Forget penguins, it’s time for serious talk about voter turnout

Now that talk about Mayors, penguins, a Labour resurgence and the demise of the Lib Dems has died down, the media really needs to focus on one thing: voter turnout.

Overall turnout across England, Wales and Scotland was just over 30%. In other words over 2/3 of the population thought it not worth taking 5 minutes out of their day to cross a box. Some wards, such as in my old stomping ground, Reading, had turnouts just above 20%.

Claims of ‘victory’ when turnouts are this low are seriously misjudged. Parties may have gained in certain areas but liberal representative politics is losing, and parties themselves have to take a share of the blame for this. Yes these were ‘only’ mid-term local elections and General Election turnout is higher – although hardly mesmeric at around 60% – but there needs to be serious discussion about why people have no inclination to vote.

The consistent decline in voter turnout since the 1960s is not unique to the UK. Similar trends have been noted in Germany, Japan and the US (with the exception of Obama in 2008), referred to be some as the ‘crisis in democracy’. Not all view this decline as a problem. Academics such as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart claim declining voter turnout and distrust of politicians are part and parcel of ‘post-democracy’, where living standards in established democracies have risen over the past 50 years, and so too expectations of the electorate, to a degree impossible to be met by those in power.

There are supply-side problems too. Parties have become less ideologically separated over the past 50 years and instead professional-electoral machines, focused solely on winning elections and staying ‘on message’. Power and finances in the UK have not only been removed from local councils to Whitehall and Westminster (a problem for local elections); at a national level politicians have sacrificed powers to supranational bodies such as the EU, IMF and World Bank (a problem for General Elections).

According to the Norris/Inglehart paradigm, citizens now express their political preferences by other means than the ballot box, i.e. through activism, ethical consumption, and so on. There is surely some truth to this – quite how much is debatable – but it doesn’t negate the need to have a proper discussion about what type of political system we live in, what politicians and councillors are for and how they are appointed. A good starting point for such a debate might be what we understand by the word ‘representative’?

Are the MPs and Councillors we elect representatives ‘for’ wards and constituencies, or representative ‘of’ the people that live in those communities? The difference is not semantic, there is a clear distinction. Moreover, it crosses into all debates. Take pay, for example. We are often told political pay has to be set at a level that will attract the ‘brightest and best’ into politics. But are the brightest necessarily best? That depends on your definition of representative.

MPs and Councillors have an important role to play getting to grips with complex legislation, but they do not do this alone. They are backed up by a (decreasing) army of apolitical civil servants whose job it is to provide the administrative backbone. The problem with conflating brightest’ and ‘best’ is that the brightest often take a very similar path into politics and come from similar backgrounds. Even if it makes sense to have the brightest involved in politics at an individual level it can lead to systemic distortion, overall we are left with homogeneity.

In a piece for Guardian Local Government Network blog Rob Dale also laments the low turnout in the local elections. He suggests councillors use new media to better engage their electorates. Rob is certainly right politicians and councillors should use every communicative means possible to inform constituents but the problems are unfortunately more deep-rooted than simply establishing Twitter feeds, more regular email correspondence and interactive council websites.

Further, study after study finds that those most active on political social media channels and blogs tend to be better educated and more politically engaged. In other words, improving social media channels will reinforce the engagement of the 30% but do little to attract the 70% that can’t be bothered to vote in the first place. To do that will be far harder and requires serious discussion about the electoral system, decentralisation of powers to local authorities, incentivising diversity in politics and enforcing public service requirements in an increasingly fragmented media environment where it is increasingly easy to avoid politics.

Image via blackplastic

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