We don’t owe politicians our vote

Instead of raising awareness about how to vote, how about raising the political temperature and making voting worthwhile?

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Politics UK

Though the UK General Election is just months away, the Tories appear caught up in a navel-gazing existential crisis, while Gordon Brown’s cabinet members seem to be spending most of their time on the phone, either to bullying helplines or to accountants sorting out their expenses claims. No wonder over 3.5million Brits have not yet bothered to register to vote.

That figure comes from the Electoral Commission, the elections watchdog, whose new research also suggests that 56 per cent of 17- to 25-year-olds are not on the electoral roll. In a separate survey by the Hansard Society, a political research and education charity, only 54 per cent of respondents said they were ‘certain’ they would vote. The Hansard Society found that mistrust for politicians is especially rife among young, working-class Brits, with fewer than one in four saying they would vote.

Leaving aside the fact that young people might be just as likely to stick two fingers up at pollsters as at politicians, these figures do suggest that political participation, at least if measured by whether or not you cast a ballot paper every four years, is relatively low in Britain today.

Alarm bells should certainly be ringing in the corridors of Westminster. Because in a democracy, political authority can – or at least should – only be derived from the people. And without some kind of endorsement from the electorate, any claim to political legitimacy will ring hollow. That is why politicians are desperate to get us through the polling-station doors; their suggestions on how to achieve this range from extending the vote to 16-year-olds to introducing postal, telephone and internet voting and even to setting up polling booths in supermarkets.

The delusion is striking. The reason young people are not registering to vote is not because it’s too much of a hassle or because they can’t be bothered to get off their couches. It’s because they believe there’s no one out there worthy of their vote.

Sure, the claim that politicians ‘are all the same’ is a hackneyed, and sometimes lazy, response. But it is still up to politicians to demonstrate what makes their political vision and social plans distinct and supportable, rather than expecting voters to have to go through their programmes with a fine tooth comb in order to figure out just what sets the leaders apart today.

The Electoral Commission said registration officers’ efforts to raise public awareness of the need to register to vote was ‘particularly weak’. Of course there is nothing wrong with trying to make practical information about the technicalities behind voting more readily available – but the issue here is not that people don’t know how to vote, but that they don’t want to. No amount of public information leaflets or nifty technological solutions will make up for this fact. It’s not awareness of the differing consequences of voting or abstaining from voting that is lacking amongst young people. Rather, the lack of willingness to vote derives from their lack of support for politicians, who, to most people, come across as uninspiring and unreliable.

Blaming low voter registration numbers on people’s lack of awareness is about avoiding the real problem, which is the extent to which people feel politically uninspired and disenfranchised. It is simply assumed that people – especially young and working-class ones – are ignorant and indifferent. While they might be willing to moan about their lives, so the thinking goes, they can’t even be bothered to drag their sorry asses to the nearest post box to send off their registration forms.

Campaigns to ‘raise awareness’ of voter registration tend to encapsulate this sentiment. Consider, for instance, the 2008 campaign around the London mayoral election. The poster adverts plastered across London transport had illustrations of people hiding their head in the sand, being trapped in a pint glass, and opting to ‘stay grumpy’ rather than help decide who will run the capital for the next four years. The campaign suggested London voters are happier being blissfully drunk moaners than responsible citizens.

The Hansard Society research suggested few people consider parliament ‘relevant’ to their lives, with just 19 per cent listing it as one of the most influential institutions in the UK. Though this is clearly a problem for politicians who constantly postulate that they are employed by, and represent the will of, the people, the fact that other forms of local and individualised activism have grown is also often taken as a healthy sign that people still care – even if they are not all voting. Parliamentary democracy may not be alive and kicking, but NGO activism, consumer activism, environmental movements and so on, have sprung up and have seemingly attracted many young people.

The problem is that, on the one hand, these forms of activism do not represent forums through which to express and fight for the realisation of any collective will. Instead, they allow small groups of activists to speak on behalf of others, from whom they have not sought any mandate. And on the other hand, this simply gives politicians an excuse to get on with the business of running the country in the ways they see fit, as if this is something that should be done away from us – in the mysterious halls of Westminster, rather than in the streets, workplaces and communities of Britain.

Voter registration drives frame voting as a duty, a responsibility that people must uphold so as to ensure the legitimacy of the ruling party. But voting is not a moral or patriotic duty; we don’t owe it to politicians to elect them. Instead, politics should be about us, the public, having our say on the issues that affect us and our future – issues like welfare, education, the economy, liberty and democracy. And if none of the politicians offering to rule the country can ensure the public will is granted, then they are not worthy of our vote.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called for a fight to re-enfranchise the electorate. In response to John Bercow’s criticism of under-informed voters, Tim Black pointed out that it’s not us, it’s you, the political class. He also accused London Elect’s voting drive of guilt-tripping the feckless electorate. Suzy Dean attacked government plans to lower the voting age. Jennie Bristow said we shouldn’t fret about youth apathy, and argued that, when it comes to voter turnout, size isn’t everything. 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.

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Topics Politics UK

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