Craig Melson, Consultant, London
A source of frustration for all politicians who lose elections must be that a huge chunk of their potential audience does not even bother to take part in elections. The 2010 General Election only saw 65.5% of eligible voters turn out, a small rise on 2001’s post war record low of 59.4%.
Since 2010, there have been several votes that have suffered depressingly low turnouts. The Alternative Vote referendum only managed a 42% turnout and the Police and Crime Commissioner elections managed to attract a dire 15% of the electorate. These were quite major changes to the way the country is run, but very few people seemed bothered about it. The Scottish Referendum had a record 84% turnout, but the huge stakes involved explains that, as does the fact that 92% of the UK couldn’t take part, which somewhat dampens this ‘triumph of democracy’. Even Nigel Farage can’t help. UKIP’s so called people’s army may have won the European Parliamentary elections after sending 24 MEPs to enjoy Moulles et Frites in Brussels, but the ‘earthquake’ is a minor tremor when the you see that only 9% of eligible voters actually voted UKIP. Their rise in the polls has been its ability to take voters from other parties (an easier task for smaller parties), not by inspiring new voters as they claim (evidence backed up by turnout figures).
So why have we stopped caring? Firstly, we never cared that much; the 65% 2010 turnout is only 11% less than the 1979 election, and only in 1950 and ’51 did turnout ever exceed 80%. A chunk of people are clearly apathetic about politics. Politicians themselves haven’t helped, with the expenses scandal, cliched front bench messaging and not combating the ‘they’re all the same’ label have all turned people away, but historically, the data shows there has always been a core 20-35% who don’t vote regardless of what’s on offer.
In a recent survey of non voters, the biggest reason given as to why they don’t take part was feeling their vote was worthless. Whilst that might seem flippant to politicos, the British version of first-past-the-post does create seats with huge majorities. Political parties seem to be resigned to this apathy too- Ed Miliband knows he can win a parliamentary majority with only 35% of the popular vote, and the Conservatives 2015 campaign is geared around winning 40 target seats.
So what can be done? There are certainly lessons to be learned from the independence referendum, where turnout was increased due to a clear vision from both sides, and appeals to the heart. Westminster elections have failed to capture the imagination, even in the divisive and idealistic elections won by Thatcher, and in the rise of New Labour. The 2010 introduction of TV debates also failed to get the vote out. One way not to encourage voters is by sending out bizarre threatening letters like the Democratic Party in the US did. 2015 may be the social media election, and for strategists, the power of social media isn’t in winning votes, but about mobilising your existing support base to get a good ground swell of support. The ‘cyber nats’ of Scotland did this to get people out leafleting and door-knocking and the Obama campaign mastered the art of using new media forms to ‘micro-target’ people in key areas.
The Speaker John Bercow MP has recognised technology as a barrier to voting and has set up the Digital Democracy Commission to look into this. Their report (due in January) will include a range of ideas, including a comment on introducing e-voting (his reasoning if you can register to vote, bank, and pay tax online, why not vote?), following the Estonian model. This move away from paper and pencil may help, but even in Estonia, turnout hasn’t improved drastically.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have also just published their findings into the causes of apathy and what they think can be done.Their report points the figure at politics and the media for the way they act, campaign and report on the political process, but ultimately states that it is politicians that need to fix voter apathy. They need to come up with a clear, inspiring narrative that can reach out and grab people’s attention. It’s harder, in an age of more distractions, and a general disengagement with traditional party politics, but that’s what politicians are paid to do.