The Incredible Shrinking Mandate
The miserable turnout in last week’s British elections confirmed to the isolated political elite that voters are not to be trusted.
In an old sci-fi movie from the 1950s, The Incredible Shrinking Man, the protagonist is poisoned by a radioactive cloud and begins to shrink, becoming smaller and smaller until he is forced to fight for survival against cats and then spiders.
Welcome to the 2012 updating of the story: ‘The Incredible Shrinking Mandate’, a retelling with a twist in which British politicians find that their world is shrinking, leaving them with a mandate to represent a smaller and smaller section of the electorate. Last week’s UK local elections confirmed that British voters, poisoned by an atmosphere of political stagnation, are shrinking away from the major parties in huge numbers.
The feverish media coverage of the results focused on the ‘massive gains’ for the Labour Party, which received around 39 per cent of votes cast, and the heavy losses suffered by the partners in the Lib-Con coalition government, with the Conservatives down on 31 per cent and the Liberal Democrats floundering on 16 per cent.
Few pundits wanted to talk about the small matter of overall turnout which, at 32 per cent, was the lowest since 2000. To convert the relative figures, that means Labour received the support of around 12.5 per cent of all those who could have voted, the Tories got 9.9 per cent of total available votes, and the Lib Dems just 5.1 per cent. Tory prime minister David Cameron, who began his career as a showbiz PR agent, now really is the Mr Ten Per Cent of politics. Meanwhile Ed Miliband, the gormless Labour leader who is supposed to have burst through with his ‘triumph’ last week, can now proudly claim to speak for one in every eight voters.
Those miserable figures might suggest that the mainstream parties are in crisis, with little or no purchase on public opinion. However, the real situation is even worse than that. Many of those who did bother voting last week are just as disengaged from politics as those who stayed at home on polling day. Their support for the parties is shallow, unreliable and unenthusiastic. The overwhelming political sentiment of the age is one of rampant indifference.
On polling day last week I described the London mayoral contest as ‘the invisible election’ that did not exist outside the media and had made little or no impact on the lives of Londoners. But at least the Boris-and-Ken show attracted the media circus. Across Britain last week there were many invisible elections which did not even manage that, and left the electorate entirely unmoved. A Dutch anthropologist who toured the country before the local elections in search of that endangered species, the British voter, observed afterwards that, ‘If elections are the main ritual by which a nation imagines itself politically, then the UK last week felt comatose.’ And who could blame the electorate for deciding that political life is not worth living, given the zombie-like choices on offer?
As the election results came in and the low turnout became clear, there were familiar complaints about ‘voter apathy’, as if the problem lay with dozy electors rather than the pathetic politicians who give them nothing worth voting for. Yet there was also a clear wish within the political elite to ignore these inconvenient facts and carry on.
Prime minister Cameron and his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg vowed to ‘relaunch’ their coalition, but only in order to keep pursuing the same austerity policies – the ones, we might recall, that nobody voted for in the first place. Why would the government worry too much about a lack of support among the majority of voters? After all, they formed a coalition that not one person had voted for at the 2010 General Election, where the Tories campaigned against the danger of coalition governments involving the Liberal Democrats, while the Lib Dems focused on the danger of Tory rule. They then declared that, come what may, the government would last for five years, pulling up the Westminster drawbridge to protect them from the untrustworthy public without. It is noticeable that, amid the boasts of its big local gains last week, the Labour opposition does not seem keen on risking a General Election any time soon either.
This is the unspoken secret about low turnouts and political indifference today: that many at the top don’t really mind it too much. They do not trust the masses any more than we trust our rulers. They are content to represent only that ‘respectable’ section of middle-class society that bothers to vote as it is told. They would certainly rather people stayed away from the polls than voted for Respect or UKIP, or any of the other outlets for token protest votes today.
The British political class – including the leadership of all the major parties – stands revealed as an increasingly isolated, unrepresentative elite, an oligarchy with no roots in or relationship to a wider constituency. Yet without political alternatives putting them under genuine pressure, the elitists can carry on in their shrinking world with their fantasies of a coalition ‘relaunch’ or a Labour ‘revival’.
At the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man, our hero vows that, no matter how microscopic he becomes, he will struggle on rather than give up. It is meant as a symbol of the indefatigable human spirit. As ‘The Incredible Shrinking Mandate’ reaches its grim denouement, the British political elite also vows to struggle on, regardless of how small its real constituency becomes, in a display of the anti-democratic spirit of the age.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)