Guilt-tripping the feckless electorate

London Elects plastered the city with patronising posters imploring people to vote, unwittingly revealing the elite’s hateful view of the public.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

Confronted by dwindling voting figures, the spectre of illegitimacy haunts the UK’s political elite. Each election, be it general or local, appears more as a threat than an opportunity. Such is the anxiety amongst politicians that the call for people to vote for any candidate is often louder than parties’ calls to vote for their candidate. In contemporary politics, the size of your turnout matters.

And for good reason, too. With an electorate seemingly content to allow the political machinery to churn away regardless, those manning it are increasingly bereft of purpose. Without the authority of a popular mandate, they are left administrating in the dark, hemming and hawing policy on the cuff. One minute Gordon Brown is hailed by his fellow ministers for cutting the basic rate of income tax to 20 per cent, the next he is lambasted. Against a background of uncertainty and political disorientation, getting people through the doors of the polling station – a chance to regain some semblance of direction, authority and legitimacy – becomes paramount.

Unfortunately, the electoral statistics make for demoralising reading. In the 1950 General Election, 85 per cent of the electorate cast a vote; by 2001 and 2005, it had sunk to around 60 per cent. For turnout watchers, local elections are traditionally even more dismal affairs, with around 35 per cent across the UK recently visiting the polling booths.

However, the most recent London mayoral elections have provided something of a fillip. In the 2004 mayoral elections, 37 per cent voted, which was itself three per cent higher than the inaugural turnout in 2000. But this year, 45 percent cast a vote. In other words, 2.4 million of the 5.4 million eligible voters cast their ballots.

Perhaps it was Boris’ bumbling Aryan charm, the London Evening Standard’s Terminator-style pursuit of Ken Livingstone, or perhaps the chance to draw a line in the sand between candidates opposed to knife crime and keen on better transport. Whatever it was that turned on a large number of non-voters, one consequence is that London Elects – which oversaw the elections – may well feel that its ‘Your choice. Make sure nothing stops you voting’ campaign has been vindicated.

London Elects is the body responsible for the logistics of the mayoral election, and, as they put it, for ‘voter education’ – that is, an explanation of how to vote and why the mayor of London and the London Assembly is relevant to people’s lives. If that sounds a little patronising, then London Elects’ campaign to get people registered and out voting, produced alongside the Electoral Commission, took an even dimmer view of Londoners. The campaign made itself felt via a number of TV and radio adverts, and more pervasively via a series of posters plastered all over London transport, from bus stops to tube trains.

Consider the poster encouraging voter registration (see above). You don’t have to be a professor of semiotics to work out what it is saying: if you don’t register you are a wilfully ignorant, stick-your head-in-the-sand numpty. And then there’s the depiction of a bloke trapped in an upside-down pint glass (see left). Not only might your failure to vote be due to plain ignorance, it preaches, but also due to your love of going to the pub and drinking beer. The objective seems to be to inspire guilt in the non-voting majority. Not voting? That’s you, that is: lazy, feckless and pissed. Such a guilt-inducing sentiment re-emerges in the furore around the British National Party. As a Times editorial titled ‘Why it matters’ stated: ‘The price of apathy could be worse than more of the same. It could be shame.’ Not voting is deemed almost immoral.

Insofar as this ‘voter education’ campaign embodies the perspective of a bureaucratic elite intent on raising turnout levels it is revealing: the rationality, or better still the reasons underpinning people’s decision not to vote, is presented simply as errant behaviour. The core of popular disenchantment with mainstream politics – namely, that there is a lack of genuine political alternatives, of differing visions of the good life – is transformed into the maladjusted behaviour of individual members of the public. Sort yourself out, the campaign urges. The estrangement of the political elite from those whose interests they have traditionally claimed to represent becomes something else: it turns into the demonisation of the people. Or to put it another way, the vacuum at the heart of political life becomes the vacuousness of the electorate.

Nowhere is this degrading view of the electorate more apparent than in the poster that gives you the choice between voting or being ‘grumpy’ (see above). In other words, you either make a choice from what’s on offer, or you stop complaining. Vote or shut-up. In this sense, politics is circumscribed; it is limited both to the act of voting and to the non-choice on offer, the equivalent of a staff toss-up between prospective supermarket managers.

Finally, what these posters capture is the changing significance of voting itself. In the context of the broader political conflicts that characterised the twentieth century, to vote would not have been a one-off activity with meaning in itself. It had meaning, rather, as part of one’s everyday life, in the bonds one formed at work and at home. To vote was a manifestation of one’s everyday identity. But without such a context, with people no longer defining themselves in terms of broader political allegiances, the act of voting changes. It is individualised, and, as such, becomes a moral duty. As the posters suggest, you’re either a voter, or you’re slothful, gluttonous, and wrathful/grumpy – that is, a sinner.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume explained Brown’s and New Labour’s collapse. Elsewhere he argued that the contest to be London mayor showed we are living in an age of second-preference politics. Brendan O’Neill unpicked the Ken’n’Boris show. Neil Davenport characterised the London Mayoral contest as a squabble over a polluted fiefdom. Because of his support for the MMR vaccine, Boris Johnson received Michael Fitzpatrick‘s backing. Emily Hill said the politics of Boris and Ken highlighted the cult of personality. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today