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Why We Need to Promote Learning for Democracy

Stephen Lambert, Director of Education4Democracy.
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ALL SCHOOLs, colleges and apprenticeship agencies are required to teach British Values (shared values), including democracy and ‘’understanding of how citizens can influence decision-making through the democratic process.’’

Yet, turn-out in elections and participation in politics as well surveys show that less than half of our young people believe it. Turn-out among young adults aged 18 to 24 fell from 60% in 1992 to an average of 445 over the last four general elections. In the last election in 2017 young people were half as likely to vote as those aged over 65. 53% of young people voted in contrast to over 78% of all pensioners.

Youth turn-out in the UK is the lowest of 15 members of the EU. Voters aged under 24 in Sweden vote at double the rate of their peers in Britain. Voters aged 18 to 34 felt that they know little or nothing about Parliament, our core political institution compared to just under half (47%) of those aged over 55. Moreover, three-quarters of the socio-economic group DE – the unskilled/partly skilled working class claim little knowledge compared to just over a third of the Abs – the professional/managerial middle-class.

Overall satisfaction with the way the House of Commons works at 30% is now six percentage point lower than in 2004 according to the 2017 Audit of Political Engagement. Alarmingly, most people don’t think the democratic system works for them. Just 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth compared with 22% who trust estate agents, and a third who trust bankers, as noted by Ipsos Mori Poll in 2015.

Yet faith in politics does matter. If citizens don’t take part government from local to national level lose touch and legitimacy. This can lead to poor decision-making, instability and weak governance. Learning for democracy matters more than ever. You can’t take a car on the road without learning to drive, or choose the captain of Newcastle United football club without knowing anything about the game. Yet in the 21st century we ask people to drive the political process and pick their MP without learning how the democratic system functions.

Politics in a liberal-democracy like the UK is hard and demanding. It requires commitment, skills, knowledge, understanding and tenacity. If citizens don’t grasp how democratic processes and institutions work or how to participate, too often they expect instant solutions to problems, lose trust or faith and may become alienated all together. If only a minority know how to use the system, pluralism (power-sharing) is eroded with a sense that the political system only works for the few and not the many.

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The trickiest dilemmas facing a post-modern society like Britain are political, not technical or economic. Issues as diverse as child poverty, climate change, town planning, migration, social care and the changing nature of paid work (automation, robots and artificial intelligence) need political application to create solutions which balance conflicting interests and priorities.

Education for democracy can increase peoples’ ability to help resolve problems at any level and promote citizenship for all. The current Parliament is being dominated by talks to leave the EU and create new trade agreements. Central government and the Westminster Parliament won’t be able to tackle all the issues we as a nation face. Devolved assemblies like Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, local authorities like Liverpool or Leeds and the six ‘metro’ mayors will have a greater responsibility to sort out problems in their areas.

This makes it even more important to renew our democracy, teach political literacy and give the people the support, skills, knowledge and confidence to take part in civic life. To reverse low levels of trust and involvement in the democratic process we need a high degree of commitment from the UK national government.

Stephen Lambert, Director of Education4Democracy the social enterprise company.

About Stephen Lambert: He is a Newcastle City Councillor, and was former Chair of ‘Safe Newcastle’ and Northumbria Police Authority.

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