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Electoral Participation (Media)

Volume 608: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2016

[David Crausby in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role of the media in encouraging electoral participation.

Today’s debate is very timely. With the EU referendum only a few weeks away and elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections in some parts of the UK only one week away, this issue really has become a focus.

I will give my opinion on how the media can and should be involved in electoral participation—an interest of mine that developed through the Scottish independence referendum, when the media had so much impact. That became an influence on my work as an MP, and now as co-chair of the all-party group on democratic participation. I intend to talk today about matters such as electoral turnout and how it can vary between groups in society; the role the media had in the Scottish independence referendum and the subsequent impact on voter turnout; changes in demand and how the media need to reflect those; what support politicians can give to an evolving audience; and how media of all platforms have a responsibility to their audiences.

With the general election almost a year ago, when we saw an overall increase in electoral turnout, now seems the right time to pause and reflect on the many different factors that influenced that rise, the role the media undoubtedly played in it and how we can best support efforts to encourage electoral participation.

Since 1950, when electoral turnout was 83.9% across the UK, there has been a steady decline in voter turnout, ending with a staggeringly disappointing low turnout in 2001 of just 59.4% across the UK. Although we have seen the beginnings of a rise in turnout, it is not rising equally across all sectors of society or, indeed, all parts of the UK. While I am sure there were a variety of reasons for the increased turnout in 2015, there has been an increase in media engagement of the electorate and a platform shift in not only the types of media that reach out to engage and influence but the platforms from which people seek their information.

While many Members present today may expect me to use this debate to have a pop at biased media during the Scottish independence debate, I have bigger points to make than to shame the BBC, the Daily Record or the Daily Mail. The media no longer influence the electorate just through traditional party political broadcasts or biased newspapers. It is not only a question of leaders’ debates on the telly, although they are important. The media have evolved and begun to recognise the role they can play in not only voter registration and turnout but overall engagement. As people have become more politically aware, there is a far higher demand of media. I believe broadcasters realise that and want to meet the expectations of their audiences.

Engagement in politics can be a difficult factor to measure. Even more complicated is how and why people are influenced and how the media can contribute to that. Recent findings of the Audit of Political Engagement 13 in 2016 concluded that

“the public’s perceived levels of knowledge of and interest in politics have reached, respectively, the highest and second highest levels recorded in the history of the Audit tracker.”

However, that is not the case across the whole of the UK, with notable variance regionally and in relation to class and ethnicity. The audit also found that in terms of an interest in and knowledge of politics, those who ranked themselves with the lowest indicators were black and minority ethnic adults, women, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and non-homeowners.

In Scotland, we have seen an unprecedented level of electoral participation, with the percentage of people who claim they are either very or fairly interested in politics standing at 74%, compared with just 57% in the general UK population. That trend has continued to grow after the referendum.

There are so many lessons we can learn from the experience of the Scottish referendum, in which people themselves took to the issues. Information was exchanged peer to peer far more than by interaction with traditional media. Some media outlets caught up with that and embraced it, which fed a real enthusiasm for politics that we had not seen a lot of in other parts of the country. That was a good thing, and it shows that if people are genuinely engaged and interested in politics, we can get beyond the, “Oh well, it’s only politicians; they don’t really count” mentality.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the engagement inspired by the referendum in Scotland has continued to the present day? We, as Scottish National party Members, are very much aware of that, as constituents continue to interact with us through social media, even while we are taking part in debates in the House.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is certainly something we have all had to adapt to, because there is still an expectation of availability, accessibility and the opportunity to interact and exchange ideas with us. It puts a great responsibility on us, but all politicians should look to live up to that responsibility. After all, we in this place are the representatives of the people.

Voter turnout in the 2015 general election across the UK was 66.1%—a rise of 6.7%, which, on the face of it, is not too bad. At a regional level, voter turnout was 65.8% in England, 65.7% in Wales, 71.1% in Scotland and 58.1% in Northern Ireland. However, if Scotland is excluded from that overall figure, and we look across a number of years, turnout in elections has not changed very much. The average combined turnout in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was 62.9% in 2001, 62.2% in 2005, 62.6% in 2010 and 63.2% in 2015. That helps to demonstrate the difference in engagement we have seen in Scotland because of the referendum and the grassroots movement of people accessing information in different ways, and the ways that that has been taken forward.

