Friday, 16 October 2009

Why bother: a response from an apathetic mind

Maybe that should read "a pathetic mind" in the title, but Wendy's guest post yesterday got me thinking about some more reasons why people are turned off politics. And for me, these reasons are a by-product of the political system - and little to do with the expenses scandal.

Maybe calling this a response is misleading. More of an addition, some extra food for thought. Don't get me wrong - Wendy's point is right. There's very little connection between "professional" politicians and the voters at the moment, and that is causing a great deal of exasperation with the system.

This is not a new phenomenon. Well, okay, the expenses mess is. But people were turned off politics long before expenses hit the headlines. And I have evidence in the form of stats.

Height of the two party system.
A turnout of over 80% - four in every five people taking the time to vote.
4 MILLION people across the UK a member of a political party.
Labour and the Tories combine to take 96% of the vote and 98.7% of the seats.

Turnout was only 62% - down to three in five voting.
Less than half a million people members of political parties (despite having much more choice of parties).
Labour and the Tories still dominant, but only to the tune of 68% of the vote and 85.7% of the seats.

Those are facts. Here's the analysis.

If you were to make a prediction based upon choice, you'd probably guess that giving people more choice would make them more likely to find a party that was similar to their views and vote for them. Stands to reason - more options, more choice, right? So what should have happened - despite the electoral system? Well, instead of having just two parties (Lab/Con) or, in a few constituencies three (Lib) in 1955 you have 4 or 5 or maybe as many as 7 or 8 candidates in constituencies in 2005. So you'd have more options on the ballot, more likelihood of finding a candidate you agree with and so you'd be more likely to vote, agree?

However, choice is a funny thing. While it would appear that you have more choices in the 2005 election (depending how you look at it) you may have had more choice in 1955. Sound bizarre? It is and it isn't.

After Margaret Thatcher won power in 1979, Labour's 1983 manifesto went wildly left - anti-EEC, anti-nukes, nationalise everything. Needless to say, they got thumped. And again in 1987. Neil Kinnock modernised the party in 1992, but there were still fears that their leftie policies would ruin the country. The Tories tapped into this, and won a marginal victory. By the time 1997 came round, Tony Blair had pretty much stripped the left out of Labour. Gone was Clause IV, equality and workers' rights and revolution. In its place? Thatcherite economics, steady as she goes stuff - low taxes, low inflation, low interest rates - with more social conscience and some increases in public spending. The result - a Labour party that had moved from the left to the centre-left (some argue, beyond), from socialist to social democrat. In doing so, the party competition in the UK changed too. It was no longer a left (Labour) v right (Conservative) fight. It was a centre-left v right fight.

Now that shift made sense - it was, after all, where the voters were. Around 75% of the electorate sits between centre-left and centre-right on a left-right spectrum. The only way to win a 1990s or 2000s election was to appeal to those voters. And this is what David Cameron's Tories are doing too - shifting away from the traditional Tory right (anti-Europe, tough on immigration) to a more "compassionate," "progressive" position - somewhere between the centre-right and the centre-left.

The problem with politics - at UK level anyway - is that there is very little distinctive difference between Labour and the Tories at a superficial level at least. And that has resulted in less, not more, choice for voters when faced with selecting their new government.

In the 1950s it was easy - left wing or right wing. Now neither are distinctive and neither offer big solutions to society's problems. That, for me, is why people are disengaging with the system. Well, that and corruption. But if they can't see a viable, credible, distinctive alternative to the current arrangement, they the question does remain: why bother?


Stuart Winton 16 October 2009 at 16:47  

So if there's plenty of radical alternatives to fill the gap vacated by the mainstream parties drifting to the centre then why aren't people turning out to vote for them?

Perhaps one explanation is that when voters complain that "they're all the same" they're alluding to cynicism rather than ideology.

Malc 16 October 2009 at 16:53  


Fair(ish) point. Though I'd argue that the "radical alternatives" are not alternatives to government, simply protest vote opportunities or single-issue/ constituency issues parties.

People ARE turning out to vote for them - look at the European election. But because of the electoral system for Westminster, voting for a Green, BNP or UKIP candidate tends to make little or no difference; even if they are elected there are so few of them to make any kind of inroads into political change.

You think there is a distinctive difference between Labour and the Tories?

Stuart Winton 16 October 2009 at 23:32  


"You think there is a distinctive difference between Labour and the Tories?"

I suppose it depends what day of the week it is!

But it's difficult to tell, I suppose, because both Cameron and Brown seem to lurch around from one week to the next for reasons of short-term politicking.

Of course, the parties are still distinctive, but perhaps not regarding the leaderships and actual policies pursued.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in the recent past has been Labour's more interventionist approach to the recession as compared to the Tories.

To that extent I would favour Labour as the best of bad lot, but on the other hand getting rid of Labour next year would be no bad thing.

And I'm not so sure if the SNP are really all that differenet either, apart from the independence question, of course. But, like Labour and the Tories they seem to be a fairly disparate bunch held together by matters other than day-to-day policies.

And from a purely personal perspective my view of the parties has been coloured by the local perspective, and at the council level I really can't see much difference between the councillors, at least in relation to the things that interest me.

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