Why voter apathy could spawn murky leadership for the UK
With political engagement at an all-time low and a host of parties vying for roles in a new coalition, strong leadership of the country may prove to be the real loser of the election, writes our political columnist
Somebody, somewhere has correctly predicted the 2015 General Election result. Whether it’s down to experience, analysis or just the infinite monkey effect, their moment in the sun awaits. But without infinite columns to write – and being realistic about my powers as a sage – I’m not about to throw my hat into that ring. Instead, I want to hop off the election hamster wheel for a moment, and focus on a bigger picture. Because while the various permutations are fascinating, and political careers will be made and lost, something else of equal significance is happening. The biggest questions answered by this election may not concern the government returned – but the attitudes of British people to the very concept of representative democracy.
The big question is turnout. In 1950, almost 84% of those eligible to vote did so, and while it fluctuated from election to election, turnout remained above 70% for the rest of the 20th Century. In 2001 – when the election result seemed certain – it plunged to just 60%. It recovered slightly in 2005, but five years later reached just 65% when polls showed the result to be more in doubt than any election of recent times.
Familiar reasons have been trotted out for the declining turnout. Russell Brand’s chant against party leadership styles of “they’re all the same” is a popular view (though he’s since gone Green), and as New Labour moved to the centre ground, there was at least some truth in a lack of distinction between the available options. Politicians “aren’t concerned with the issues that are relevant to me” is another factor – and with elections being decided by a handful of swing voters in a clutch of marginal seats, there’s something in that too. A third reason for apathy is the voting system itself: those in seats with big majorities feel their vote can’t change anything.
But the build-up to this election has changed much of that. The leaders’ debates have shown the breadth of political opinion for which people could vote tomorrow, and you could certainly fit a few cigarette papers between UKIP and the Greens. Voter targeting has been clearer than ever before, with policies specifically targeting first-time buyers, older people, renters and students – sometimes to the detriment of a clear narrative to underpin it all. And with the greater part of the public debate focusing on a post-election carve-up, the moral weight that accrues to any party through its share of the vote may hold some sway over whatever deals can be done. That puts more onus than ever on each individual vote.
Let’s hope some of those truths have hit home – because the most recent Audit of Political Engagement, published in March by the Hansard Society, suggested that a mere 49% of the electorate was at that stage certain to vote.
What excuses could mitigate that disastrous level of engagement if the intervening campaign hasn’t rung the changes? Has it become too complicated to appreciate who stands for what in a multi-party election battle? Has the prospect of another coalition led to greater apathy, with people viewing the election as political roulette?
I hope the Hansard Society figures are simply of their time, and feel reassured by the record number of people who registered to vote on the deadline day of 20 April. If not, we could be facing a constitutional crisis on 8 May. What sort of mandate would support a minority government if those who voted for any party at all were, themselves, in the minority?
If this multi-faceted election fails to engage people, then voting reform must go back on the agenda. A reformed House of Lords would be one way to approach it, allowing one chamber to be elected by first past the post to maintain the constituency link; and a second to be elected on share of the national vote so that every ballot counts.
One vote cast by everyone, two chambers elected, and the reasons against voting addressed in one swoop. I’d vote for that.
If I could be bothered.
Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications