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Former BBC DG: "Our Democracy is Failing"

Former BBC Director General & Current Football Associate Chairman Greg Dyke diagnoses what's wrong with UK politics

I was born in 1947, a year only notable for the fact that more people were born in Britain in that year than in any other in history. Being born in '47 meant I came to political awareness sometime between the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles' first LP, as Phillip Larkin described that period of the early sixties. What this meant, for me and my generation, was that the first 25 years of our political lives were dominated by the Cold War. We took it as given. It had always been there and we assumed it always would be. And then, suddenly, much to our surprise it was gone. The Berlin Wall came down and the whole political framework I had been brought up in had collapsed.


I tell this story only because I believe we all see today's democratic structures and the current party political system in Britain in much the same way as my generation saw the cold war; we believe that because it has been there for all of our lifetimes, it will be with us forever, even if we’ve grown to dislike it and even hold it in contempt.


Just as we were not aware in the eighties how fragile the Soviet Union had become – although it seems obvious now – I believe the same can be said today about our current system of democracy. The evidence that our democracy is failing is overwhelming and yet those with the biggest interest in sustaining the current system – the Westminster village, the media and particularly the political parties – are the groups most in denial about what is really happening to our democracy.


Let me explain the problem.


Tony Blair has been canonised by the Labour Party for winning three successive General Elections. In truth his electoral record is pretty dismal. The numbers turning out to vote went into free-fall in 2001 and fewer people actually voted Labour in 2005, when they won with a 60-plus majority, than voted for John Major when he lost by a landslide in 1997.


Blair only won three times because we have an electoral system in this country which doesn’t reflect the way we actually vote. Fewer than 200,000 votes cast in a limited number of marginal constituencies decide the result of general elections in Britain today, which means that for most of us our votes are irrelevant. This is arguably one of the reasons why people have stopped voting in their droves. Let's look at the figures.


In 1951 82.6% of those who could actually voted; by 2010 it had fallen further to 65 per cent. The fall amongst young people voting is even greater. In 1964 88.6% of under 25’s voted; by 2010 the figure was halved, down to 43 per cent. People no longer feel that it is their duty to vote. In the late '50s, in the MacMillan era, polls showed 79% of the electorate agreed with the statement that “it was a serious neglect of duty not to vote”. That figure is now down to 41% and even lower among younger age groups.


The decline in the numbers voting over 50 years has also been accompanied by a sharp decline in loyalty to a particular party. In 1951 an amazing 97% of those who voted supported either Labour or Conservative. By 2005 that was down to 68% and at the last election was down to an all-time low of 65%. And less than 1% of the population are, today, members of a political party.


What all this culminated in was a remarkable result in 2005 when Labour had a 64-seat majority despite the fact that of those who actually voted only 35% supported the Labour Party. Interestingly nothing shows up the ludicrous nature of our system more than the fact that when 36% of the electorate voted Conservative in May 2010, the Tories didn't even get an overall majority, let alone a 64- seat majority. In fact comparing the two results is fascinating – the Tories in 2010 got 50 less seats than Labour in 2005 even though they got 1% more of the vote. Most ridiculous of all though is that while the Liberal Democrats got 23% of the vote in 2010 they only got 57 seats. Labour, on the other hand, only got 29% – but won 258 seats.


Going back to 2005, while Labour officially won the election, it is difficult to see how they could claim legitimacy on that basis. But of course politicians don't care so long as they win.


What is clear from all the figures is that there is more distrust in the country about politicians, the political process and political parties than at any time in our history and this distrust is getting greater year by year. Only one per cent of the electorate now say they trust politicians “a great deal” and 75% say they don't trust politicians to tell the truth at all.


One argument put forward to explain what has happened goes something like this: In an advanced capitalist society where most people – certainly not all but most – have done pretty well materially, people are likely to be less interested in politics and political issues. They have less to fight for or less reason to fight to protect what they have. They are more or less satisfied with what is.


The trouble with that argument is that it doesn’t stack up against the facts. Why did one and a half million people march against the war in Iraq? Why did three quarters of a million people descend on London from the countryside to protest against the Labour Government's treatment of rural communities? Why are people flocking to join pressure groups like Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace? Why have they participated in their millions in Live Aid, Live 8 and Live Earth? Why did the number participating in consumer boycotts increased from 5 per cent in 1974 to almost 20 per cent in 2000? Why has membership of the National Trust or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds grown tenfold over 30 years while membership of political parties have collapsed?


So why is there such disenchantment with political parties today? I'll give you my take on it in the next part of this article.




Do you agree with Greg's analysis? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.



Greg Dyke

About the Writer

Greg is perhaps best known for having been a rather controversial Director General of the BBC and leaving in troubled circumstances following the death of Dr David Kelly; his illustrious career includes also successes at London Weekend Television, TV-am and as first chairman of Channel 5. He is now chairman of the Football Association and in much demand as an after dinner speaker.


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