Wainwright: 'Don't blame voters for the low turnout'

Hilary Wainwright.

By Frank Vermeulen

Fewer than half of Dutch voters are expected to head for the polls in Wednesday's local elections. British feminist and socialist Hilary Wainwright says turnout could be better if politicians weren’t afraid to share power with citizens.

A recent poll has suggested the turnout at the March 3 local elections in the Netherlands will be only 45 percent. You seem to have a cure for this lack of democratic appetite amongst voters in our municipalities.

"In a political context where local government has little power and few resources, high rates of abstention in local elections are, I think, an expression of people's sense of powerlessness. In Britain it is more dramatic. In some localities voting has been as low as 13 percent. The background is the steady erosion of the powers of local government from Mrs Thatcher onwards. Of course this poses serious questions about the democratic legitimacy of the political system. But don't blame the voters. They are reacting pragmatically to the realities of power, and their lack of it."

In your book ‘Reclaim the state’ you say that there are ways to ‘deepen’ democracy through participation.

"Yes, it’s about work in progress. There's no single finished model but many experiments have already produced results. I started from a recognition that the almost world-wide disaffection and low levels of trust in politics have real causes. A fundamental one is how disembedded politics has become from the problems of daily life and from grassroots civic activity. People have the experience of voting for politicians and then everything becomes mysterious. Political careerism, bureaucratic vested interest, and powerful private lobbies embed themselves in the gaps between people voting for a political programme and what the state actually does. The gap grows between expectations and reality. People lose trust.


British socialist and feminist Hilary Wainwright (1949) made a name for herself in the UK as the driving force behind the leftist opinion magazine Red Pepper.

She studied sociology at Oxford. In the 1980s she worked as the economic adviser to 'Red Ken' Livingstone, then the Greater London Council.

Wainwright is now a fellow at the Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based international think tank. She is also affiliated with the University of Bradford.

She is the co-author of the 1980 'bible' of the British socialist women movement Beyond the fragments. A revised edition of her book Reclaim the state, a plea for renewal of (local) democracy by actively involving citizens, recently came out.

"I have come across attempts to to do something about this through strengthening democracy, that is, building sources of democratic bargaining power to back up the power of the vote.

"I wrote for example about Porto Alegre, a city in the south of Brazil where I had observed a working experiment of power-sharing that combined representative with participatory democracy. It has a history of over 15 years. In this system, citizens of all neighbourhoods have public meetings during which they debate and vote on local priorities. It is a complex system with negotiations between neighbourhoods setting priorities based on a set of criteria.

"In the end the results are implemented by local government but the citizens both contribute their local knowledge and monitor the process. It has meant transparency, a reduction of corruption, an increase in efficiency and a real redistribution of resources towards the poor. One key element is that every citizen has the right to be directly involved. Citizens who were objects of policy have to become the subjects of policy."

Isn’t this a very old song about giving power to the people? How can a political experiment in a distant Latin American country be relevant in a Western European context, given the obvious cultural and historical differences?

"No, it's a lot more than the old rhetoric. I am talking about real changes in institutions. In my book I also write about Norway where trade unions have succeeded in turning around privatisation. Or about the UK, Italy and Spain where there are several experiments influenced by the Porto Alegre experience, which have really improved the quality of life in the city."


Couldn’t one also argue that if people in a rich western country don’t want to participate in the elections they are content with their government?

"That's too shallow an analysis. Take for instance your own country where voter turn out is high when national interests are at stake and relatively low when people can vote for the European parliament. Support for parties of radical right and the radical left have both grown on a national level. I think that's a response to a perception that with the mainstream parties nothing much changes. There is a political class that doesn't trust 'ordinary' people. The conclusion must be that voters are discontented. But they only bother to express it where their vote could make a difference and real power is at stake."

In your vision, professional politicians are career driven and public servants only want to serve their own interests. This may be true up to a point. But why should we put our trust in common citizens. Are they of a superior breed?

"No. First of all I do not believe that all politicians are crooks or are not to be trusted. My own father was a member of the British parliament and he was a good man. Also I have met some excellent civil servants. I think all human beings are equally capable of doing good or bad things. The point is what power can do with people and a key question is through what kind of institutions that power is organised; does it protect them, giving them a comfortable monopoly or does it put them under scrutiny, requiring them to share power? Politicians who come into a position where they can exert power in a form that is protected and opaque are often tempted to close their ears to the wishes of the people they represent. Civil servants have a habit of creating little empires. All I propose is to put in place mechanisms that create a greater openness and accessible channels of pressure on them to respond to popular needs. Citizens need to get the right to influence policies and politicians in between elections."

That sounds too good to be true. Utopian ideas like this can easily backfire when they are not successful and create even more disaffection. Take for instance the title of your book: Reclaim the state. When has the state ever been in the possession of civilians?

"Yes, I see your point. In my title I'm thinking of the general conditions after the Second World War: a sense of rebuilding society together, citizens and a progressive government hand in hand. Creating social welfare and a public healthcare system for instance. Later on, the citizens and the administrative system became alienated. And not only in the UK: people became frustrated about how bureaucratic public institutions became . In the 1970s this was aggravated all over Europe by crises in the old industries, unemployment soared and there was a great social struggle.

"The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s began to challenge the alienated nature of political institutions. They offered a partial vision of a new kind of politics. But along came the neo-liberal politicians, with a vengeance: Thatcher in the UK, Reagan in the US. Privatisation was the word, and to sell that they used the rhetoric of the countermovement of the sixties and seventies: giving power back to the people. But in reality they were about giving power back to the market, the market of big business, which in turn then claimed the state as theirs, as we've seen with the agreements between government and the bankers: completely in favour of the bankers. We need to claim it back!"

All over Europe anti-immigration parties flourish right now. Does your participatory democracy with all its good intentions not also carry a risk: opening doors to populist sentiments?

"That kind of xenophobia is based upon a mixture of feeling of powerless which leads people to blame a visible 'other' ; a sense of indignity – of not being treated with respect by a seemingly permanent political elite - which leads people, especially men, to assert their superiority over others and finally an ignorance of immigrants, their cultures and the ways in which we all depend on each other.

"A genuine opening up of the political system would also be a direct challenge to the elitism that creates resentment and reaction; it would also mean debate, argument and the spread of knowledge about each other and our mutual interdependence. Participatory democracy is not about romanticising parochialism; it's about a political system that genuinely treats people as equals. Any attempt to exclude or denigrate others would be challenged. Political equality would be a principle of the system."

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