Regardless of which way you were voting in the recent election, one thing every commentator was agreed on was this: you have to vote.
That message didn’t seem to get very far, considering that the single biggest voting block in the election was the non-voters. Like last time, the number of people not voting was bigger than the number of votes for the winning party. We don’t count them in the final tally, which is a shame. If we did, we’d realise that the loudest voice in the election was not a ringing endorsement of the Tories’ “Long Term Economic Plan”, but a big collective ‘meh’ to the whole process.
But we don’t count them, and we form governments on the assumption that ‘the electorate have spoken’, even though only a quarter of voters actually expressed a preference for a Conservative government. (This would be just as much a problem if Ed Miliband was moving into Number 10, incidentally.) Turnout was 66%, and our expectations are so low on this front that the Telegraph described this as a “bumper election turnout”.
We don’t count the non-voters because, as far as we’re concerned, they opted out of the process. If they didn’t take up their right to vote, then we don’t have to listen to them.
I disagree. The problem we have is that not voting is synonymous with apathy. That implies that people know about the election and just can’t be bothered to walk down the street to vote. But a fair chunk of non-voters won’t know about the election, or what day it’s on, or who is standing and what they are standing for.
This can be dismissed as ignorance or laziness, but once again, this is an oversimplification. It’s easy for university educated Radio 4 listeners to tut about how people wouldn’t know about the election, but if you don’t follow politics, how would you know to suddenly start paying attention? Many politicians, with their black suits and posh accents, appear to speak a different language and live in a different world from the rest of us. Ordinary people don’t talk about deficit reduction plans, so it doesn’t sound like they’re talking to you.
Much of what happens at Westminster looks irrelevant, a political elite talking to itself – an elite that indignantly demands that we pay attention for six weeks every five years. If we hear nothing from our local parties for half a decade, aren’t we going to be a bit suspicious when they suddenly start telling us how hard they’re working for us? If you don’t follow politics, the only time you’re going to have a politician reach out to you is when they want something from you at election time. It shouldn’t be surprising that people think politics is self-serving.
Most of us are going to pick up that there’s an election happening, because the junk mail starts pouring in, and people in rosettes are going to knock on the door. But this doesn’t necessarily engage the citizenry. In my experience, half of the content of political flyers is reasons not to vote for the other guy, often in extreme language – “the choice is clear” went one for a major party this year “competence or chaos”. Another significant slice of the content is arguments for not voting for what you believe in – little diagrams showing why your chosen party ‘can’t win here’, or how ‘a vote for X is a vote for Y’, or warnings that if you don’t for us that hideous party that you don’t want will get in ‘through the back door’.
These flyers are written by people into their politics, obviously, so they might not realise that the implicit messages here are ‘you can’t trust anybody’, and ‘your vote won’t count’.
And then we wonder why people don’t vote.
There are of course those who deliberately choose not to vote, which is a slightly different issue. (A legitimate choice in my opinion, but that’s for another post.) But it should concern us that a third of the electorate isn’t being heard.
It should concern David Cameron, if he’s serious about leading one nation. It should bother Labour, when they realise that those least likely to vote are often the most marginalised and the most vulnerable to spending cuts or an economic downturn. All of us should pause to consider the fact that under 35s are markedly less engaged, meaning our politics is at risk of losing a whole generation.
It’s not as if we don’t know about this. Outside of elections, we do actually measure how engaged people feel with our democracy. Hansard’s audit of political engagement for 2014 shows that 68% of people think our system of government needs improving, and 58% don’t feel that our democracy meets our needs. Only one in five think they have any influence over local decision making, and a tiny 16% of 18-24 year olds said they were certain to vote.
As a nation, the results of the election took us by surprise last week, and there is a lot of soul searching going on. In particular, the losing parties will be looking to rebuild. We should take this opportunity to ask some broader questions – not just how we can support for our chosen party, but how we can improve our democracy overall. How can we give a voice to those currently silent? How can we inspire and empower people, and extend a sense of ownership and belonging to more of us?
At this point, we need our politicians to do more than proselytise for their own party. We need them to make a case for politics itself.