A class act

polling station 2

New research from LSE looked at how one party achieved political mobilisation in an economically deprived area in south England. In an era of low voter turnout and widespread political disillusionment, what lessons can political parties take from the experience of this community?

Democratic participation in Britain is in long-term decline. From a post-war high of 84 per cent at the 1950 general election, voter turnout has fallen to a 63 per cent average in the 21st century.

Segmenting the data by social class reveals where disengagement is most acute; at the 2015 general election, 75 per cent of the top AB social classes voted, compared with only 57 per cent of the lowest DE class.

To try to understand why lower social classes are disengaging from politics, Dr Insa Koch, assistant professor in Law and Anthropology at LSE, lived with social housing estate residents in an area in south-east England where voter turnout is typically lower than the national average.

Between 2009 and 2015, Dr Koch carried out research with residents about how they feel about politics to understand why so many of them believe that elected representatives are not doing their job properly.

Dr Koch found that the residents viewed politicians as distant, with many citizens not voting or discussing politics in any way. She says: “Many of the people I lived with on the estate didn’t believe in elections or relate to politics at all. For them, the politics that happens in Westminster is removed from their daily struggles for better housing, safe neighbourhoods and adequate employment.”

Dr Koch says: “But voter apathy is not inevitable, I found that local residents were happy to lend their votes to locally-based politicians who have proven themselves to be different.”

She adds: “Where politicians manage to bridge the gap between the world of politics and daily life on the housing estate, electoral support can be mobilised. Politicians can do so by practising a 'bread and butter' politics: a politics that addresses the daily struggles that people face.”

Dr Koch found examples of this happening on a local level: a local independent political party she calls the Free Worker’s Party (FWP), had managed to mobilise electoral support in the 2000s.

Through a combination of highly personalised, grassroots campaigning, and a focus on delivering material improvements in the area and ensuring security, the FWP won four seats in the Labour-dominated city council in 2005, significantly increasing voter turnout in the area.

Dr Koch says: “The FWP’s success was down to its personal campaigning. Party members were local people with ties to the community. They made efforts to address local people’s material and social needs, including a very visible campaign against local drug dealers. The people saw the changes with their own eyes and felt that the party was listening to them.”

But, in the case of the FWP, bread and butter politics did not translate into a sustained platform for collective action. In 2012, ten years after the FWP had first been voted into the local council, the party had lost all of its seats.

Dr Koch says: “Insurgent parties such as the FWP often face difficulties in maintaining local presence. They have limited resources and struggle to respond to problems that are born from long-term neglect.”

Because bread and butter politics is about addressing daily and basic needs in poor communities, it can be dismissed as parochial or too localised. The problem with this language is that it further discredits the people whose voices are rarely heard.”

Residents in many of England’s housing estates have been let down by decades of pro-market and austerity policies that have undermined their livelihoods and impacted upon their families and communities. Many feel betrayed by the Labour party for failing to help them.” Dr Koch adds.

What are the lessons that political parties can take from the experience of the FWP? Dr Koch says: “The value of any politician is measured by their efforts on the ground. Politicians need to understand that politics is not just about election time, but about what comes before and after.”

More generally, mechanisms need to be in place that translate bread and butter politics into necessary and legitimate policy goals.”

Voter apathy is not an inevitable outcome. Parties will have to try hard to build these bridges, but local experiments with democracy show that it is possible.”

Posted May 2016

Additional notes

Dr Insa Koch is assistant professor in Law and Anthropology at LSE Law. Prior to joining the Law department, Insa trained as both a lawyer and an anthropologist at the LSE and completed a DPhil at the University of Oxford. Insa is interested to bring anthropology into dialogue with criminology, legal theory and socio-legal studies.

'Bread-and-butter politics: Democratic disenchantment and everyday politics on an English council estate' was published in American Ethnologist in April 2016.

Image: Polling station 6 may 2010 CC BY-SA 2.0

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