It is clear to many—I suspect many of my colleagues from Scotland will agree—that we need to learn the lessons from the referendum and understand and encourage all types of media to engage with people politically. We must look to and support a host of platforms to enable that, from the arts and social media to self-gathering grassroots media, which was such a factor in the Scottish independence referendum. It was not simply traditional and social media; the arts got involved in the debate. There were theatre productions on all sides of the argument and on no side of the argument, allowing people to engage in politics in ways that were suited to them individually. It created a far better level of engagement than could otherwise have been hoped for.

It cannot be the case that people in the rest of the UK have any less desire to have a say in how their country is run or do not understand how politics affects them. I campaigned in the referendum and spoke to people who did understand, but many had either lost trust in politicians or political systems. During the referendum, those myths were blown out of the water. Politicians were replaced by neighbours, family, friends and colleagues. Trust in Scotland’s politicians—certainly those in some parties—has begun to be regained.

I actively encourage and celebrate campaigns such as those run by Bite the Ballot, Use Your Vote and Rock Enrol!, which have played a huge part in engaging and encouraging people up and down the country to register to vote. I draw particular attention to campaigns designed to capture people who are disfranchised and targeted media campaigns, such as those run by the National Union of Students, Gingerbread—a charity for single parents—and Crisis and Shelter, which give a political voice to homeless people. Those campaigns give a voice to those who most need to be engaged in politics.

I also recognise the role of other forms of media, including the recent efforts of TV programmes such as “Hollyoaks”, “Coronation Street” and “River City”. They have shown politics as an everyday thing affecting real people in their communities, with characters, certainly in “Coronation Street” and “River City”, becoming councillors and being directly involved in the political process.

I mentioned the TV debates earlier. This week in Scotland we have seen a very new approach to the debates, with a character from Scotland’s own “Gary: Tank Commander” interviewing each party leader in the run-up to the Scottish elections. That has, in a way, allowed party leaders to present their messages in a forum that is so different from anything that any of them would have ever experienced, and it has made politics relevant and accessible to people who might otherwise have thought that they had no interest in the subject. Suddenly, because it is a character that they enjoy, they look at things from that point of view and watch politics almost accidentally—much in the way that “Gogglebox”, another example of a great piece of innovation from Channel 4, manages to promote politics in what does not feel like a traditional way of accessing it.

Following the Scottish independence referendum, and because of the thirst of Scottish people to be engaged and to participate in political decision making, there has been a huge growth in peer-led, grassroots media. Initiatives such as Common Weal and CommonSpace have seen people from across the political spectrum unite in their desire to participate. That has been felt on a local level in my constituency, where media platforms such as Midlothian View and The Penicuik Cuckoo have become sources of information about what is happening as much as our local newspaper, the Midlothian Advertiser.

People are looking to access information in different ways. Those media that are on the ball and keeping up with things are listening and reacting, but we as politicians have a responsibility to encourage that and promote it across all levels of the media.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. In my constituency we have two excellent local newspapers: the Surrey Advertiser, which is branded the Woking Advertiser in Woking, and the Woking News & Mail. They cover local and national politics in a very considered way. However, so many towns are now without a local newspaper—never mind two—and I wonder whether local radio stations should also be covering local and national politics more than they do to make up for the very unfortunate decline in our traditional local press.

I absolutely agree; this is a responsibility of all media platforms. My constituency is very fortunate to have two community radio stations—Black Diamond FM and Crystal FM—that take an active interest in politics locally and that do their bit when it comes to elections by hosting hustings and such. Coverage should absolutely be across all platforms.

Although the media, social media platforms and broadcasters must participate, politicians also have a part to play. They need to rebuild trust within their constituencies and communities and listen to how voters want to be engaged. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are helpful, but are not enough—after all, not everyone can be quite as popular as Nicola Sturgeon.

When we see huge swathes of the population disfranchised because their vote never influences election outcomes, we should be worried. When steps are taken to refuse votes at 16—even though, as a demographic, they are more engaged—we should be worried. As well as exploring how the media engage with politics, we should also consider how politics engages with people. Reforms are certainly needed.

The key message that I would like the Minister and others interested in the debate to take away is that we should all take steps—every step we possibly can—to engage all aspects of the media and encourage them to be involved in politics. The meaning of the word “politics” translates to “of, for, or relating to the citizens,” and it is high time that we all paid attention to that.

