20 May).
All schools are required to teach “British Values”, including democracy and “how citizens can influence decision-making through the democratic process”. But this is clearly not working. Citizenship education has all but disappeared from most schools. Sixty per cent of young people didn’t vote in the last three general elections and don’t believe they can influence decision-making.
Our political system was created by campaigning, but this is usually taught within the safety of history, not as a practical way for citizens to create the future they want. But ‘influencing decision-making through the democratic process’ means campaigning, voting, lobbying and organising to improve things, including the political system itself.
Schools, colleges and universities need to be more confident about teaching practical politics as a core subject. They don’t need permission, but they do need to do it well. This means a non-partisan, balanced approach, which encourages young people to think for themselves and make up their own minds.
As part of this, it is worth looking at what each party manifesto says about democracy:
- What are their concrete proposals?
- Who do they benefit most?
- Who could they harm?
- What or who do they leave out?
The following paragraphs summarise the main points about democracy and our political system in the three manifestos published so far:
The Conservatives have a section on ‘Democracy and the Rule of Law’ which recognises that “collective faith in our democratic institutions and our justice system has declined” and proposes to “to re-establish faith in our democracy, and in our democratic and legal institutions” by improving electoral registration, giving votes for life to British overseas electors, equalising the size of constituencies and reducing the number of MPs to 600. They do not see reform of the House of Lords as a priority and will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson inquiry, but they will “take steps to protect the reliability and objectivity of information” with a consistent approach to “regulation of online and offline media.”
They will “champion British values around the globe” freedom, democracy, tolerance, the rule of law, “property entitlements, a free and open media, and accountable institutions in countries and societies across the world”.
Labour has a chapter on ‘Extending Democracy’, promising a Constitutional Convention, an elected Second Chamber, votes at 16, more power and funds for local government, and the option of a more federalised country. They promise more democratic ownership of the economy through co-operatives and taking “key public utilities back into public ownership”. They will “ensure that schools are democratically accountable”, repeal the Lobbying Act and “guarantee that Parliament has a truly meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal”.
The Liberal Democrats want a referendum on the terms of our future relationship with the EU and have a whole chapter of reforms to ‘Fix a Broken System’, through proportional representation, votes at 16, House of Lords reform, weekend voting and home rule for the nations within a federal United Kingdom. They propose a constitutional convention to produce a codified constitution within two years. They also want to give local people more power through decentralising decisions to local government, increasing the number of neighbourhood, community and parish councils and promoting tenant management in social housing. They are the only party Citizenship as a curriculum entitlement in all state-funded schools.
They have also produced an Easy read version of their manifesto to make it more accessible.
Democracy Matters has written to all party leaders, asking what they will do about learning for democracy. I expect this will be a low priority, but schools, civil society and universities can fill the gap.
Titus Alexander is Convener of Democracy Matters, an Associate Fellow at the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, and author of Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy “Highly commended” ERA Educational Book Award 2017 (Download free extracts from www.practicalpolitics.global)
Notes: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.