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Will party learners promote learning for democracy?

Democracy Matters has written to party leaders to ask what they will do to make democracy work for everyone. We aim to get their support and follow-up with Ministers, officials and MPs after the election.

The letter (below) summarises why learning for democracy matters and what our members are doing to fill the gap. We ask three questions:

  1. Will you make learning for democracy a priority for education in the next Parliament?
  2. Will you support the development of a strategy to ensure that all citizens understand how to influence decision-making through the democratic process?
  3. Please can you encourage Members of Parliament to visit every secondary school in their constituency at least once a year, to answer questions and talk about their work, the role of Parliament and the importance of political participation.

Their  ability to respond says almost as much as what they write: in 2010 we only got an acknowledgement from Gordon Brown, but a letter from David Cameron, followed by meetings with Ministers. In 2015 most leaders replied and we met with Stephen Twigg, Labour Shadow for Constitutional Affairs, and a Conservative special adviser at No. 10.

Let’s see what they have to say this year.

Dear Party Leader,

Will you promote learning for democracy?

What will you do after the general election to make democracy work for everyone? Will you support initiatives to ensure that all young people can develop the abilities, knowledge and skills they need to take part in democratic politics?

All schools and apprenticeships are required to teach British Values, including democracy and “understanding of how citizens can influence decision-making through the democratic process”. However, low turnout in elections and participation in politics as well as surveys show that less than half of young people believe this is the case.

Turnout among young people (18-24 year olds) fell from over 60% in the early 1990s to an average of 40% over the last four general elections (2001 to 2015). In the last election, young people were almost half as likely to vote as those over 65 (43% vs 78%). Youth turnout in the UK is the lowest of 15 members of the old European Union. Voters aged 18 to 24 in Sweden vote at double the rate of their peers in the UK.

Two-thirds (67%) of those aged 18-34 feel they know little or nothing about Parliament, compared to just under half (47%) of those aged 55 or above. Moreover, three-quarters (75%) of socio-economic group DE claim little or no knowledge, compared to just over a third of ABs (36%). Overall satisfaction with the way Parliament works (30%) is now six points lower than 2004 according to the Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement 2017.

Most people do not think the political system works for them. Just 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth compared with 22% who trust journalists or estate agents, and 31% who trust bankers (Ipsos Mori survey, Dec 2014).

Trust in politics matters. If people do not take part, governments lose touch and legitimacy, leading to poor decisions and instability.

Democratic politics are difficult and demanding, as you know. It takes commitment, skill, knowledge and persistence. If people do not know how democratic politics works or how to take part, they expect instant solutions, lose trust, or turn away from democracy altogether. If only a minority know how to use the political system, pluralism is eroded and the system does not work for everyone.

What we are doing

Democracy Matters is a national network of non-partisan education providers and civil society organisations who promote learning for democracy and practical politics. We encourage people to vote, learn about issues and create innovative ways to deepen democracy. Our membership has grown, as new organisations spring up to engage young people in the political process.

At the last General Election we asked all party leaders to support our ‘Declaration for Democracy’. This set out 30 measures to encourage political participation and promote learning for democracy. We met with advisers in Downing Street and senior MPs in Parliament. Then party leaders responded positively, and look forward to your support at this election.

Over the coming Parliament our members will –

  • Promote voter registration, political literacy and participation in democratic politics
  • Work with schools to support the national curriculum subject of Citizenship, which provides for all school pupils to learn about democracy and voting and play an active role in the life of their school and community
  • Work with the Parliamentary Education and Outreach services to deepen political understanding and engagement
  • Encourage education institutions to keep the UK’s commitment to the Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship (2010), using the Reference Framework of Competencies for Democratic Culture
  • Run educational activities on topical issues and how to do practical politics
  • Put our ‘Declaration for Democracy into practice wherever possible
  • Develop innovation in democratic deliberation and decision-making
  • Take part in the annual World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe.

We are working with St George’s House at Windsor Castle on a consultation about Learning for Democracy in England and look forward to working with the Department for Education, Parliament, local authorities and education institutions to improve non-partisan education for democracy at every level.

What will you do?

Reversing the low levels of trust and participation in politics needs commitment from Government. We want to know what you will do to ensure that every young person can learn how our political system works and develop the confidence, knowledge and skills to take part:

  1. Will you make learning for democracy a priority for education in the next Parliament?
  2. Will you support the development of a strategy to ensure that all citizens understand how to influence decision-making through the democratic process?
  3. And please can you encourage Members of Parliament to visit every secondary school in their constituency at least once a year, to answer questions and talk about their work, the role of Parliament and the importance of political participation.*

Politics is a closed shop for most people. As a political leader and Member of Parliament you can inspire young people to learn how our democratic system works and take part in shaping their future.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

Titus Alexander

Convener, Democracy Matters

*There are an average of six maintained secondary schools in each constituency.

Democracy Matters is an alliance of over 30 educational and civil society organisations who promote non-partisan education for practical politics. This letter is supported by, among others:

Chris Waller, Chief Executive, Association for Citizenship Teaching

Tom Franklin, CEO, Citizenship Foundation

Matthew Scott, Community Sector Coalition

Benjamin Fisher, Founder of Just Debate

Stephen Lambert, founder, Education4Democracy NE

Harriet Andrews, Director of The Politics Project

Matt Gillow, CEO, Talk Politics         

Matteo Bergamini, Founder of Shout Out UK

Peter Bradley, Director, Speakers Corner Trust

Areeq Chowdhury, Chief Executive, WebRoots Democracy

And other members and supporters.

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