The fight to re-enfranchise the electorate starts here
If the next General Election is to have any real impact, it must be turned from a technical affair into a big, loud public debate about the future.
Today, the political class interacts with the masses, not in terms of democratic political engagement, but in the language of anthropology. For the political caste, the mass of voters is a weird tribe to be prodded and studied, massaged and managed. They are not there to be represented (their alleged views must be extinguished rather than taken seriously) or to be engaged with as adults (their fertile minds have been far too warped for serious discussion) but rather to be re-educated, reassured, remade as sedate, obedient citizens.
The overriding but unspoken issue of the forthcoming General Election will be the now almost complete dislocation of the political elite from the population. It is unlikely to be addressed directly by our leaders, but the real story behind the 2010 General Election will be the historic crisis of legitimacy facing the British political system, the collapse of any social base or meaningful social support for all the political parties, and the continuing estrangement between the people who live in British society and the people who run it. This disconnect is giving rise to new forms of deeply undemocratic politics and to the creeping and profound disenfranchisement of the electorate – which is why it must be urgently addressed, and turned around.
Don’t be fooled by all the election-talk amongst New Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems. In truth, none of our political leaders is keen about going to the electorate yet again. They need to, of course, because they require the political legitimacy that can only come from winning a certain proportion of votes. But they are also keenly aware that, in an era of disengagement, distance and apathy, they can, at best, win a pseudo-victory, which might provide them with the right number of seats in parliament but will provide them with little in the way of a strong political mandate or democratic legitimacy.
Our leaders see elections as a drag or even view them with dread. When he was asked, during his crisis of leadership in June 2009, whether he would hold a General Election, prime minister Gordon Brown said: ‘Do you really want to see tomorrow, in the midst of the recession, the chaos of an election?’ His use of the word ‘chaos’ sums up the political class’s view of the electorate as an unknowable, potentially destabilising force, as essentially an external threat to what has become an entirely internalised, Whitehall-based business of running the country.
They also see voters as irrational. A revealing piece of correspondence between Derek Draper and Peter Mandelson, two chief architects of New Labour, said the electorate ‘votes according to a partly unconscious emotional motivation, as much, if not more than, a rational one’. When they’re not behaving like anthropologists, the political class plays the role of Mystic Meg-style mindreaders, trying to work out what those oh-so-unstable voting classes really think and feel.
The opposition parties, in particular David Cameron’s Conservatives, might fancy their chances against the unpopular New Labour, but they do not relish the thought of a General Election either. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems know from the most recent local and European elections that public distaste for New Labour is not translating into enthusiastic support for them. In the local elections, the Tories won 38 per cent of the vote, yes, but that was a five per cent decline on their results last time. The Lib Dems came fourth in the European elections, as their Euro-vote fell by 1.2 per cent.
The Tories and the Lib Dems seem keen to fight the General Election on the issue of MPs’ expenses, because they believe they can score some easy points and also because they see the election primarily as a way of placating the mob, of calming down what they see as widespread public fury over greedy MPs. As one sympathetic commentator puts it, ‘only an election can drain the political poison’.
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So where Brown sees an election as ‘chaos’ and other New Labourites view it as an irrational process, oppositionists consider it to be the political equivalent of attaching a leech to the body of a sick man. We the voters are either the harbingers of instability, unconscious actors, or parasites that must suck the rotten blood from parliament so that Cameron can get on with the business of controlling Britain.
These deeply disdainful views of the electorate and the election process spring from the political parties’ profound crisis of authority and legitimacy. With speedily shrinking membership bases, rising voter apathy, and a lack of connection with any significant section of society, the political class feels itself dangerously cut off from the mass of society, from effectively any democratic will of the nation.
Yet it continually underestimates the severity of the problem. It tends to see voter apathy as a result of intellectual laziness on the part of voters, as a temporary thing that might be fixed by making voting easier and finding new ways to tempt the electorate into the ballot box. In the process it puts forward ‘solutions’ to the crisis of political authority that end up making matters worse and further disenfranchising us voters.
Politicians seek to make voting easier, by introducing postal voting or discussing wild initiatives like putting polling booths in supermarkets and introducing telephone and internet voting. Other members of the political class want the franchise extended to 16-year-olds. This not based on any love of democracy or attachment to universal suffrage, but rather on the cynical belief that it is easier to convince very young people, who still tend to think in black-and-white terms, than it is to engage adults who have complicated needs, beliefs and passions. Indeed, the discussion about 16-year-old voters is based on hostility towards universal suffrage, since the turn to ‘yoof’ springs from disdain and disappointment with the adult voters of old.
This streamlining of the voting process is done in the name of ‘engagement’, but it makes a mockery of engagement: it reduces voting from a political expression, from a political relationship with government and authority, to a chore that you can do while you pick up the weekly groceries or at home in your pyjamas. Desperate for the political legitimacy that only our votes can give them, but equally desperate to avoid talking to us or listening to us, the political class has seriously denigrated the right to vote – leaving us technically enfranchised, but politically disenfranchised.
spiked wants to turn this around. In the run-up to 2010 - through our ‘Vote for Politics!’ campaign and coverage - we want to put Politics with a capital P back on the agenda, and to try to transform the General Election from a technical exercise in legitimacy provision for the elite, or a means of gaining closure on the MPs’ expenses scandal, into a real debate; to re-enfranchise the electorate so they can have their say on freedom, war, welfare, education, monarchy, democracy, downturn, economy, the future, and more.
Our rulers often try to blackmail us into voting by arguing that heroic people like the Suffragettes fought and died for the vote. No they didn’t. They fought, in the words of the most revolutionary Suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, for ‘the Vote’. That capital V is important. Pankhurst said she and her fellow agitators ‘did not want the Vote for academic reasons’; they wanted it because they ‘saw in it a means of giving all the people the power to free themselves from gaunt and urgent want’ and to give everyone ‘an equal chance to share in controlling the destinies of the nation’.
That is the kind of Voting that is worth fighting for – not voting in order to provide aloof, at-sea Emperors with a few more clothes of legitimacy, but Voting as a way of freeing ourselves and taking control of our futures. Watch this space as spiked makes the case for precisely such Voting – that is, for politics, debate and engagement.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.