Your vote counts! (to Bush, Blair, Gore and Hague, anyway)

Should voting be an act so banal as flushing the toilet?

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class seems preoccupied with selling the idea that people’s votes really matter.

In the aftermath of the US election, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Al Gore, insisted that his demand for recounting ballots in Florida was motivated by the belief that every vote must count. Leading US politicians tried to present this post-election squabbling over votes as a symptom of the vitality of the democratic process. ‘America is getting an important lesson in civics’, was how one commentator depicted the legal battle. Some expressed the hope that this desperate scramble for a few hundred votes would teach those who did not bother to vote – that is, the majority of Americans – just how much power they possessed.

British politicians have also embarked on a mission to get people to vote. New Labour presents the act of voting as an heroic gesture with deep moral connotations. It has adopted the tactic of thanking people who voted for the party during the last election. ‘Thank you for voting for change’ was the theme of a recent advertising campaign and a series of meetings addressed by prime minister Tony Blair. The purpose of this thankyou offensive is to send the signal that the party bosses are not taking Labour voters for granted.

New Labour politicians even accuse the Tories of encouraging public cynicism about voting. Peter Mandelson has warned that the Conservatives are spreading cynicism to stop Labour voters from turning out at elections. According to the story spun by New Labour propagandists, the Tories are cynically pretending to have given up on winning the next election in order to lull Labour voters into a sense of complacency, so that they don’t bother to vote. They claim that the desperate Conservatives are attempting to get William Hague into Downing Street through the ‘back door’ on a low turnout. New Labour’s concern with Hague’s ability to spread disillusionment indicates that it does not think very highly of the intelligence of its base of support.

Of course, in reality, public disenchantment with political life in Britain has little to do with any Machiavellian plot to marginalise the electorate. For some time now there has been an evident decline in voter participation. It is worth recalling that in 1997, New Labour was backed by only 31 percent of those qualified to vote. Voter turnout was the lowest since 1945. ‘The 1997 general election excited less interest than any other in living memory’, concluded the authors of a Nuffield College Study.

Even the highly hyped public relations campaign surrounding devolution in Scotland and Wales failed to engage the public’s interest. Voter participation in these ‘history-making’ elections in 1999 indicated that the public regarded each election as yet another stage-managed event. The majority of the Welsh electorate chose the less-than-history-making option of staying at home; only 46 percent bothered to vote. In Scotland a high-profile media campaign designed to promote voter participation led to a 59 percent turnout. And on the same day, polling booths in England were almost empty. Only 29 percent of registered voters turned out for the 6 May local elections.

The June 1999 British elections for the European parliament represented an all-time low – only 23 percent turned out to vote. In one polling station in Sunderland, only 15 people turned up out of the 1000 entitled to vote.

Recent parliamentary by-elections, held in November 2000, highlight the inexorable spread of political disengagement. Only 27.6 percent of the electorate in West Bromwich West bothered to vote; in Preston the turnout was 29.4 percent; in Glasgow Anniesland 38.4 percent.

Some commentators mistakenly assume that voter apathy is primarily a symptom of public alienation from central government. They suggest that in contemporary times, people are far more engaged with local issues. The evidence suggests that this diagnosis is a product of wishful thinking rather than of any serious analysis. Low turnouts in local elections highlight the irrelevance of these institutions for most people.

It seems that even fiercely fought electoral battles fail to engage much public interest. Take the recent contest for the Mayor of London. Here was a battle that absorbed the energies of the political class. New Labour’s propaganda machine went into overdrive to stop the election of Ken Livingstone. The media jumped on the bandwagon and devoted considerable resources to publicising the event. On election day the big story was Livingstone’s triumph. But a far more important story was the relatively muted response of Londoners to this high-profile electoral contest. Only a third of Londoners bothered to turn out to cast their ballots. What this experience indicates is that only a relatively small layer of society is interested in political disputes, clashes of personality and opinion. So when politicians lecture the public that ‘your vote really counts’, what that actually means is that these days, with so few voting, every vote really counts for the Gores, the Blairs and the Hagues of this world.

Politics, in all its different forms, has become a minority sport. In some ways it now resembles the situation in the nineteenth century, before the advent of universal suffrage, when politics was openly acknowledged to be the exclusive preserve of an oligarchy. Even extra-parliamentary campaigning tends to involve a relatively small group of affluent people. A recent study on democracy and participation, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council, indicates that protesters are likely to be middle class, younger and more highly educated than their inactive counterparts.

