Democratic deconsolidation at work? Understanding the relationship between voice in the workplace and political engagement across the UK’s social divides


This project is a preparatory study that sits at the crossroads of political science, social policy, sociology of work and employment, economic geography and industrial relations. This preparatory study will involve the development of a systematic interdisciplinary literature review and approximately ten scoping interviews across sectors that will act as case studies to inform future research.

Political Science literature increasingly highlights problems of “democratic deconsolidation” (Foa and Mounk, 2016); the idea that populations in developed capitalist democracies are becoming less wedded to democratic political norms. This is often associated with issues like the apparent traction of “populist” political projects. One source of democratic deconsolidation is the “epistemic violence” whereby marginalised sections of the community find their voice in political expression is disregarded (Fricker, 2007). 

In the United Kingdom (and elsewhere), this concern is tied to other demographic, geographical and cultural divides (Jennings and Stoker, 2016) and is increasingly seen as one of the biggest challenges to British society. It is increasingly common to emphasise divisions between so-called “left behind” areas with older populations characterised by post-industrial decline; and metropolitan areas with younger and supposedly more “cosmopolitan” populations (Goodwin and Heath, 2016; Milburn, 2019). This is also increasingly reflected in the new governmental emphasis and concerns about ‘levelling up’, which specifically addresses these regional divides. 

There is therefore significant concern about a polarised political landscape where democratic participation appears shallower and more people appear disengaged. The central contribution of this research is to set the workplace- and the concept of collective worker voice- at the heart of addressing this problem. There is evidence that collective worker voice tends to be associated with increased support for democratic values and political participation. This has been supported through attitudinal studies of trade union members (Turner et al, 2019), as well as qualitative studies of the effect of union campaigning on collective political expression (Beresford, 2009; Tapia, 2013). We need to understand whether declining union membership, and decreased participation in union democratic structures, may be an exacerbating factor in wider democratic deconsolidation; particularly in “left-behind” areas which were once dependent on strongly unionised industries. Conversely, while UK union membership remains low, studies of emerging kinds of collective worker voice (whether through established unions, or insurgent and informal kinds of activism in services, retail and “platform” work) suggest that a younger generation may be finding its way to a renewed democratic engagement via the workplace (Cant, 2019; Royle and Rueckert, 2020).  

To date, this research has tended to avoid a wider and more ambitious engagement with the current political conjuncture in the UK, which we aim to directly address. While scholars address the work-political voice link in fragmented ways from different angles, there has -to date- been no systematic attempt to examine how these dynamics play out across geographical and social divides in the UK polity. Scaling up and developing this broader perspective is the objective of this research.