It is good to have you looking after us this afternoon, Mr Crausby, and making sure we all behave ourselves and have a productive debate. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing it. As he said, he is involved in the all-party group on democratic participation, which does incredibly important work. We need to develop a better cross-party approach in this area, particularly on such things as voter registration; we do better together than we do separately. Political parties no doubt have a place in getting their normal demographic supporter base to get registered and to get out, take part and use their vote on polling day. More than that, however, if we can co-operate on a cross-party basis, it is often reassuring for voters because they can see that it is being done from purer democratic motives, rather than just for party advantage. That can make a difference, so the all-party group’s work is in that proud tradition and is hugely to be supported and applauded.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned various surveys of democratic engagement and democratic involvement. Interestingly, the results that he quoted pretty closely match—directionally at least—what we see if we start to compare levels of voter registration. Voter registration is not a perfect proxy for democratic involvement, because someone can be registered to vote and then not use their vote on polling day, but it is not a bad one. It was very interesting to hear him mention that some BME community groups are under-represented and less likely to be registered. Incidentally, others are extremely well represented—there are some parts of the Asian community in this country whose registration rates are well above average—but as he rightly mentions, some are below average.

Equally, we have problems with people who live in short-term rented accommodation and perhaps move regularly. There is some debate about whether their reason for not registering is that they are disaffected and do not believe in the idea of democracy being relevant to them, or whether it is just inconvenient because the registration folk do not keep up with them as they move around—it may be a bit of both. There are some queries about that. Students can be a problem in terms of levels of registration, although interestingly, a degree of evidence now shows that quite a lot of students are registered at their parental home address as opposed to their university address, so we need to be careful about how that set of figures are taken.

The single worst group for registration is one that we often forget about—expatriates. There are between 1.5 million and 2 million Brits currently living abroad who are legally entitled to vote. At present, they lose the right to vote after 15 years, and we aim to change that in due course. However, as the law stands, there are perhaps 1.5 million people, or even more—estimates vary, but there could be up to 2 million—living abroad who are legally enfranchised, but the level of registration among that group was just over 100,000 at the last general election. Therefore, only between 5% and 10% of them are registered, at most. They are by far the least well-registered group and are therefore the least well-represented group among all the different ones that we need to get involved and bring into the fold.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the role of media is incredibly important. He pointed out that the way in which social media has changed democratic debate is important not only for us as practising politicians, but for the overall body politic—for the state and how our democratic consensus is forged, and how democratic debate takes place—and I particularly liked that. He is absolutely right that more of that is now peer to peer, which I think was the phrase he used. I venture to suggest that in the past, peer-to-peer debate was basically what people said to their mates down the pub, but the advent of social media means that Facebook groups, Twitter streams and, I dare say, even Snapchat groups of one kind or another, are now all over the place. They mean that people with very disparate interests and opinions can come together much more easily and share their points of view.

That is relevant for campaigning groups: people who have a particular interest in anything from saving hedgehogs through to democracy in Burma, and everything in between—the sorts of things that, actually, are frequently covered by all-party groups in this building. It allows them to organise nationally much more effectively, much faster and much more cheaply than they ever used to. However, we need to be careful: if someone is always surrounded by like-minded people online, or physically in the offline world, they risk finding themselves purely in an echo chamber where everybody always agrees with them. I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that nothing is more dangerous for a politician than to hear the opinions only of people who always agree with them. That can lead to dangerous waters, including the belief that they are always right and, if not careful, they may become impatient with people who have the temerity to hold a different point of view. Part of the weft and warp of good democratic debate is that someone can disagree honestly, fervently and strongly without being a bad person. They may just be incredibly principled and happen to hold different views.

One danger of the echo chamber effect is that people become more likely to be short-tempered with one another if they hear competing views. None the less, digital media and the vastly extended scope of peer-to-peer debate is incredibly important to the way our democracy functions—not just our democracy, but every democracy.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the effect of broadcast media and we should include TV, national radio and local radio. I thank him for introducing me to Gary of “Gary: Tank Commander”, who does not make it quite as far down in the south-west as where I live in Weston-super-Mare. I am resolved to try to find him because I am told that he is very funny and has done some interesting stuff as a comedian interviewing politicians in Scotland, which is an interesting cross-over that has not been done commonly, certainly not in this country or much more widely. If it has, it has been done more along the lines of taking the mickey out of unsuspecting politicians, rather like Sacha Baron Cohen, which is different. It is potentially very interesting, but there are other areas where the broadcast media have historically done great things.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

The temptation to restart by just saying “‘Gary: Tank Commander’ and” is very strong. However, I remind everybody that we had just finished talking about the effect of social media and the way it has changed our democratic discourse mostly for the better, but with some caveats. I was moving on to talk about broadcast media—national TV and radio, and local radio—and the arts. The hon. Member for Midlothian was rightly taking pains to emphasise their contribution.

