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It’s Time to Tackle UK Voter Apathy

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Why do a sizeable number of the UK electorate fail to vote in elections? When the last the UK general election was held in 2005 only 61.3% of the electorate turned out to vote. This was actually an improvement of just over 2% on the 2001 election, the introduction of postal voting being credited for the slight rise. But why are so many people turning their backs on the democratic process?

In the 1980s, politics was at the forefront of many peoples minds. News programmes concentrated on the big political issues of the day, the front page of every serious daily and Sunday newspaper covered these same stories, and there were a number of mainstream entertainment television shows with a political theme. Several popular entertainers built their careers around their political beliefs.

Twenty years on, things have changed dramatically. Politics is no longer a part of everyday life, and political news stories will often take second place to non-stories, for example, the coverage of reality TV shows. This is coupled with a growing number of people, especially those under 25, who feel that they are powerless to change anything.

This apathy is not surprising. The general consensus is that politicians are ‘all the same’, that they lie during election campaigns, then pursue their own agenda once in office. Political parties are said to lack any sense of individuality and imagination. Instead of creating clear dividing lines and easily recognisable opinions they borrow each others’ policies and make reactive, knee-jerk gestures, rather than proactively tackling problems.

A 2001 study commissioned by the government suggested voting rates could be improved if access was made easier – the above mentioned postal voting came about because of this. However, while this is a step in the right direction, I feel more needs to be done to address the sense of distance and removal felt by many of the electorate, particularly the young.

Young people need to be acquainted with the idea that politics is about everyday life. It’s about their local school, hospital or park. It’s about the roads they travel on, it’s about the amount they earn, or pay in tax, or spend on necessities and luxuries. We have a generation who have grown up knowing little about the democratic process, or their place in it.

It is time to put the celebrity gossip back on the entertainment pages of newspapers, leaving the front pages clear for real news. Subjects such as politics and sociology should be reintroduced into schools. Politicians need to ditch the popularity contests and silly name-calling sessions they indulge in, sack the spin doctors and bring about a return to real policies and open debate.

Many would argue that politicians prefer to have an apathetic electorate which asks no questions and makes no demands. The danger is that if we allow this situation to continue, our democracy could become endangered. There is one group who make fervent voters, who never miss an opportunity to advance the cause of their chosen party – extremists.

The far right party, the British National Party (BNP) have already gained seats on a number of local councils, and have stated their intention to campaign in general elections. If mainstream voters do not re-engage with the electoral process there is a danger that such a group could achieve a level of power which is disproportionate to their actual level of support. And that would be dangerous for voters and politicians alike.

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About Kate

  • William Essex

    RE: Its time to tackle UK voter apathy.

    Clearly your contributor has a poor grasp of the often fraudulent British electoral system – described quite recently by a senior judge as something that would embarass a banana republic!

    To claim that “If mainstream voters do not re-engage with the electoral process there is a danger that such a group (BNP) could achieve a level of power which is disproportionate to their actual level of support. And that would be dangerous for voters and politicians alike.” is ironic considering the reverse is actually true.

    For instance: in last year’s local elections the BNP emerged as the largest party (in terms of the number of votes cast) in the northern urban district of Calderdale (population circa 250,000) – yet were only allocated 2 of the 20 or so, seats on the local council – by virtue of local voting factors. Similarly, in Birmingham the party polled over 20,000 votes and received no representation at all! In the city of Sunderland (pop. circa 300,00) it polled around 20% of all votes – but received no seats! Again, in 2005 the same party won some 800,000 votes across England and received no representation! Similarly the 300,000 votes won by the BNP in English local council elections last year resulted in a mere 30 seats being allocated to it. the arithmetic is simple – because of the anti-democratic “first past the post” system used in the UK it takes aomething like 10 times as many votes to elect a BNP councillor as it does one for the “Big Three”!

    Clearly the issue isn’t that smaller parties have power out of proportion to their support base – but rather that the larger parties do and massively so! Unfortunately the problem is that the election rules are agreed largely by the Big Three parties – in a manner that preserves their hedgemony and the undemocratic status-quo!

  • STM

    Do what we we do here in Oz and make it compulsory. Democracy’s a privelege and a responsibility, not just a right. Part of the responsibility is in exercising the privelege of taking part in the process that ensures a society remains truly democratic and represents the will of ALL the people – including those who ordinarily can’t be bothered.

  • STM

    “This is coupled with a growing number of people, especially those under 25, who feel that they are powerless to change anything.”

    Contrast that with the disaffected youth of Maggie Thatcher’s right-wing Britain (or the US and Australian demonstrations in the ’60s and ’70s against participation in the Vietnam War), and the kids and the workers who got out on the streets because they wanted it known that they wanted change. Eventually, they got it.

  • Doug Hunter

    Voter apathy is great! It makes my vote worth more. People that are too lazy and apathetic to take the hour to go cast a ballot aren’t the types I want determining my future anyway.

