Is voter apathy now the norm?

JenniferTankardOnly Ukip has emerged victorious from the 2014 local and European Union elections. Their significant gain of new councillors and MEPs has them shouting about a historic breakthrough and becoming a national force. The three main political parties have all responded with an intense bout of public hand-wringing, with Cameron urged to move to the right, Clegg to resign and Miliband to find some new policies and never eat a bacon butty on TV again – although who really looks good eating breakfast?

While the focus on post election analysis remains on arguing about campaign techniques, broken promises and the yawning gap between the political elite and ordinary people, the majority of voters went for the ‘none of the above’. It is estimated that turnout was around 36%. The lack of political comment about this low turnout may indicate political and media apathy about commenting on voter apathy. Or that, as turnouts at local and European elections are consistently low, there is no new story to tell.

As usual, the pattern of voter turnout was fairly consistent across different regions. In London, Lambeth recorded the lowest turnout at 32%, and Richmond the highest with 46.3%. Manchester Council had a 37% turnout, although its city centre only achieved 17%.  Northern Ireland managed an impressive 51.84% turnout for elections to its new 11 super councils.

When interviewed by the press, voters consistently said that they had voted on national issues. But clearly some local issues were at play. Labour claimed their gains in Hammersmith and Fulham were caused by an unpopular decision to demolish and redevelop two housing estates. The two-year prison sentence last autumn for the former Liberal Democrat leader of Kingston-upon-Thames wouldn’t have gained the party many local friends. And in Hastings, an area that should be prime UKIP territory – a seaside borough in Farage’s Euro constituency, with a mix of Tories and working class Labour voters, Ukip lost their only councillor.

The low turnout may reflect the fact that people continue to believe that they aren’t offered much choice or that they don’t know enough about the choice on offer. Campaign group, Unlock Democracy believes that some type of online hub for election information would make it easier for voters to get informed about the political choices on offer.

They have created Vote Match, an online app which matches voters to the parties that best represent their views in an election. Vote Match has, apparently, a track record of boosting participation. After the 2010 general election, where over 1 million people took Vote Match, a survey showed that 5% of users decided to vote as a result, and 77% users sought more information about politics. But like the initiative I reported in my last blog – a combination of personalised mailings and saying thank you, the impact is to nudge a few more people into the polling booth. It’s not going to create a stampede.

Politicians and political parties need to do far more to reach out to people and give them reason to vote. Clearly explaining policies, setting out differentiation and talking in a language people understand might stem the flow of apathy. It could be worse. In Slovakia, just 13% of voters turned out for the 2014 Euro elections. But it could be so much better, even allowing for people to have the right to be apathetic if they choose.


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9 years ago

As I personal comment, I think turnout would be increased if
a) all nationally elected MPs had to have lived or worked in their constituency for at least 12 months prior to being nominated. This would ‘tie’ politicans much more closely to their area and reduce the number of ‘career politicians’ pushed into areas that they know little about or have little understand of. This would increase voter confidence.
b) Politicians should not be allowed to switch parties once elected – they should stand down.
c) Political parties should be legally bound to their manifesto pledges. This would reduce the large number of ‘pledges’ that parties make – (and instead would separate out ‘wishes’ or potential ideas – from initiatives that they definitely would do). It would increase confidence to know that ‘what you vote for, you will get’.
d) Expenses & salary rules should be tied to those in the wider public sector. e.g. if nurses are getting 1% increase then so should politicians. Personally I also think accommodation in London should be purchased (as an apartment block) and provided for MPs who live outside commuting distance and this accommodation should transfers from one MP to the next – i.e. it is not the personal possession of the individual MP – and no MP should be allowed to have their home on expenses.
e) There should be a single web portal where all candidates are required to provide basic information – including previous employment, their personal statement and link to their manifesto pledges. At the moment it is hard to find out information about what parties actually will do unless it is on TV.
f) My son is 16 – and at no time in his schooling has there been any discussion/lessons on why it’s important to vote; how to interpret what people are saying; or even how to register. Perhaps that should be looked at?

9 years ago

We should stop calling it apathy for a start – in most cases it’s antipathy

Voters increasingly view politicians as out of touch and reject the political process – this is not caused by aloof politicians neglecting to reach out. Politicians largely are unable to make decisions that count and people are getting increasing angry about this.

This is not an issue of process, of character or of political ideology. The key thing is that politicians often lack the ability to promise the things voters want. IMHO there are two reasons for this:

1) because of increased inequality the country is ungovernable – it’s impossible for any party to create a platform that will have widespread support because our lives have become so different there is no position of consensus that can generate a workable mandate.

2) in a post-bureaucratic age power is distributed – politicians aren’t as powerful as they once were. A good example of this can be seen in attempts to reform the NHS with both EU derived competition law and powerful NGOs (such as the BMA and RCN) able to wield significant influence. Radical proposals (whether popular or not) end up just being a tweak on the present situation once the full range of bodies exert their influence.

Tinkering with the system and improving communication won’t address these issues. We’re going to have to have a rethink about power and governance and to recognise that our political systems need significant reform and that current political institutions (such as parties) will always resist reform and will only introduce it as a last resort.

As a first step we could look to properly devolve power – at a local level it’s clear that parties can get workable mandates (for example the more diverse bits of Manchester have a commonality that the more diverse parts of the UK don’t – say for comparison between Toxteth and Knightsbridge) and can create strong political vision, they rarely have the power that should come with that mandate.

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