People (Without) Power

Victorious candidates by party

  It occurred to me the other day that many of my friends are astoundingly apolitical – that is, they have no real appreciation of what the political establishment is up to and, whilst they have opinions which could be described as political views, they tend not to associate problems in their own lives with the failure of the governments whose policies are ultimately responsible. Why, I wondered, is this?

Interesting map showing second-place
candidates by party

  I suspect the answer is, at least in its fundamentals, quite simple: politics is seen as boring. Politicians are grey men in greyer suits, who shuffle around on dull stages delivering bland speeches on uninteresting topics to audiences of sycophants and equally incomprehensible media types. They are not, in short, the kind of people that the public associate with the ideals and principles which motivate them. Idealism requires passion, and few of today’s crop of political masters displays anything close to that.

  This basic disconnect between politicians and the rest of society, particularly the younger generation, is growing ever more pronounced. Membership of the ‘big three’ parties has plummeted since the high point of over 4 million in the early ’50s to a low of around 400,000 today. More and more people are being turned off by the empty promises and hollow platitudes of the political class, and voter apathy is setting in, big time.

  This is a BAD THING.

  On the face of it, voter apathy looks like a bad thing for politicians – it means, after all, that they aren’t connecting with the public. Time to pull their collective socks well and truly up, then? Well, no. When you think about it, voter apathy is actually hugely beneficial for the politicians. At the last general election, for example, turnout was only 65.1% of the electorate. This means that 34.9% of the adult population of the UK did not take part in the election, and therefore that the politicians could safely ignore over a third of the country. 

  If this was a freak occurrence, then such a move would be risky, but it is not – over the last five general elections, the average turnout has been just 67%, meaning that a third of the population consistently skip polling day, and therefore can have their opinions discounted by the political class. It is this kind of apathy which allowed the Labour government to be re-elected in 2005 with only 35% of the electorate’s support, essentially eliminating the government’s democratic mandate at a stroke. But that didn’t matter – they had an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, and so could force their legislation through when nearly two thirds of the population didn’t want it in the first place.

  Turnouts for local and European elections are even more shocking – 42.3% for local, 33.52% for European. And they’re both averages – the most recent results are even lower. This means that local councils and the EU Parliament, often criticised for being undemocratic, really are just that.

  It’s been a little statistic-heavy today, and for that I apologise. But this stuff’s important – the lessening interest in what’s going on around us is allowing politicians to ignore large sections of society and – since it’s been shown that the younger, poorer and more ethnically diverse the cross-section, the less likely they are to vote – it’s the people who are being most disadvantaged by the current political paradigm who matter least to the politicians who seem hell-bent on ruining our lives. 

  So, the moral of the story is, vote. Get yourself down to the ballot box at every opportunity and make a difference, even if it’s only a small one. Sure, you have only one vote – but if that entire third of the electorate were to turn up at the polls in 2015, that’s a hell of a lot of ones. And if you can’t bring yourself to put a cross in any of the available boxes, so equally repugnant are the choices before you – and believe me, I sympathise – do something about it. Campaign, march, set up a political party, stand for election, write a cynical blog on the internet – anything to shift the political consensus in the direction you want.

  That’s democracy, after all.


2 thoughts on “People (Without) Power

  1. Pesky double post issue fixed.

    Whether that's the politicians' actual GOAL, I don't know, but that's certainly the effect it's having. And I don't believe for one moment that they don't realise what they're doing.

    And you're right – student apathy really is the most worrying component of the general trend. After all, youth is supposed to be about fresh, new ideas, challenging the status quo and pushing to overturn traditions which leave the country hidebound. If we don't do it, who else is going to?!

    As for the spectre of the current generation (I thought we were on Z now, but there you are) being just as apathetic in 25 years' time, I fear that is a highly plausible scenario. And it scares the hell out of me


  2. (Apologies for pesky double post)

    Great post, as ever. Like you, I secretly suspect the politicians' ultimate goal is to bore the population into submission…

    Further to your points (and you have basically already touched on this but I thought I'd expand on it a bit) one of the traditionally most radical and politically active groups in society, the students, are now among the least engaged in politics. One of the most surprising things about the student demos in 2010 after the government increased tuition fees, apart from the violent elements, was that they took place at all. Suddenly, here was a whole bunch of pissed off young people (you know, those very same people whom everyone thought couldn't give a rat's arse about politics; “you can do whatever you like to them, they won’t fight back!”) who were actually willing to do something to protest against their lot in life. This sort of thing hadn't happened since the 1980s, and unfortunately hasn't really happened since (unless you count the 2011 summer riots as a form of political expression, which it arguably was, but in a much less concrete way).

    If you go on a march these days, a heavy majority of the marchers are middle aged, many of them old-style lefties, the sort of people who would have been doing the same thing against Thatcher's government 25 years ago when the issues were poll tax and mine closures etc. I often wonder what the demos of 25 years' time will look like, when many from that generation will no longer be with us. Will the middle-aged generation Y (that's us, BTW) be out in force with the students of the day, or will there be no real turnout to speak of? After all, it seems reasonable to suggest that a cohort of politically disinterested teenagers / twenty-somethings will likely age into a cohort of disinterested middle-agers, with no real investment in or care for whatever the government does. If this comes to pass, we should all be fearful for our democracy.


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