I think we are all familiar with the national contribution of broadcasters in current affairs and news programmes, but there are many other aspects. The hon. Gentleman mentioned soap operas. Voter registration and political involvement have played into the plotlines of “Hollyoaks”, “River City” and various other programmes. Those are examples of drama portraying what should be normal life—normal political involvement, whether that is, for example, someone standing for the local council or getting involved in a campaign to save their local theatre.

Those examples bring home to people that political involvement is part of the normal way in which the world works—what ordinary, normal people do—and reduces the distance between politics and people. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the two should be synonymous. The roots of the words are the same. Such examples stop politicians being seen, necessarily, as a slightly weird class of other people who have different interests and motivations from everybody else, and remind us all that politicians should be the same as everybody else. We should be the same as our next-door neighbours and live in the same world as everybody else. Drama can do that in a very powerful way.

Broadcast drama obviously has huge reach and theatre can also make a difference, as can other arts such as the visual arts. For example, Weston-super-Mare recently played host to a world-class, world-famous exhibition organised by the street artist Banksy at the Tropicana lido on the sea front. It was fascinating because much of the art produced by Banksy and some other artists featured had a political message. It was mainly the politics of protest, interestingly; none the less, it will have driven political involvement.

I was asked by a number of journalists whether I was comfortable with those politics of protest—in many cases, they were slightly left-wing political statements—as part of the art in the middle of Weston-super-Mare, to which my unhesitating answer was, “Yes. I’m very happy indeed, if only because it makes people think.” One of the things that art is supposed to do, of course, is to make people think. If it made people think and made them realise that such issues affect us all, not just politicians and a class of other people, it is all to the good.

Comedians can do the same. We have mentioned “Gary: Tank Commander”, and political comedy and satire has a long and respectable history, although it is probably wrong to call satire respectable. As politicians, we need to be careful because satire is partly, by its very nature, a distancing thing. It creates the distance that we need to collapse, so some forms of comedy can add to the problem, as well as subtract from it. We must acknowledge that comedy can be a double-edged sword.

Going back to national TV and radio, and local radio, we are all comfortable and familiar with news and current affairs programmes. More recently—this has been a huge adornment and improvement to our national political discussions—the leaders’ debates have made a great deal of difference. Although we are used to those, there is a broader approach in drama and things other than current affairs, which the broadcast media should use.

More broadly, there are other media, particularly the material used in schools. The hon. Gentleman mentioned, for example, the Rock Enrol! school materials, which are produced in the Cabinet Office by people in my team and used widely in schools across the country to teach pupils about democratic engagement as part of a broader programme of citizenship. All those materials and media are important for making democracy part of what everyone is brought up with. If people are brought up with democracy, and if it is explained to them even before they are of voting age, and certainly when they have just achieved voting age, it becomes part of their normal life in the same way as owning a tablet PC or phone might be nowadays. Like breathing, it becomes part of their life, which makes a huge difference.

There are two final groups. Civil society groups can make a huge difference, and many of them produce their own media, either written or, in many cases, online. Many civil society groups are tightly focused and deeply engaged with specific groups of voters, many of them the hard-to-reach, under-registered groups that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Operation Black Vote, Bite the Ballot and many others, for example, are incredibly effective, and if they are not incredibly effective, they are more effective than anybody else. They are leaders in their field at persuading people in those groups that it is worth while getting involved in the democratic process.

As we were saying earlier, part of the difficulty is that some groups are under-represented or under-registered because registration is inconvenient. For example, the system may not keep up with people who move house frequently and ensure that their registration moves from one house to the next. There are also groups where that inconvenience or bureaucratic friction is not the whole story. In some cases there is a high degree of distrust in democracy, in the democratic process, in politics and in politicians of all kinds and of all political persuasions. All of us, as politicians and in these various groups, therefore need to develop a poetry of politics to persuade people that politics is something that can be effective in improving their lives, rather than something for other people.

Finally, no debate on the media would be complete without mentioning the print media. It is noticeable that the hon. Gentleman barely touched on the print media, perhaps partly because it is no secret that although many newspapers are still immensely powerful and widely read, many are suffering from declining circulations. Although it will always be a huge mistake to write off the newspaper industry, it has broader problems, even though it still carries an enormous amount of weight and heft. All our comments on the broadcast media, although with some differences due to the nature of the medium itself, also apply to the print media.

The much maligned council newspaper or magazine can also help. We have an excellent council newspaper in Woking, and it always encourages registration and participation. It explains, in a grounded, proper way, how the electoral process works and when the elections are.

I could not put it better myself. Those final words are a good way to finish our debate.

Question put and agreed to.