A while ago I wrote in praise of idiots about those ordinary people who don’t partake of politics:
The ancient Greeks used their word for ‘private’ as a derogatory term for someone who took no part in “public affairs”. That word ἴδιος (idios) is the root for our term for a stupid person – idiot. Today – in the Greek sense – most of us are idiots and I think this represents progress rather than a problem. That barely more that a third of Bingley Rural electors took the opportunity to vote last time I stood isn’t a disaster and those people are well aware of the purpose and value of voting - which I guess is why most of them don’t bother
I also made the point that these folk don’t take part because they don’t see the point. What exactly is going to change in their lives if one patronising besuited politician is replaced by a different patronising besuited politician wearing a different badge? Now not everyone agrees with me – here’s Dick Puddlecote:
As someone who engages with many everyday working people on a daily basis, both professionally and in my spare time, THE most oft-repeated phrase I hear is "I don't do politics".
They'll all advance their thoughts about the ills of the world, though. After all, it's human nature. Van drivers, bricklayers, checkout girls, roofers, teaching assistants, spark's mates, cabbies, labourers, nursery nurses, road workers, cleaners, and the unemployed - they all have opinions. And most of them feel totally ignored.
But then again, a lot of them say they 'don't do politics'.
Dick worries that this active disengagement results in politicians directing their efforts to a more reliable (so far as turning up is concerned) group of voters – and that group of voters will not do anything for the ‘poor’. I have some sympathy with that viewpoint – why else to we subsidise opera and not the club circuit and prioritise sports like rowing and sailing ahead of boxing or rugby league?
However, this recent election – the most tightly fought, attention-grabbing, important, change-making (select your own superlative) – reinforced what I said and, in its way, Dick’s concerns as well. Despite the leaders’ debates, despite a sense that there was a chance to change something, despite wall-to-wall media coverage of Cleggmania – despite all this the turnout at the election was still lower than at every election since 1945 bar 2001 and 2005.
Thirty-five out of every hundred electors didn’t make it to the polls – were either disinterested, disengaged, uninspired or simply not bothered. And this covers up staggering levels of non-registration – people who don’t even give themselves a chance to vote at all. Here’s the Electoral Commission report on the subject:
Evidence available from electoral statistics and surveys of levels of response to the annual canvass of electors suggests that there was a decline in registration levels from the late 1990s to 2006. The same evidence base suggests that the registers have stabilised since 2006, although it is likely that the completeness of the registers has declined since the last national estimate in 2000.
In the late 1990s around 10% of people weren’t registered – the Commission say the situation is now worse. In some places up to 20% of people are not registered to vote and concerns about false registration are making local authorities tighten up registration by removing non-respondents more quickly from the register. And, not surprisingly, the three groups most likely not to register are young people (over half of 17-26 year olds are not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and immigrant groups (31%).
So if 20% aren’t registered and only 65% of the remainder bother voting the real turnout in the election was just 52% - barely half the population bothering with the most closely-fought election in 30 years. Says it all really!