Saturday, 31 March 2012

Thoughts from Bradford on the politics of apathy...


A long time ago – well two and a half years actually – I wrote a little article entitled; “In Praise of Idiots” that took the premise that what we politicians call apathy isn’t really that at all:

Now the good left-wing liberals at the Guardian think this grumpiness, this disengagement, this disinterest is a problem. And that’s where I disagree – the core consideration is the extent to which we are able to live as Greek idiots. Quietly, privately, without bothering our neighbours with our problems – and when such people want change they will get up from their armchairs, walk away from the telly and vote. The idea that not being bothered with voting most of the time makes them bad people is a misplaced idea – they are the good folk.

However we remain troubled by the ever lower turnouts at elections – the recent upheaval in Bradford being no different. Amidst all the talk of Galloway’s remarkable victory no-one has mentioned that the turnout was just a whisker above 50% - nearly half the registered voters in the constituency didn’t bother voting. And let’s not forget all the people who didn’t even bother getting themselves registered in the first place. We know that students, ethnic minorities and people in private rented accommodation are far less likely to register.

In the late 1990s around 10% of people weren’t registered – the Electoral 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%).

Meanwhile, in the villages on the fringes of Bradford, that great upheaval was barely noticed. I was knocking up in Clayton and it was like a rather slow local election. Apathy reigned as person after person gave the hint that they intended to stay at home and watch the telly rather than go and vote in a parliamentary by-election. And why should they?

It was a lovely sunny evening, the South Pennines were as beautiful as ever, birds sang and children were playing out. Voting wasn’t on the minds of these people and they weren’t especially bothered about who won either. After all few, if any, have any intention of contacting their MP for two reasons – they don’t have the sort of problem you bother your MP about and, in any case, what can he do about that problem?

Yet politicians are more bothered (as a politician I absolutely understand why this is the case) about the 20% of Bradford West’s adult population who voted for George Galloway than about the 60% of local grown-ups who didn’t vote for anyone at all. And we worry that this is a “Great Complaint”, an assault on “mainstream political parties”. 

The real problem here is that people really don’t see any connection between putting a cross in a box down at the village hall and the operation of government. Although it’s often said as a joke, the adage – “it doesn’t matter who you vote for the government always gets in” – is largely true. And people know this and vote accordingly. Or rather don’t vote.

Some see the solution in exciting new ways for people to participate:

A healthy democracy needs healthy political parties and right about now we have sick and dying parties.  And in order to become healthy they will need to open up.  Selections need to be open to the public not closed as must policy development.

But does this not beg a question? If political parties are dying – and they are – will opening up candidate selections or a more engaged policy development process change much? I suspect it will act like painkillers – stemming the pain of dying rather than changing the inevitable outcome.

Others argue that state funding is the solution but this would remove any need to engage with the public at all – parties would morph into extensions of the bureaucratic state. Decorative attachments providing a fig leaf of half-baked democracy and sustaining the unpleasant, cynical tribalism that typifies party political debate.

For me, I don’t worry. If people choose not to be registered or opt not to vote, that’s their business. And, if it gets to the point where they are angry enough or upset enough to be bothered, they will register and they will vote.

In the meantime, party politics will poddle along being largely irrelevant to people’s lives. And the party machines will become less connected to the real world, more reliant on big donors (or, god forbid, the state).

It could be different – a brave party would do something like Lawton Chiles, the last Democratic Governor of Florida who capped donations to his campaign at $100. Forget that the other party will carry on tapping up billionaires or cuddling trade union leaders – would not a voluntary cap be both liberating and vote-winning? And such a cap – at say £500 – would require that party to sell itself to the public, to get out and ask pretty ordinary people to support their campaign.

Rather than the gimmicks of open primaries and policy consultations, would not setting out to be a mass membership organisation again be the best way to rejuvenate politics? I rather think so.


3 comments: said...

Despite being a PPC myself at the last election, I no longer vote myself. It's pointless.

Well, that's not entirely true. I vote for reality tv progs & charity giving polls. There my vote might actually make a difference.

kebab time said...

Oh i leave a comment, doh, am now with blogger. grrrrr.

The problem we have is the politicons we have, all want to restrict freedom ( email snooping) all want more tax and most of thm are only intrested in lining thir own pockets.

Yes you might have heard this before, but i thought Labour were bad, current lot not much better and not worth the money they are paid.

Barman said...

A large part of the problem is the party system itself.

If you bother to vote, you vote for a local guy who is supposed to represent your needs and wishes in parliament.

What you get is a party which does what it likes (regardless of what it promised in its manifesto or what it said in opposition) and forces your MP to vote for its policies.

Only when the people you vote for (and who are supposed to represent you) have an active involvement in government will the people start to take an interest in politics.