    In fact, I wonder why anyone would want to make it compulsory that the ignorant vote, unless of course they think igorant people would vote the same way as them.

  • Aku

    I read this over twice, and it seemed strange to me. I just figured out why. Two points. In the interests of full disclosure, I am not a a citizen of the UK, but we have similar problems here in the States.

    1. “Politicians need to ditch the popularity contests and silly name-calling sessions they indulge in, sack the spin doctors and bring about a return to real policies and open debate.”

    If this would actually bring them votes, then they would have done it already, and why does it not bring them votes? This is answered in the article itself.

    “politicians are ‘all the same’, that they lie during election campaigns, then pursue their own agenda once in office.”

    Simply put, no one would believe them if they did do this. There is a high degree of scepticism about politicians and until you get over that, I doubt you will make a lot of headway.

    2. “It is time to put the celebrity gossip back on the entertainment pages of newspapers, leaving the front pages clear for real news.”

    Now this is just a flight into lala land. Newspaper companies are there for one thing, to sell newspapers. If they could sell newspapers with “real news” on the front page, they would. I would challenge the author, if she thinks political newspapers are in such high demand, to go off and start one herself. She would make a killing if she was right.

    Don’t get me wrong, I wish there was a better news apertus. I don’t blame the media for this. People can find what they need quicker, faster, and when they want it on the net, and so do I. This leaves Newspapers and TV news with a different set of people than they had, say 20 years ago.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    What struck me as strange is that he’s complaining abut 61.3% voter turnout, which from a broader perspective, is pretty damned good. Lots of elections here in the US have far smaller turnouts, and the same has been true historically in England and the US and many other countries. It occurs to me that the crisis he’s heralding doesn’t actually exist.

    Dave

  • Kate

    To William Essex

    And clearly you are a feisty fellow who enjoys a good debate. Unfortunately, you are preaching to the converted, I can see the merits of PR versus first past the post. However, reforming our voting system is pointless if the electorate don’t participate.

  • http://rantsopinions.blogspot.com Kate

    To STM

    I can see the merits of the Australian system. I also believe voting is a responsibility – I’m female, and a previous generation of women went of a great deal of trouble to ensure I had the right to vote. I’m not sure if the UK is ready for compulsory voting yet, but it should be an option that remains open.

  • http://rantsopinions.blogspot.com Kate

    Also to STM

    Yes, I was one of Maggie Thatcher’s disaffect youth, and I remember that is was natural to have a political consciousness in those days. The teenagers of today are so different, they are disenfranchised and removed from the political system. I don’t blame them for being like that. When the Tories were finally kicked out of Downing Street a lot of people took their eye off the ball because they wrongly believed the problem had been solved.

  • http://rantsopinions.blogspot.com Kate

    To Doug Hunter

    I can see your point, but let’s face it, ignorant people have never voted. I wrote this article because I was surprised by the number of non-ignorant people who don’t vote. In the last month, I have discussed the subject of non-voters with a teacher and an engineer – both non-voters because of the reasons I outlined above. If it was only the ignorant who didn’t vote it wouldn’t be an issue, although I would hope that someone would educate them about the importance of voting, but when professional people say that voting seems pointless I think we have a problem.

  • http://rantsopinions.blogspot.com Kate

    To Aku

    I agree! The print versions of the newspapers do have a different set of readers to the ones they had twenty years ago. The internet is a feature in most UK homes and people now look to it for their news coverage. However, serious (ie: political) news is still popular. The BBC news site, and the online version of The Times and The Guardian are amongst the most popular sites in the UK, all are regarded as heavy weight commentators on political issues. I would suggest that the majority of UK citizens are not interested in the idiotic and mundane stories the print versions of newspapers churn out. In addition, a significant number of the top sites listed by Technorati have a political theme, which also suggests an interest in subject.

    It is very likely that the problem with the mainstream media is that they need to appeal to people who have no interest in, or understanding of, the internet.

    About your first point: People in the UK have always known politicians lie, but in the past said politicians did, at least make an attempt not to be obvious about it. In addition,
    spin doctoring is a relatively new feature of British politics (dare I say it, it is something which as been imported from the USA) it doesn’t sit well with the British electorate.

    Traditionally, our politicians are a bunch of boring, old farts who would think a spin doctor was someone who fixes gramophones. We aren’t used to slick, young men who can worm their way out of any controversy, and many people find this behaviour distinctly off-putting.

  • http://rantsopinions.blogspot.com Kate

    To Dave Nalle

    I would answer your comment, but as you can’t be bothered to get my gender right, I won’t bother. FYI Kate is a female name, I am not a ‘he’!

  • http://nightdragon.diaryland.com Mark Edward Manning

    That’s because the three main political parties — if you can count the Lib Dems as a main party — have all, within the past year or so, made complete jackasses of themselves. Labour is flying off the rails, the Tories have no idea what they do or don’t stand for and the Liberal Democrats still don’t have the credibility to lead. Problem is, there’s not one party that suits the majority of the British electorate: there’s a great amount still found wanting in all three parties. Hence, voter apathy.

