Far too little has been done in recent years to reverse the fact that declining turnout damages our democracy, writes Sam Bright.
In May this year, less than one in three people across the UK made the conscious effort to cast a vote for who they wanted to represent them in the running of their local councils. In 2010, less than two in three people took the time to make the same decision, on this occasion for who they wanted to represent them in national parliament. In fact, turnout for general elections hasn’t been above two in three for over fifteen years, demonstrating how a vast number of the public have decided to essentially ignore the most vital contribution they can make to the democracy of the nation.
This, to anyone who understands and respects the fundamental elements of a democracy, is a serious problem; how can officials be elected to represent the interests of the public when the views of a significant proportion of the nation aren’t taken into account? However, most figures in power, who should respect our democracy and therefore logically should be searching for a meaningful solution, seem unwilling to act, or merely deem the issue of voter turnout to be a ‘natural’ variable - one which fluctuates as the fabric of society changes, not due to the actions of themselves.
However, this diagnosis regarding the decline of voter turnout is one which attempts to rid politicians of blame, rather than accepting that the issue is one which they can control, obliging them to make some sort of effort to resolve it. There are varying reasons for why political turnout has decreased due to the actions of politicians, the most obvious being the negative publicity created by public embarrassments such as the expenses scandal, leading to a lack of national trust in the majority of political leaders. However, there has also been a more subtle cause, which has slowly decayed the publics’ confidence in politicians. I refer to the increased perpetuation of an obstructive political rhetoric, a rhetoric which has been used increasingly frequently by politicians, has escaped the grasp of much of the general public, and has disguised the true nature of policies in order to attempt to reduce popular opposition. We have all heard this rhetoric- the incomprehensible prattling of politicians, who use words that are void of a meaning or purpose of any kind in order to sidestep what they perceive to be problematic issues. This may be good for avoiding criticism, but when used so consistently, voters steadily begin to feel that the policies and direction of the political parties are being concealed by political jargon, eventually cumulating towards irritation, disillusionment and the inevitable decision not to vote. Unfortunately though, it seems as though change isn’t imminent, as it’s a sacrifice many politicians are willing to make. They seem to think that it’s too great a risk to relate their messages to the public in terms which can be easily understood, or to behave in a manner which demonstrates a genuine acknowledgment of what the ‘man in the street’ believes in. It’s as if being genuine strays too closely to being honest, a concept considered so politically damaging that politicians feel they must stay away from it at all costs. Consequently, it appears as if they have collectively made the decision to mask as much of the truth as possible behind words which fail to have any true purpose whatsoever, leading to the alienation of the general public.
This alienation has also been further compounded by the view within the public that politicians are detached from the ‘real world’. In part because the majority of them are seen to have no specialist professional experience outside the world of politics, but also due to the fact that politics is being increasingly portrayed as a profession for the upper- and middle-classes and a topic of conversation which should only be discussed over a glass of Moet, rather than a pint of Newcastle Brown. This interpretation has been emphasised by the fact that the social background of MP’s, on the whole, doesn’t reflect the society in which they are representing. For example, there are currently twenty MP’s who attended Eton, including Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne. Eton is a school which currently charges parents over £30,000 annually in education fees; when this figure is compared to the average household income in Britain, which is around £40,000, it could be said that individuals are well within their rights to question how these leading politicians can really relate to the financial struggles that regular people face on a day to day basis, and how they can consequently conceive policies which affect the common man when they have no knowledge or experience of what financial difficulty feels like. The concern is still held that politics is a sphere which is much more open to those who come from the top-hat wearing ‘gentry’, and although in the past this may not have stopped the flat-capped working classes from attempting to make an impact, it has unfortunately had this effect in recent times. Maybe this is because the working classes have less to fight for- they have become contented as Britain’s development has risen, but whatever the cause, the consequence has been that there seems to be an air of political ignorance within the working classes, it seems to be viewed as a sport for ‘posh people’, such as the majority of MP’s, and consequently they feel it isn’t their place to be engaged by it and to vote.
Nevertheless, MP’s can’t change their backgrounds, so why are they culpable for this perception within the working classes? Well, the issue is that this attitude stems from an absence of general education regarding politics in most state schools, something which hasn’t been tackled by politicians in recent times. This, naturally, hasn’t been a problem for the social elite, as involvement in politics for middle- and upper-class families is traditional, since those with more money and status have always naturally had more power; consequently, children of these families are usually comfortable with discussions regarding politics from a relatively young age. This is added to by the fact that the schools which tend to educate children coming from these backgrounds (independent schools), feel a duty to carry on with the work started by parents, therefore giving these children a wide access to politics throughout their education. This is in contrast to the working-classes, as, being the natural proletariat; parents have generally felt resentment towards authority, government and the higher classes, leading to a lack of discussion regarding political issues within working-class households. Furthermore, whilst education ministers such as Michael Gove have been emphasising improvements in the teaching of subjects such as maths and English, there has been no such emphasis placed on the importance of political education within state schools at an early age. As a result, by the time many working-class students first come into contact with meaningful political debates they are most likely to have an engrained ignorance of the subject, established by their parents, and so don’t choose to further occupy themselves with intellectual political thoughts or reflections. As a result, the vast majority of working-class children will go through the whole of their education without learning about the fundamental elements of British or global politics; they won’t know the central beliefs of the major parties or how significant the existence of an effective democracy is in order to maintain a stable society. Subsequently, individuals reach adulthood and are oblivious to who they should vote for and why they should vote, with politicians doing far too little to alter this. It’s as if politicians are scared that if the majority of the population are appropriately educated regarding politics then it could cause unexpected voting shifts and a potential loss of personal influence. The issue of political education has thus been brushed under the carpet in order to maintain the ignorance of the status quo.
All of these factors have consequently combined to ensure that political participation and engagement in the UK is falling drastically, we’re becoming less and less interested in the decisions which could affect us the most, essentially damaging our democracy. Far too little has been done in recent years to reverse this, as it seems as though politicians are far more interested in securing and maintaining a seat in Parliament than enhancing their political legitimacy. Our political leaders have shown this as they have attempted to manipulate the political system without any consideration for how their actions may have caused a critical decline in the integrity of our democracy.
read more: Why politicians are damaging our democracy