Monday, April 28, 2014

UK voter apathy - why?

Source: UK Political Info

"Apathy could destroy democracy. When the turnout drops below 50 per cent., we are in danger." - Tony Benn, Maastricht debate in Parliament, 20 November 1991.

The landslide Labour victory of 1997 was not just because of voters switching parties; it was also owing to the drop in voter turnout - the lowest percentage since World War II. It's dropped further since.

And then there's the skewing caused by the FPTP voting system. Have a look at the figures below:

Data: UK Parliament, UK Political Info, BBC

Comparing 1992 and 2010, voter participation dropped by 3.9 million. Between them, the Big Three parties lost 5.48 million votes - and only five seats!

If seats had been awarded strictly in proportion to percentage of votes cast, not only would there now be 150 Lib Dem MPs, but a further 77 from minority parties - whose votes over the same 18-year period increased by 79%, and more than doubled as a percentage of turnout.

Of course, both turnout and party choice would very likely alter if every vote counted equally. (For further discussion of our democratic deficit, please see here.)

Rogue representatives

But here I'd like to add another strand: the quality of our MPs. "They Work For You," says the website - but do they?

Here's an anecdote related to me about the Conservatives as they were in 2002:

"A  lady-friend who was active in the Conservative party convinced me to come to a few debates [plush venues, fine wine and senior politicians/civil servants]. The whole thing was a big disappointment, even then everyone was close minded, refused to acknowledge facts or party member opinion but worst of all clearly had self-interest or personal enrichment at heart. I saw whole rooms of highly intelligent young Conservatives, bankers, lawyers, surgeons etc. walk away in disgust time after time; even my friend left the party afterwards.

"The Conservatives think they are losing young people because they are not interested in politics, my impression was that they were dismayed [even made furious] by the lack of care for our collective futures. Twelve years later we can see what their self-interest has wrought."
And from the Mail on Sunday, here's Liberal Party insider Des Wilson on the 1980s:

"I was not only at the centre of the party in the country at that time but, for a crucial General Election year, the party’s president, allowed to attend the weekly parliamentary party meetings.
"In their innocence, party members may have assumed these meetings on Wednesday evenings throbbed with passionate political debate as the issues of the day were hammered out by men whose lives were devoted to the common good.

"Instead, week after week, I listened with mounting dismay and recoiled at the spectacle of this self-serving, self-pitying bunch (with, I should emphatically add, half a dozen honourable exceptions, such as Archy Kirkwood, Alan Beith and Matthew Taylor), spending an hour or more whining and whinging as parliamentary chores were handed out.
"They endlessly complained about the behaviour of the party’s so-called ‘activists’ – ie members – whose hard work and sacrifices helped them win their seats.

"The ‘activists’, committed to a campaigning party, looked to the parliamentary party for leadership and action. By concentrating on a few activities, they argued, and using all of the opportunities the House provided, the MPs could have more effectively promoted Liberal causes and been a constant thorn in the side of the two old parties.
"But that assumed the MPs saw themselves as the frontline force of a campaigning party, whereas they were a semi-detached pack, disloyal and disunited, self-regarding and self-seeking promoters of their own cause – their own re-election.

"On those Wednesday evenings there was minimal discussion of policy, and when there was, decisions were taken almost entirely on the basis of members’ constituency interests. I never left those meetings without a sense of shame. Week after week I went home thinking, ‘Thank God the rest of the party don’t see this lot in action’. "
Wilson hasten to add the "all a long time ago" rider:
"As for the parliamentary party, that generation has largely moved on (most knighted or sent to the Lords, and several of them dead) to be replaced by a generation who are a world apart from the 1980s lot."

Yes, of course. Though I have spent quite some time over the past nearly two years trying (and failing) to get my Lib Dem MP to stand up and ask questions in Parliament about protecting savers from what I think is the eventual arrival of high inflation (long since arrived, if you look at the price of assets such as residential property).

As to the Labour Party, we have no end of material from the Blair-Brown years (despite their habit of not allowing minutes of many crucial "sofa government" meetings) and more recently there was the internecine strife of the two Miliband brothers who have a strange sense of entitlement, rather like Lord Mandelson and his vaunted descent from Herbert Morrison. It is most odd that the hereditary principle seems as strong among socialists as others, perhaps more so.

(Addendum, 12:20 pm: see Craig Murray today on his experience of standing against Jack Straw, here).
Lewis Carroll's Walrus and Carpenter, with their supporters (pic source)

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said.
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size.
Holding his pocket handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter.
“You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none –
And that was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.


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Paddington said...

Perhaps not 'why', but 'why bother'?

Sobers said...

Two things spring to mind:

a) Why bother voting when who you are voting for have no real power? No one votes for local elections because everyone knows it doesn't really make any difference which lot get in, the big decisions are made higher up (ie national parliament level). And now many of the important national decisions are made at EU level and Westminster is just tasked with the implementation. There is also the quango situation, whereby legislation arrives from Brussels, is rubber stamped by Westminster, and then implemented by quangos that seem to be a law unto themselves (cf. the Somerset Floods). Politicians seem to have no control it, other than the nominal role of making it all legal, a bit like the Queen signing Acts of Parliament. Without her signature its not legal, but she never doesn't sign. Same goes for Westminster's role.

I doubt many people could articulate the reason why, but most would agree with the statement 'It doesn't matter who you vote for, you get more of the same'. And thats why they don't vote, it doesn't make any difference.

b) The venality of individual politicians could be solved by preventing them being able to make politics a career. Thats what creates the massive self interest - if you're 30/40 something and its taken 10 years to get to be an MP, you're unlikely to have any stupendous career to fall back on and you're never going to make a fortune doing anything else, of course you'll be looking out for No 1, its human nature. I would argue that politics is an old persons game - best practiced by people who have had their main career, had their families, made their pile, or mark on the world, experienced a bit of real life, got some perspective on what is actually important, and importantly got some independence. Without that desire for ambitious young bucks and does to climb the greasy pole, it would be harder for parties to whip MPs into line. I'm sure the allure of being made a PPS to some minor minister would hold a lot less allure at 55 than 35. Decisions could be made less on ideological grounds and more on the merits, rather as happens in the House of Lords. (Personally I would be happier governed by a hereditary HoL than the rabble in the HoC. I think such people would make better decisions in the best interests of the nation, precisely because they are old, and have a bit of wisdom, not too much testosterone, and don't have to play to the gallery of the public all the time.)

Either way, I'd put a floor of 50 as a minimum age for a Parliamentary candidate. That gives a political life of 15 to 20 years, which is plenty long enough. It would also weed out the sort of people who are desperate to get into politics (You know who you are Cameron/Clegg/ Milliband) and can manage to do it straight from Uni in about 10-15 years, be an MP before 40, and never have had a real job.

A K Haart said...

Something may turn up, but I suspect we may as well get used to a corrupt and undemocratic future.