There is an ongoing debate around turnout and declining political engagement. Much of the discussion has been quite limited, such as debating how can we make voting or engagement easier? These, at best, I think are small part of the issues at hand.
In my experience most people care deeply and passionately about at least a few, if not many, issues. They may not vote or write to their elected representatives but they do care and often get frustrated when these issues don't get the attention they feel are deserved.
Yet membership of groups such as Friends of the Earth, National Trust or the Soil Association remain high; much higher than the combined membership of political parties in the UK. These groups can be more repsonsive to member needs and offer a way for like-minded people to cluster. But of course in the end they exert influence for their causes by talking to politicians and their civil servants. Everything is political, it's unavoidable and healthy.
So when people say “I don't do politics” or when we're told “this should be a non-political meeting” I get very frustrated. Such an approach just submerges the explicit political debate that could be had – we are left with either a limp debate or a proxy war through vague terms.
I think what in fact is meant by wanting to avoid “politics” is a distaste for party politics and the point scoring, tubthumping debate that it often creates. I do understand people's distaste for that approach, but it seems very hard to pull a council or Parliament from that culture without firm, direct action from all members. Party political point scoring can be unpleasant to watch, but I believe another reason party politics doesn't engage people is the perception of limited choice.
The majority of elections in the UK are still through the simple first-past-the-post system which means winner takes all. This forces many to vote tactically for parties they don't particularly believe in. This shouldn't have to happen. With a proportional system people can vote for what they care about without fear that it will “let the Tories in” as Labour leaflets often threaten. London today people can vote first preference for Sian Berry and second for Ken to show their belief in Green Party values, but remain safe knowing their vote won't have contributed to letting Tory candidate Boris Johnson in. Similarly, for the London Assembly, which in many ways is more important, a Green vote will never be wasted because of the proportional list system used city-wide.
A proportional voting system supports a greater diversity of parties, which allows more people to feel properly represented and spoken for. Proportionality makes voting more meaningful for many and the results often force parties to work together more constructively than otherwise.
But if people are not voting because they “don't do politics” then proportionality is unlikely to be of much help. As I argued above, I believe everything is political. So if there's an issue someone cares about then usually one can find a policy difference between the parties to draw them into thinking about how to vote.
Big issues of our time — such as climate change, civil liberties and healthcare — require us to engage politically if we are to prevent a multinational-led status-quo continuing. In this context it's so heartening to see two leading campaigners change their paths to re-engage with politics. Al Gore's most recent presentation on the climate crisis shows his desire to re-direct his campaigning work back into party politics and so into the presidential election process unfolding in the US. Gore has seen more of political life than most of us ever will, yet understandbly he distanced himself after 2000. However my sense from his new presentation is that he's going to try and use his influence to pull thousands of people who care about climate change into the political discourse of the presidential elections — and hope they push candidates of all political hues to address the challenge.
Similarly Lawrence Lessig, intellectual property rights campaigner, has recently changed his focus towards reforming how America's political system — specifically Congress — works and is funded. Lessig had been getting frustrated with the lobbying and funding in the political system which was making his campaigning work so hard. At first he considered running for congress himself, but now he's leading a Change Congress project which aims to create change by engaging with candidates and elected members of all political persuasions.
So both Gore and Lessig have become explicitly political in their frustration with lack of progress in their fields, and also because they want to see lasting change. This is a key motivating factor within the Green Party also. Groups such as Friends of the Earth or Animal Aid often are reactive and cannot push through fundamental reforms, but they can help win concessions and improvements to legislation. Only through direct participation in the political process can lasting, fundamental nation-wide change be brought about.
Gore and Lessig are not being party political however, they want their agenda to be adopted regardless of party affiliation, and that makes sense. But what they are doing is encouraging people who care about their issues to engage in the party political process. Their campaigns are helping people find the politics in the issues that matter to them.
Politics is a means to an end, we use it to negotiate agreed ways to improve people's quality of life and nurture the environment (built or natural). It's a necessary, messy process. The fewer people engaged in the negotiations, the less fair and representative the outcomes will be. Only by helping people to find the politics in their lives will we re-invigorate democratic engagement… and more importantly, bring about the change I believe we need to see.