A little while before Christmas I attended a seminar called “Get the vote out” run by the Institute for citizenship. The main focus was on ensuring a good turnout for the European elections in June but many of the concerns raised were relevant to all levels of election. Not wanting to imply that the whole day could be distilled down to one point, I am going to distil the whole day down to one point. Voter turnout is falling and we all need to do something about it.
“But why are the numbers falling?” I hear you cry. One view is that the Labour government has created such a utopia that none of us can be bothered to drag ourselves out after work on election day and attempt to change anything, we are all far too happy with our lot. This was certainly the story that we were force fed by the number 10 spin machine after the appallingly low turn out at the 2001 general election. The sad truth is that the “Stop the War” demos and the Countryside Alliance demos show that there are plenty of people, from all colours of the political spectrum, who are deeply unhappy with the current government. The real issue is that many of those protesters don’t use the ballot box as a tool for change.
The traditional logic was that there were three main groups of people politically speaking, the dyed in the wool “main party” supporters, the fringe party supporters (greens, UKIP, referendum etc.) and the floating voters. It has generally been believed that there is little point in trying to change the minds of the first two groups, for this reason most political activity has been based upon the selling of party ideas to the third group, the “floating” voters. And it is the pursuit of this floating vote that has been the holy grail of British politics for as long as I can remember, even the terminology that we use assumes a shift of votes; we speak of a “swing” from one party to another. The problem, as I see it, is that by focusing overly on the floating vote we lose sight of the importance of the non-voters, who represented over 40% of the electorate at the last general election, over 60% at local elections and a disturbing 75%+ at the last European election.
It would be easy to write off this group of people, to dismiss them, to label them uneducated, uncaring or lazy. The truth is there are probably as many reasons why people don’t vote as there are people who don’t vote. So does it mater? I believe that it matters enormously for two reasons.
Firstly, it cuts to the very heart of what a modern democracy is. Universal suffrage was hard fought for and it gives our democracy the credibility that many voting systems across the world lack. There is a danger that our political institutions could become detached from our day-to-day lives, that they might exist but not matter and if this happens we will have no excuses when we find we have as little control over the creation of laws that bind us as we have over the weather.
The second option, which is more disturbing still, is that extremists come to power not by the passion of those that support them but by the apathy of those that oppose them. We can see that there are racist and neo-fascist groups on the rise both overseas and in the UK and if we don’t act we cannot blame anyone but ourselves when these groups end up with representation at national level.
This isn’t a party political issue but the Conservative party doesn’t have the laurels of office to rest on and has been looking very hard at why some people don’t vote, indeed one of the reasons for the launch of this website was to encourage people to look more closely at Conservative politics. It is very easy for political parties to become inward looking and for this reason the events that encourage debate and help form policy are of paramount importance. At the same time that the Conservatives are embracing a broad church of ideas to ensure we stay relevant and effective, it is interesting to watch the Government put forward policies that are increasingly at odds with not only the nation but also their own backbenchers. There is indeed apathy in British politics, but it isn’t on the part of the electors but with the Labour party.
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