Cheating on democracy

Even before the stories about vote rigging, politicians' interest in postal voting was corrupt.

Frank Furedi

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Most elections present the public with a measure of choice. But the British general election of 2001 has found it difficult to sustain even the illusion of choice.

New Labour’s empty rhetoric about ‘choice not chance’ never fooled anybody – not that very many people cared. From the outset, the outcome of this election has been a foregone conclusion, with the other parties there only to help create the pretence of a contest.

The media initially went through the motions of pretending that this was a real election campaign. But by the final week, even journalists and commentators had stopped pretending. The only question at stake was whether inevitable Labour victory could be represented as an endorsement of New Labour by an otherwise disenchanted and disillusioned British electorate – which is why apathy so quickly became the big issue of the 2001 election.

The most significant event of the election campaign, for me, was the attempt to manipulate the outcome of the election through fiddling the postal ballot. It was only six days before the end of the election that some started raising fears about how election results could be open to rigging. The newspapers finally reported rumours about people being coerced into applying for postal votes in Bradford and Oldham. On 4 June, an investigation by BBC News highlighted the ease of potential fraud, by using dead people’s names to obtain seven votes in the marginal constituency of Torbay, Devon (1).

The fact that more than a third of the electorate of Stevenage had applied for a postal vote raised only a few journalistic eyebrows, and commentators who had vigorously condemned dubious electoral fiddles in the US state of Florida seemed quite happy to overlook such questionable practices in Britain.

However, the lack of concern about the abuse of the new postal ballot system is not surprising – given that the rules on postal votes were relaxed in February for no other reason than to make it ‘easier’ for people to vote without going to the polling booth. The aim of this change was to increase voter participation by whatever means necessary. An electoral system that does not require voters actually to turn out and vote ­ indeed, encourages them not to bother presenting themselves at the polling booth – encourages vote rigging.

In encouraging postal voting, the British political class is attempting to contain the problem of voter apathy. The British political system is facing a major crisis of legitimacy, in which political parties have lost their social base. The size of the parties’ core support has significantly diminished, and they have little direct relationship with any significant section of society. That’s why we can have a general election that has meaning for virtually nobody outside the political establishment.

The depth and scale of this problem is rarely acknowledged. Experts act as if the public’s disengagement from political life is a temporary phenomenon. Some even try to cast this development in a positive light, claiming that the outdated ‘old’ politics has been replaced by consumer activism, and that a new dynamic participatory culture is about to emerge.

Politicians also avoid facing up to the problem, and instead offer quick-fix technical solutions that involve changing the method of election – telephone or internet voting, polling booths in supermarkets, and so on. It is only a matter of time before a smart think-tank proposes that officials go round door-to-door with a voting box, ensuring that people can vote in the comfort of their own homes.

The aim of these quick-fix solutions is to strengthen the illusion of participation ­ however little true participation is actually going on. Those who propose such technical measures refuse to consider the meaning of democratic participation, and evade the question of what the role of a responsible citizen is. Instead they sanction practices that are tantamount to cheating on democracy. As long as people ‘vote’, it seems, the emperor can pretend that he is wearing the clothes of democracy.

Usually during an election, the only concern of political parties is to win the contest. But an election process that is deemed to be irrelevant to people’s lives can only provide pseudo-victories for politicians. Today, the fact that a significant section of British society is so estranged from the general election deprives this event of any significance. A party can win the election and form a government, but it cannot claim to have won a mandate or authority for any particular political programme.

The lack of a popular mandate explains why New Labour has been so thin-skinned all the way through the election campaign. Although Blair’s electoral triumph was never in doubt, New Labour often acted as if it was, in fact, the underdog. Its defensiveness towards the media and its opponents is to be expected, given that New Labour never once connected with the public, and it never managed to generate any mass enthusiasm for any aspect of its policies.

This development in British politics is of crucial significance. In the past, a landslide victory ­ for example, Clement Attlee’s 1945 triumph ­ meant something important. It reflected a major shift in the outlook of the British people. Today, New Labour can look forward to a landslide victory that has no social significance. The fact that such victories can be won without any underlying changes in society, and without engaging any public enthusiasm, underlines the chasm between the electoral process and everyday reality.

The main legacy of the 2001 general election is that this election exposed the isolation of the political establishment from the people. The political class – which includes New Labour ­ cannot be said to possess any democratic authority. In historic terms it resembles an oligarchy rather than a representative authority. And because of its isolation, this class is inherently unstable. Parties that have no distinct social base or role are, in reality, little more than a collection of individuals. And politicians who are not held to account by an engaged electorate can pursue their personal agenda with little inhibition. Expect a lot of clashes, back-stabbing and manoeuvring as we enter the second term.

And what is the next New Labour government to do? Its main claim to fame is the dubious assertion of economic competence. This claim rests less on any special political skills than it does upon the economic upswing experienced by Britain along with many industrial economies. Once the world economy moves in a different direction, New Labour will find it difficult to sustain the impression that it has a distinct governmental programme.

Judging by the experience of the past four years, the new New Labour government will be a restless one. It will pass a lot of laws, organise a lot of initiatives in order to create the impression that it has some purpose other than to be in power. But even its large majority will not be able to hide its essential incoherence as a governmental party. It will be more concerned about its internal affairs and organisation than the many issues confronting British society. Its majority will be wasted on petty infighting and pointless public relations exercises.

For those who do not want to waste their time, the time has come for a serious rethink. It’s not quick-fix solutions we need, but a new political agenda.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
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  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
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  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

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  • Visit Frank Furedi’s website

    Read on:

    Consuming democracy, by Frank Furedi

    (1) See Fraud fear for postal voting, BBC Online, 4 June 2001

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