    I’m inclined to go with the Tories myself, but believe me when I say that I’d hold my nose while voting for them.

  • S.T.M

    Kate … don’t be too bloody hard on Nalle. He gets a bit tired and often can’t work out who he is himself – but he’s probably edited and posted your story and is a knowledgeable fellow who has lived in Britain.

    Here’s the other bit on the Australian system, which was designed to tackle voter apathy: it’s combined with proportional representation and voter preferences rather than first past the post. As for the compulsory aspect, it just gets everyone to the point of being actively involved.

    With near 100 per cent voter turnout many elections here come down to a handful of seats and in some cases a handful of votes and one of the benefits in my view is that this system forces governments and oppositions to explore the grey areas. Polarity is out the window to a certain extent as parties don’t have to manufacture issues. Their main goal in winning an election is to address the issues the people want addressed, rather than those the parties (and their corporate backers/lobbyists) on both sides of the fence would prefer.

    There is little reluctance to vote with the law saying you have to, and the preferential system means you can vote for a candidate not in one of the three main parties but ensure your prefences go, for instance, to Labor rather than Liberal (think Tory, and very right wing).

    It works, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in the UK, with a virtually identical system of parliamentary democracy.

    But yes, the down side of modern politics is the spin doctoring – it’s been going on here for eons and means plenty of hot air in the lead up to the polls but not much of substance (I have been one in the past for the Labor party, but I never told my mum). That is countered by an electronic media blackout a few days out from the vote so that people aren’t being bombarded with bullshit. They can still read about it however and make up their own minds: a cooling off period, if you like.

  • Nic

    Hiya Kate – I think you’ve presented an interesting point, but i’d like to (mildly) quibble with a couple of them…

    You mentioned the importance of getting young people to re-engage with the political parties. However, it’s NOT just young people. I’m 40 (err..ish) and I’ve never before felt such a sense of alienation with our mainstream political parties. Labour appears to have ditched “ethnic” Britons in it’s urge towards European Integration and Globalisation. (indeed, it appears to find the idea of a ‘Nation’ an embarresment). The Conservatives give the impression have having no core values or principles whatsoever (other than the desire to regain power)and the Lib Dems are just hopping between bandwagons. Against this background is it suprising that there is a sense of disconnection and apathy amongst voters ?

    In regard to ‘extremist’ parties gaining from this situation (and you mentioned the BNP as a case in point), I suspect that is because the BNP (and perhaps to a lesser extent the UKIP) are pitching their manifesto’s directly at the concerns of people who feel let down by the traditional “Big Three”. In effect, the “Big Three” are moving themsleves to the idiological extremes of the political board, and the BNP et al are becoming the “Mainstream” by occupying the centre ground abandoned by the aforementioned “three”. This is not sinister, but rather a sign that people ARE becoming politically engaged, albeit in a direction that alarms what might – for want of a better term – be called the ‘political establishment’.

    I don’t believe there is any danger to democracy here. The BNP are very likely to make huge gains this May. This will produce two effects….
    (1) The “Big Three” will hurry back to the centre ground and start listening to people. (There are signs of this happening allready..)
    (2) As the BNP membership grows, so too will the diversity of opinions in their decision-making and policy-setting chain. Any tendencies to “extremism” would be diluted by this.

  • Steve

    I get sick and tired of people telling me that I have a duty to vote. The reason I do not vote is because I have made a decision not to. It’s not because I can’t be bothered or voter apathy. If a party existed that deserved my vote then I would willingly give it.

    No one listens to the electorate, even the local councils are guilty of the same charge.None of the big three parties actually care about people, it’s all about looking after corporate interests and sharholders.They are rotten to the core. The man in the street doesn’t stand a chance, and yes I would vote for the BNP if I thought it would make any difference.

    The only thing I can hope for is that enough people decide not to vote at the next election so we have a hung parliment. Please don’t make excuses as to why people don’t vote, look at the reasons, then maybe things will change.

  • Me

    I really get fed up with all you people who say we have a duty to vote. I don’t vote because thats my right. If I am forced to vote then it will be for the BNP. Politics in this country stinks, it’s corrupt full of liars and all they care about is money. So please don’t ask me to vote for a system thats rotten to the core. You all should start worrying because there are changes taking place and you will see the BNP making massive inroads because the working class have been deserted by there own Government. Be warned !

  • Steve2

    I shall also NOT be voting, I’m 53 – seen all manner of Labour and Conservative governments, every single one looked after themselves – NOT the voters. Every single one said they could not achieve their election promises because of the mess left by the previous government. Every single one of them lied, cheated, did nothing for the average person… and we are supposed to NOT feel apathy about using our precious vote. Will it ‘really’ make a difference?