The relatively low turnout in general, local and european elections has been something of a black mark on British politics in recent years. Only 41% bothered to vote either for First Past the Post or the Alternative Vote in May, and we should remember that this is only the percentage of those registered to do so. I know plenty of people who never bothered sending the form back, or maybe had another reason for sliding under the radar of big brother for a while. The 2010 General Election did see a small rise to a 65% rate of participation, after 2001's pretty feeble 59% and the not much better 61% that turned out to vote in 2005.
However, this is still a pretty poor show when viewed in the course of history, best illustrated by the graph here http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm This clearly demonstrates that while participation in elections amongst the franchise was never quite as widespread as some nostalgists would have you believe, there has been a definite dip in the last decade. The answer as to why that is would depend on exactly who you asked. Some would suggest that the voting system is a large part of the problem, and I would be inclined to agree with this analysis, at least partially. But the general population rejected AV by a two to one majority? Yes, that's a fair point, and it's worth adding that only 34% showed up in one polling booth or another for the Euro Elections of 2009, where the Proportional Representation system (the lesser of several evils as far as I'm concerned) was in effect.
It's worth making a few observations about that AV referendum. First up, this was 'get Nick Clegg night' and not without good reason. He could have advocated free money and casual sex for all, and would still have met a glut of willing opponents ready to object to anything he said on a supposed point of principle. So while FPTP may still have won, albeit more narrowly, the case for the status quo was helped in no small way by the identity of those who argued most vociferously for change. Most importantly, I had never met anyone prior to the referendum who genuinely believed that AV was the way to go. The real argument in terms of electoral reform is between FPTP and PR, and has been for as long as the issue has been on the table.
I support a version of PR with multi-member constituencies to negate the power of the party list. I know Malpoet favours a form of PR too, though from the conversation we had on the subject his favoured system is a slightly different one. Though I profoundly disagree with supporters of FPTP, I hear their arguments and the case for what we have now. I look forward to the day when that is the discussion to be had, because there is a greater swell of enthusiasm for PR than there ever was for the "miserable little compromise" of the alternative vote. The suggestion that because AV took something of a hammering there must be zero enthusiasm for electoral reform in Britain is therefore based on a completely disingenuous premise, and those that support the status quo know this as well as anyone.
All that said, there is so much more behind low voter turnout than the perceived or real inadequacy of the electoral system. There is a substantial section of the population who have no great desire to vote for anybody, especially a candidate from the three main parties, and again opinion is divided as to why that is. Politicians call it 'voter apathy' as if they are a group of abstract artists who we are either too lazy or not cool enough to understand. This is of course complete bollocks. While 'they're all as bad as each other' has something of a lethargic ring to it, there has been a growing grain of truth in such sentiments over the last decade or so as the three main parties have simultaneously charged towards what they refer to as 'the centre ground'. In reality, this is a statist and PC plot of land buried somewhere between the New Statesman and the Guardian's Womens' section, but hey, that's for another night.
As it stands, we only have three political parties capable of making significant headway and the two observations that are fairly clear cut are 1) there is no genuine choice between them in terms of the real questions of the day and 2) none are fit for purpose. All three are really embodiments of old tribal and ideological battles that they appear to have settled, at least amongst themselves. Where for instance is the party that openly promotes free markets and personal liberty? I have no time for old school socialism, but who is going to stand up and represent those that do? The old maxim that 'whoever wins the election, the government always gets in' could never be more appropriate than it is now, so people stay at home and refuse to participate en masse, choosing to concentrate on the management of their own personal bubble instead.
For all whining politicians feign concern about 'voter apathy', it would cause them too much discomfort to actually do something about it themselves. In my experience, people do not want parliamentarians to 'listen' as is sometimes the stock answer to frustration. For all I could sit and profoundly disagree with the man for hours, did Tony Benn listen? Yet he is greatly admired, even by his opponents, because he believed in something and did not care whose wrath he incurred by speaking his mind. In fact it's a form of 'listening', mainly to focus groups and swing voters, that has landed us with the dishwater politics we have now. MPs could re-engage the electorate with remarkable ease by ignoring their pagers and the whips and answering the question with complete and occasionally brutal honesty.
This would drive people to the polling station like nothing else could, although many of course would go out solely to vote against them, so the era of Thatcher, Powell, Benn and all the other divisive but engaging figures of our political history is dead and buried. Be prepared for at least two more generations of careerists checking with their boss to see what the 'correct' answer is before spending a lifetime sitting on the fence and finding splinters in their arses during old age.
What is really required to bring about change in this area is the ability of a voter for go out and give a mandate to absolutely nobody. All sorts of fun is possible if 'None of the Above' ever blights a ballot paper. In the event of NOTA actually winning a constituency election, we could always keep the seat vacant - maybe the idea would catch on and the House of Commons emptied as a result inside a decade? Imagine a country without politicians, and no new laws, edicts or initiatives, statists hanging around Westminster twiddling their thumbs, unable to devise new methods by which to tax and regulate people half to death. Well, we all need a dream to cling to, don't we?...
As an equally valid name on the list, NOTA would no doubt command a fairly substantial share of the vote, and think of the spin-offs that might result. People would be free to canvas for None of the Above just as fervently as they might want to for any other outcome - I'd gladly join in with any such campaign, either taking to the streets or writing literature for it. If it did well first time around, would NOTA not qualify for an election broadcast? That would be pretty good fun, and if we're honest it's not like they'd have a shortage of material to go on. What about a None of the Above representative on Question Time the week before an election? "Look, you've heard those three drone on about the cigarette paper differences that separate them and why you might want to vote for them instead of the other two - let's face it, they're all a bag of shit, they're all going to break their promises and fiddle their expenses and you'd be better off just keeping the seat empty and being left alone". Alternatively the rep could, in true NOTA style, refuse to take his or her seat on the panel - eerie but effective.
I didn't vote last time out and I know enough people who are interested in politics but disengaged by the current mainstream scene to know that far from being 'apathetic', there is a mass of the population that is thoroughly pissed off by the alleged choice in front of them. Giving every voter the right to stick a black X next to the universal "fuck you" would provide the genuinely angry and disenfranchised with a voice as well as sufficient reason to first register and then actually cast a valid vote. Finally, we could then establish how much apathy actually exists towards politics in Britain, and I'd dare to venture that anything up to about 20% of the electorate in these circumstances is a figure not worth becoming overly worried about. However, what money that the introduction of NOTA would coincide with a massive increase in voter turnout?
That's why whatever they may say on the issue, mainstream politicians will always take 'voter apathy' ahead of the alternative. In the meantime, it looks like the biggest campaign on this issue needs some fresh impetus to put it politely. Those who agree with the principle of NOTA may wish to contact them here:-
Ciao for now, take care and I'll see you tomorrow