Apathy Rules?

There is a real sense among many of the people I meet in my day to day life that there is little point engaging in a discussion about politics and even less in actually voting. This is born out by the figures for general election voter turnout, which from bobbling around between 70% and 80% from 1945 until 1997 have dropped precipitously with only 59.4% turnout in 2001’s election to 65.1% in the most recent election.

This is not new information. All of the main political parties have been talking about how they intend to go about re-engaging with the members of the electorate who chose not to vote. There are undoubtedly a multitude of very specific and often personal reasons why people chose not to vote, however, these specific reasons can be grouped into one of three broad categories:

  1. The party they would have voted for stands no chance of winning in their constituency;
  2. There is no one party that sufficiently represents the views of the voter to merit a vote; or
  3. There is no point in voting as there is no discernible difference between the choices available.

If we agree that the first point is a symptom of the first past the post system, as there are inevitably a number of “safe” seats where a particular party maintains an unassailable lead (think Beaconsfield where the Tories won 61% of the vote at the last general election, or Bootle where Labour won 66%). It follows that we may assume this would account for a significant proportion of the electorate who chose not to vote in elections predating 2001 when the sharp drop in voter turnout began (we’ve been stuck with first past the post since universal suffrage arrived in the UK). Furthermore, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume the voters in the second group, i.e. those who do not feel there is a party that suitable represent their views to merit a vote, are not a new group either. The UK has operated a virtual two party politics since 1945; again this would suggest there is no catalyst for a change in voters in this category (accepting the difference between the main parties is more or less constant, although the overall political position may oscillate (think Heath to the left of Thatcher, or Blair to the right of Foot). On that basis I’ll park both of these groups of non-voters to one side as there seems to be little to suggest these groups of voters are particularly disengaged or changing in composition or number and focus on the final bullet point.

Based on the assumptions made above this final group can be said with a reasonable degree of confidence to account for the increasing numbers of non-voters. This group represents the increasing section of the electorate do not believe government can offer any answers to the challenges they face in their lives. Lets call this group the disengaged voters.

Disengaged voters offer big rewards to political parties of all persuasions, afterall demographics dictate the margins between winning and loosing in the UK are minuet. However, as we’ve already noted it appears as though rather than making the most of this opportunity to win new voters, who do not carry the baggage of affiliation to another party, it is being missed in spectacular fashion. Again we must search to find any common strands that unite these disengaged voters:

  • They do not believe existential threats (e.g. global warming, economic collapse, etc…) are issues that will make a directly impact on their lives.

And even where disengaged voters accept the existence of a threat:

  • They do not believe the issues can be addressed via government.

So what? We no they don’t care because they don’t think it affects them, or if they do care they’re too cynical to entrust government to do anything about it.

Here’s one for you… What if they’re right? Or, at least partially right?

I do not doubt that many of the threats I may perceive can quite fairly be characterised as insignificant to many, particularly when viewed over a short time horizon (e.g. 5 years). Moreover, I do not doubt that the mode of government we have in place today is not in anyway suitable to address the most critical issues we face.

What am I saying? Should we all be moving into the disengaged voters camp? Emphatically NO!

But the common ground those of us with a more radical perspective share with these voters is significant. We do not subscribe to any particular interest in the issues our governments present as key, and we do not believe the current mode of government employed is fit for purpose. So where existing governments find this group unreachable, all we radicals need to do is convince them:

  1. The issues we believe are existential are indeed such; and
  2. We can work towards an alternative mode of government that can address the “real” issues.

Its not a slam-dunk to convert these guys, there is a whole lot of persuasion to be done, but we have science on our side and the immutable truths only it can present will support our cause and re-enforce the message that action is the only option. More and move of this evidence keeps stacking up (e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/29/carbon-emissions-nuclearpower), emphasising the urgency with which we must act. And once we have persuaded people of the issues, we can move on to the discussion about how we can tackle the issues via government.

So what are you waiting for, get out there and persuade your friends, colleagues, associates, or whoever that the issues matter, they are a matter of life and death.


2 Responses to Apathy Rules?

  1. Murray McRobie says:

    Just a short reply – much to apathetic to do a lengthy response.
    Yes apathy does rule and the voting system is certainly part of the cause. Why bother voting if your vote is unlikely to count. Yes a full system of PR would do a lot to rectify this. The AV proposal always was a bit half arsed – and the No campaign had it easy in putting it down even if they did lie to do so. Maybe they could have PR voting for the House of Lords.
    I think a further reason for widespread apathy is the lack of diversity of ideas and of political/economic philosophy. The differences between the political parties is NOT what it used to be. There isn’t a cigarette paper between them – all you are getting is a different management team. Labour (well especially under Blair) are no longer particularly for the working class and less well off, they are as much a party of big business and fighting America’s wars as are the Tory’s. Hopefully that is changing. The party did chose the right Miliband brother. Of course in the age we live in, where presentation is everything Ed doesn’t seem great and I’m sure David would probably be polling higher right now. Of course oneday ideas and policy might return to being more important than spin and sex appeal. I live in hope.

    Also contributing to apathy is the feeling that Government don’t particularly matter. That they are NOT the real powers that decide what happens in this World. There is at least some truth in this and this in turn rather feeds into various conspiracy theories of the World being ruled by a tiny secretive elite. What has helped feed this is the way in which Governments – and especially the US Government, have been so soft on the banksters who very nearly collapsed the whole capitalist system. So little of real substance has been done since, other than kicking the can down the road and moving debt from the private to the public sectors. We live in interesting, if a little scary, times.

  2. Andrew Findlay says:

    Pretty much everyone who’s ancestors were living in Britain in 1900 will have ancestors who died preserving our right to live in a democracy and our right to vote for who our leaders are.

    Voter apathy is overwhelmingly among the MTV genration / Generation Y / the yoof of today (choose your label) who want everything without compromise. They need to look at themselves rather than the system; perhaps that’s where the fault lies. if people don’t like the system then stop moaning and engage with it. That’s what brings change. Engagement act number 1; Vote! At every opportunity.

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