John F Kennedy was right. Ask not what your country can do for you...

Durham University professor Thom Brooks argues that what’s lacking in politics is an inspiring vision worth voting for

Mirrorpix John F Kennedy in July 1963
John F Kennedy in July 1963

The General Election is over and we know what happened next. The large number of non-voters was perhaps more surprising than the result: over 30% of eligible voters stayed away from the polls. That’s one in every three despite intense media interest and uncertainty about the expected outcome. We will never know what the result might have been if things were different.

The biggest surprise of all might be that so many did vote. While the main parties won the most seats between them, the public shows a growing appetite for supporting parties representing none of the usual suspects to send a message to the Westminster establishment.

I don’t know which is worse: politics reduced to empty slogans endlessly repeated or a politics of protect without fresh ideas. It is little wonder the public are increasingly turned off to voting when they see politicians selling brands without a product, or those who can only talk about the flaws of others without any policies to promote.

But it’s not that there are no differences between the parties. There are plenty. What’s lacking is an inspiring vision worth voting for.

This characterisation is only partially true. The election campaign saw some fabulous candidates across the political spectrum working their socks off on the doorstep and engaging voters in new ways. They deserve more credit than what they often get.

I am inspired by the hard work and dedication that so many of our MPs and parliamentary candidates put into their campaigns for the honour of representing local people. A privilege entrusted only to a small few.

It’s much easier to criticise others than lead by example. Far more people talk about how they’d put the world to rights if only they were an MP or councillor, but then avoid standing for election themselves or helping support those that do. Few of us may have the time and perhaps fewer the interest.

This is a problem for our democracy and, in particular, our political system. Party membership is at historic lows for many of them. Less than 1% of UK voters is a member of the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties today. This is about a 75% drop since 1983. People don’t see the value in joining like they used to.

Why is this a problem? For two reasons. The first is that low party membership means political parties have smaller talent pools they can use to select candidates. They are simply fewer people to choose from. I’m not talking about candidates for Parliament alone, but for all offices national and local. This could be solved if there were more independent candidates, but the parties continue to dominate election results.

The second reason this is a problem is because fewer people have a say over a party’s leadership and future direction. The people that might please party members may be very different from who might win elections. Low party membership does the parties and our democracy few favours.

The parties have themselves to blame for the most part. They need to motivate people to join them and take an active part in reinvigorating our national politics. The parties need to reconnect with voters beyond election day alone. This may involve making the case for their relevance for their supporters beyond election day, too.

But let’s not avoid closely looking at ourselves. Parties don’t run themselves, but through their individual memberships. Many people I speak to are passionate about politics. But they don’t become involved because they think it won’t make a difference. This defeatism is a major hurdle our democracy must cross and there are no quick solutions to change it overnight.

Citizenship matters. But it’s easy to take for granted.

I moved from the United States to the UK in 2001 and I’ve lived in the North East for most of this time. I passed the UK citizenship test in Newcastle and became a British citizen soon afterwards. Few immigration policy and law experts immigrated themselves and this direct knowledge has helped give me an edge over other commentators on migration that has benefited me professionally as a political and legal adviser and scholar.

But we all benefit from actively engaged citizenship. You don’t have to be a naturalised British citizen to see its value and importance for our shared political life.

A commitment to public service and the public good helps sustain and reinvigorate our political community. This is not merely good for any one group, but for us all. There are many challenges to be faced and the future of our political parties is only one, and perhaps not even the most important by a long shot.

The lack of available candidates to choose from is almost as bad as the lack of interest in voting for any one of them. It can be tempting to think this is a problem for our political parties to sort out and not you or I.

But it’s a problem for all of us that we must confront. My fear is things might get much worse before they improve. John F. Kennedy told Americans to ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. These words continue to resonate today more than ever and give us all something to consider seriously.

Professor Thom Brooks is Chair in Law and Government at Durham Law School, Durham University.



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