democracy politics

The unheard third of British voters

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.

non-voting

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.

7 comments

  1. Not much soul searching from the people I’ve met over the results except for the Labour activists. Most people seem fairly happy with the result. Then again they work in the private sector.

    How do you listen to people who don’t get involved? Obviously you can try to get them to vote but it isn’t like we haven’t tried. Every party would love non voters to come and vote for them cause they would win a landslide, but still they don’t turn out. I suppose you could tailor a programme to suit what you think non voters want but that would probably alienate the centre voters where elections are won.

    Fretting about low turn out we make the mistake of thinking what we personally believe to be important is important. For many people it just isn’t important and that is perfectly rational. We are a less collectivist culture than we were and elections are a collectivist event.

    I suppose you could make voting compulsory but then you would be punishing people for not sharing your preoccupations.

    As you can tell I don’t see this as the huge problem it is made out to be. The incentives to vote, and to appeal to non voters are there but they still don’t vote. I suggest that those who think it terrible go out and create a party that gets those disparate non voters out. See how easy it is.

    1. Sure, but I’m not a supporter of any particular party and it’s not about raising turnout for the sake of winning elections for any one side.

      I think that feeling involved in decision-making is a good thing in itself, regardless of who you vote for. Having a political voice, believing that government has heard you and that you have someone on your side – these are all things that make a difference to people and are part of a healthy society, don’t you think?

      It’s not really about turnout per se. Voting in general elections is by no means the be all and end all of citizenship, they just give us an opportunity to see the problem.

      If you believe in democracy, why wouldn’t you want as many people as possible to participate in it?

      1. I want as many people involved as possible but while I think it is in their best interests I shouldn’t force my view on others who take a different view.

        I want as many people involved as possible but the evidence is that if an issue is seen as important enough people will vote. The Scottish referendum had a higher turnout than any election since 1918 (85%) but the general election was much lower (70% in Scotland).

        I want as many people involved as possible but we need to ensure the integrity of the ballot. Postal voting was meant to increase turnout but it made it easier to rig elections.

        I want as many people involved as possible but having lots of direct democracy doesn’t work. Switzerland has an average turnout of 59%.

        We have a different relationship with the state today than we did 50 years ago. Much more of a consumerist feel. You and I can disagree on the desirability of that but I can’t see how the old relationship would come back.

        1. I don’t want the old relationship back. There’s no golden age of British democracy behind us. As last week’s post on democratic progress showed, we’re a more democratic society now than we ever have been. But there’s more we could do. If you think otherwise, that’s your prerogative and I’m not going to argue about it. We’ll just add it to the long list of things you don’t think are problems.

          I agree with you that nobody has a right to force their views on anyone else. That’s a big reason why a wider democratic conversation matters.

          1. You say there is more we can do. But you don’t say what. What quantifiable thing do you think we can do? Otherwise this is just handwringing.

            When you look at the normally posited solutions they generally have drawbacks bigger than the gain.

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