Why should we take part in these political charades?
Everyone says the low turnout in the PCC elections points to a crisis of democracy. But these elections weren’t democratic to begin with.
So, English and Welsh readers, did you vote in the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections last Thursday? You didn’t? You mean you are part of that ‘apathetic’ 86 per cent who stayed at home because, in the words of one commentator, you ‘simply don’t give a toss’ about politics? You are part of that ‘militantly indifferent’ blob of people who, as newspapers tell us, would rather watch celebrities ‘munch on an ostrich anus’ (10million of you are watching I’m A Celebrity… Get Me out of Here!) than demonstrate any ‘interest in the governance of the police’ (only five million of you bothered to vote in the PCC poll)? What is wrong with you? Don’t you know that Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse and millions of nineteenth-century working men marched long and hard just so you could have the right to choose whether John Prescott or some rotund Tory you’ve never heard of should run your local police force?
Etc etc etc etc etczzzz. The above is a precis of the media handwringing and political breast-battering that greeted the hardly shocking news that English and Welsh voters have no interest in voting in elections they didn’t demand and which seem completely pointless. The turnout in the PCC elections was hilariously low. There were elections for the position of police commissioner in 41 of England and Wales’ 43 territorial police forces, and in most places only between 10 and 20 per cent of voters showed up. It was the lowest turnout in British electoral history. At one Newport polling station no one turned up: zero, nada, zilch. The modern-day saying that strikes fear into the heart of every politician who fancies himself a democrat – ‘What if they called an election and nobody came?’ – is no longer a hypothesis; it’s a fact.
The debacle of these elections has led to much alternately high-minded and heart-rending talk about a crisis of voter engagement, even a crisis of democracy. We clearly have an ‘immense crisis of democracy’, says one MP. What arrogance! What arrogance it takes to depict the laughable public humiliation of a new electoral wheeze dreamt up by political manipulators in Westminster as a crisis of democracy, as evidence that there’s a problem with us, the voting public, and our worrying levels of ‘disengagement’. In truth, the low turnout in the PCC elections tells us nothing about democracy, or about the demos who are the meat and bones of democracy, since the elections were not democratic to begin with. They were not agitated for from below; they were not instituted in response to a mass democratic demand for more political control over the police. Rather, they were initiated, top-down, by a cut-off political oligarchy that is forever coming up with harebrained schemes for getting the little people into voting booths to ‘have their say’ on BS technical issues that we aren’t interested in having our say on.
The PCC elections follow a pattern of entirely elite electoral reforms or initiatives, which speak more to the political class’s desperation to connect with the public than they do to any thirst among the electorate for more elections on insubstantial stuff. Historically, the most important electoral reforms were carried out, often grudgingly, in response to mass demands for change. The Reform Act of 1832, which granted political representation to the teeming cities that emerged with the Industrial Revolution, rather than simply to the ‘rotten boroughs’ with tiny populations, was passed in response to massive public pressure. The Reform Act of 1928, which granted all women over the age of 21 the right to vote, was passed following a tireless campaign of agitation by Suffragettes. But today, electoral reform is proposed, or new things to vote on are introduced, in a completely cocooned fashion, with absolutely no public demand for them and clearly no public interest in them either. Electoral reform has turned from being something instituted by a panicked political class under pressure from swarms of democracy-demanding people to something dreamt up by the political class in a smokeless committee room and then foisted upon swarms of absolutely uninterested people.
So before the PCC elections, we had the 2004 referendum on having a devolved assembly in the North of England, another bizarre stunt dreamt up by members of the political class (in this case John Prescott) desperate to find new ways to engage more ‘directly’ with the masses. Turnout in that referendum was low – 47.7 per cent – but more strikingly the vast majority of those who did vote said ‘No’ to the devolution idea: 77.9 per cent said No, compared with only 22.1 per cent who said Yes. Then we had the Alternative Vote referendum last year, another pointless, undemanded initiative that grew out of various compromises between the ruling Tory and Liberal Democrat parties rather than out of public agitation for an overhaul of how Brits vote. Turnout was low – 42.2 per cent – but again the public’s rejection of the liberal classes’ promotion of a new reform was overwhelming: 67.9 per cent said No to AV and only 32.1 per cent said Yes.
What we had in those elections was a pretty firm rejection of the political oligarchy’s non-stop technical tweaking of the electoral and political system. Because last week’s PCC elections were not a simple case of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, but rather involved having to pick some complete non-entity to govern your local police force, even more people stayed away than in the devolution or AV referendums; they couldn’t signal their irritation with the cynical, shallow reformers of the contemporary elite by saying ‘No’, so instead they did it by, yes, staying at home and watching a celeb eat ostrich butt. Lots of people did spoil their votes, though, strikingly writing things like ‘No to politicisation of the police!’; and the fact that John Prescott failed in his bid to become commissioner of the Humberside Police looks a lot like much-deserved public punishment of a man who has pushed many of the recent pointless elite reforms of how we do politics.
What the public is instinctively reacting against in its rejection of devolution and AV and its stubborn refusal to engage with the PCC elections is the relentless reduction of politics to a technical matter. From talking about introducing voting machines in supermarkets to constantly trying to haul us into focus groups, from asking us if we want more devolution to pleading with us to choose political commissioners for the cops, today’s political class only ever comes to us with technical ideas rather than substantive political ones. Incapable of infusing modern political discourse with vim, vision, ideology, it instead looks for increasingly technical means with which to get voters off their arses and putting crosses in boxes for something or other. Is it any wonder people either ignore this patronising haranguing or say a big fat No to it?
These cynical schemes have led to a worrying redefinition of reform. As we have seen throughout history, electoral reform can be a noble thing, drawing more and more people into politics and giving them some influence over public life. But in recent years, reform has come to mean something enacted by Those Who Know Better – the political, media and civil society sets – in the name of re-energising or re-engaging an apparently apathetic public (‘Apathy: insensibility to passion… indolence of mind’). That is why commentators can lambast the public over their failure to engage with the apparently brilliant idea of having PCC elections: ‘A lot of the public can’t be bothered because, well, they can’t be bothered’, said one. But the PCC elections and other recent initiatives don’t represent serious political reform, nor are they democratic. Therefore, our refusal to take them seriously doesn’t point to widespread apathy or a ‘crisis of democracy’, but rather hints at a silent, withering, instinctive public rebellion against our patronising rulers.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
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