Britain’s rise in the Olympic gold medal table from 36th in 1996 to 3rd today has many lessons for politics. Like sport, politics is intensely competitive and involves a lot of cooperation; anyone can take part, but participation at the highest level takes total commitment and personal sacrifice; it takes determination, skill and persistence to do well; rewards for winning are great, but losing is often crushing. Unlike sport, politics affects everyone. Sport contributes to national enjoyment and morale, but politics influences our life chances, wellbeing and security. The gladiatorial contests of referendums and general elections are not much longer than the Olympics, but will affect us for generations.
The first lesson is that money matters. Britain’s fortunes in the Olympics improved dramatically following John Major’s decision in 1994 to fund sport through the National Lottery, and continuing support by successive governments. Funding for the Paralympics created new opportunities for people with disabilities. In politics people raising a family and working fulltime struggle to enter the race without funding. Candidates, political parties and pressure groups all need funds to run campaigns.
Second, training and support make a dramatic difference to the level and quality of participation. Elite sports have high-quality facilities, coaches, psychologists, physiologists and other experts to get people to the top. Elite politicians likewise employ pollsters, campaign consultants and strategists to guide them through the rapids of elections and the marathons in between. The rely on researchers and think-tanks to develop and test their policies. Businesses, unions and pressure groups also employ professional lobbyists and campaigners to influence decisions. The public, meanwhile, rely on the media and membership organisations (including parties) to stay informed and have a voice.
Third, public participation brings sport and politics to life. The 2012 London Olympics are remembered for involving thousands of volunteers in a nation-wide torch relay, the opening ceremony’s celebration of British life, and the diversity of athletes who won medals in the Paralympics and Olympiad. The Scottish independence referendum also achieved unparalleled participation, with 97% voter registration, 85% turnout and intense political debate, transforming British politics. The EU referendum was won by the Leave campaign through grassroots mobilization.
The 2012 Olympics and recent referendums sought to break out of the elite ghettos of premier league sport and politics respectively. They reached out to people who had not taken part before and reshaped sport and politics in their own way.
But both referendums have left Britain deeply divided. It will take immense political skill to bring the country together, forge a new political settlement for the British Isles, and create new relationships with the rest of Europe and the world. Political mistakes could plunge the country into recession or conflict.
However, our reserves of political ability are not great. For over thirty years British political parties, local government and trades unions have been disempowered as the state has become more centralised, administering services through agencies accountable to Whitehall. Compared with continental Europe or the USA, there are few opportunities for people to develop political skills by running for office and taking responsibility for cities or regions. Devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and city regions will change this, but even the town hall is remote for most people. The stepping stones for inclusive politics are in schools, youth clubs and local associations where people learn to run things for a common good. Elections to schools’ councils and governing bodies of all kinds cultivate habits of democratic decision-making.
We encourage and support people to take part in sport, but not democracy. As a result, almost 16 million people aged over 16 years play sport at least once a week in England, while barely a million belong to a political party, less than 2% of the electorate. Only a third of the public think the system by which Britain is governed works well (33%) and just only 13% feel they have some influence over decision-making nationally although 41% would like to be involved in decision-making. Young people, those with least education and poorer sections of the population are also less likely to take part in politics than older, more affluent and better educated.
Britain’s standing in the Olympics is a direct result of political decisions, which have created a powerful pipeline to enable new generations of champions to flourish in future. For democracy to flourish we need a similar commitment to encouraging participation among all sections of the population. Political participation can also be nurtured with a combination of investment, inspiration and opportunities to take part. The future success of our country depends on it.
Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy by Titus Alexander, will be published in the autumn by Trentham/UCL Institute of Education Press. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Academics can get an inspection copy from the publisher here.
The Practical Politics blog is a personal view does not necessarily reflect the views of Democracy Matters.