Political door-knocking can be a dispiriting thing, and not just for the people who open their doors to the party canvassers.
The sheer number of people who are happy to say that they either “don’t follow politics” or “never vote” is quite astonishing, the more so as they are often those with most to gain from casting their vote to influence government.
A month or so ago I wrote about shortcomings in the structures of our democratic institutions.
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The mirror image of that is the disconnection between a significant part of the electorate and the practice of voting, evidenced by the proportion of people who don’t vote even on matters of national importance (28% of people failed to cast a vote on Brexit).
There is also the much higher proportion of stay-at-homes for local government elections – I recall that when I lived in Hull we would sometimes get less than 20% turnout for City Council polls, a situation that may be better in Canterbury but where we can still expect about half the voting population to sit out the elections which are being held on May 2n.
This is, of course, especially disappointing in the centenary year of women gaining the vote.
While responsibility for this ultimately rests with the voters themselves, it cannot be acceptable or healthy for such a low turnout to be tolerated by politicians or civil servants. Apathy strikes at the whole legitimacy of government, and thus at the cohesiveness of our society.
Fundamental decisions on matters like taxation, health, education, the economy and future national investment affect the lives of all our citizens.
If they are taken by bodies which boast of having a mandate for their policies while actually having the support of barely 33% of the voting population, this is not just a recipe for further alienation but in the long term for more serious societal problems. People who feel disenfranchised will tend, ultimately, to take more direct action, even if they are the authors of their own alienation.
So if the problem is really this serious, why do we tolerate it?
Perhaps this is because it is not just one problem, but has roots in several issues, or a combination of issues, and is thereby difficult to resolve.
Education must be a part of it. I don’t mean to suggest that people who don’t vote are uneducated, but perhaps that they haven’t been adequately educated in civic rights and responsibilities and don’t understand the impact that their vote, and their collective voice demonstrated through that vote, can have.
Education in civics is optional in our schools, and the subject is not tested. The result is that in today’s underfunded, results oriented, stressed schools system, civic education is far too often neglected altogether or treated as a meaningless tick-box topic. To that extent, society is the author of this problem.
Another contributor is undoubtedly the low esteem in which politicians are held, and although I’d reject the idea that local councillors, working for their communities for no tangible reward, should be tarred with the same brush as MPs and other high profile self-proclaimed “politicians”, it is obvious that many people don’t understand the distinction. Nor are they convinced of the sincerity of any political activists of any ilk by the endless diet of obviously self-serving half-truths, evasions and twisting of the facts so readily purveyed by senior politicians.
Nonetheless, while I do sometimes think that this accusation, effectively of career self-interest, is more of an excuse for inaction by voters than it is a genuine cause of disengagement, we cannot, without evidence, simply decide to ignore it.
I’m always surprised, too, by people who simply don’t “get” what politics is. The connection between the daily experience people have of public services – whether it’s refuse collection, or the state of the roads and pavements, or of underfunded schools and hospitals and waiting times at GP surgeries – seems to me to be direct and clear. But obviously not from the reaction on the doorstep. Or, perhaps more likely, people no longer see that any meaningful change results from their casting a vote. That is, as I’ve observed previously, one of the inevitable effects of the centralising of funding and control of local government which our national Parliament has allowed over the past 30 years.
In the end what is frustrating about this is that real change can be achieved. Those of us who are old enough will remember the appalling state of our schools and hospitals and roads in 1996, the victims of 20 years of Tory underinvestment. And they will remember too the impact of the 1997 Labour government which, for all its many failings, immediately began a spending programme to put right much of the damage.
But 20 year old stories don’t resonate, and few people – even on my side – are prepared to defend, let alone praise, the achievements of the ‘97 – ‘03 Labour governments. But without providing real examples of the positive impacts that voting can have, how are we to motivate the mass of voters to participate?
One thing is sure: if we don’t find some way of re-engaging the people in the process that is supposed to create representation for each and every one of them, the system will wither. And then we will all be worse off.