The erosion of popular engagement with the political process threatens to weaken the authority and relevance of important institutions. Even parliament has lost public credibility. In 1985, 48 percent of the public expressed ‘quite a lot of confidence’ in the House of Commons; by 1995 that figure had halved. Political parties continue to lose members. The Labour Party’s official membership fell by more than 25 000 in 1999, from 387 000 to 361 000. In fact, party officials believe that the real drop is far greater. The Conservative Party also faces a steady decline of its active supporters. It is not just the prospect of another election defeat that has led numerous leading Tory politicians to contemplate very early retirement. Shadow chancellor Michael Portillo’s public mid-life crisis is symptomatic of a wider sense of parliamentary politics becoming futile and purposeless.

The main difference between today and the nineteenth century is that the oligarchy is now much more sensitive to its isolation from the wider public. In an era of mass communication and social mobility, the gulf that separates the political class from the electorate is all too apparent. In the past, the elites were supposed to inhabit a different planet from everybody else. But to acknowledge the distance that separates the political class from the people today risks exposing the legitimacy of the system to some uncomfortable questions.

The growing mood of apathy is testimony to the irrelevance of contemporary political life. It highlights the considerable emotional distance that separates people from their so-called representatives. That is also why the political class has become so concerned about the damage low voter turnout could do to its legitimacy. So it is not only political opportunism that motivates New Labour’s campaign against apathy. To its credit, it recognises that it can not govern effectively unless it can establish more effective points of contact with a wider section of the British public.

The latest buzzword in New Labour’ s vocabulary is ‘choices’. Since the fuel protests of September 2000, every time the government faces pressure it claims that ‘choices need to be made’. ‘Government is about choices’, stated Blair in October, before implying that he had no choice but to resist the demands of the fuel protesters. ‘We could of course cut more off the fuel duty if we reversed the extra investment we have announced on schools, hospitals, transport and police’, said Blair, adding that it was ‘important to make the right choices for the economy’. New Labour’s cultivation of the language of choice is somewhat disingenuous. The stress on making the ‘right choices’ for the economy in fact means that there is only one possible policy to be pursued. Since anything else would prove to be bad for the economy, other options are ‘wrong’ choices; so in fact there is nothing to choose.

Margaret Thatcher was more blunt than New Labour. She simply stated that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA). New Labour’s approach is also about TINA, but dressed in the language of choice. The problem with this worldview is that it represents the annihilation of political life. If there is indeed no alternative, or if there is only ever one right choice to be made, then politics loses its meaning. If there is no alternative, then debate and political conflict are pointless. The only possible purpose of political life is to get individuals and parties elected. This may be very important to the professional politician, but is of little relevance to the rest of us.

The art of politics today is to create the impression that differences between parties matter to people, and that therefore the electoral battle has some significance for society. Party professionals are unlikely to acknowledge that politics has been emptied of meaning. On the contrary, they continually attempt to endow electoral contests with some deep, policy-related significance.

That is why Conservative leaders periodically attempt to expose New Labour as really ‘old Labour in disguise’, rather lamely suggesting that it is only a matter of time before Labour exposes itself as a party of tax-raisers secretly committed to state control of the economy. New Labour plays the same game. It is interested in caricaturing the dark ‘forces of conservatism’ as a group of outdated self-serving elitists who stand ready to destroy the NHS. Peter Mandelson argues that the Tories have been reduced to the ‘far right fighting the extreme right for the soul of the party’. This game was played out in the US presidential elections, where spindoctors on both sides worked overtime to construct some profound and meaningful political differences between the candidates. No doubt party activists have internalised these sentiments, which goes some way towards explaining why, despite any significant political differences, they harbour such bitter hatred towards each other.

The attempt to create a politically charged atmosphere around the coming British general election is unlikely to excite the electorate. The phoney war between the forces of conservatism and the battle troops of old Labour may provoke the passion of the political elites. But such opportunistic posturing is unlikely to engage the interests of the electorate. Get ready for another tedious election campaign.

Sadly, political life cannot be revitalised through the various gimmicks suggested by political operators. Allowing people to vote without leaving home may slightly increase voter participation, but it will not bring them closer to political life. If voting becomes a banal act like flushing the toilet, it can only mean that the system is accommodating further still to cynicism and passivity. Those who are genuinely interested in real democratic participation need to look at what can be done outside of party politics. Encouraging the view that it is possible to have alternatives would make a good start. That is a major challenge, and one that a project like spiked must not avoid.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Visit Frank Furedi’s website

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Topics Politics


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