There has been a growing debate in the run-up to the general election on the validity of voting.
The debate was sparked by comedian Russell Brand, who caused a stir when he declared: “It is not that I am not voting out of apathy. I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations.”
He suggested that politicians were only interested in “serving the needs of corporations” and that an administrative system based on the “massive redistribution of wealth” should replace the status quo.
Brand’s argument chimes with those who declare that the parties are all the same and out of touch with ordinary people.
The seeming disillusionment with voting has come about over the past couple of decades. Voting levels in general elections stayed in the 70 to 80 per cent range pretty much from 1918 to 1997. There were highs and lows. The highest turnout for a general election came in 1950 when Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government was re-elected on an 83.9 per cent turnout. The lowest turnout came in 1918, when just 57.2 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote in war-torn Britain.
Turnouts though do seem to have been on a steady decline since 1992, when there was a 77.7 per cent turnout to return John Major to Downing Street. Some 71 per cent voted to secure Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. It was then that the disillusion seemed to set in with turnouts of 59.4 per cent (2001) and 61.4 per cent (2005).
There was a bit of recovery in 2010 with a 65.1 per cent turnout.A survey by Survation in September 2013 took a detailed look at the attitudes of non-voters. When asked: “What would you say were your main reasons for not voting in the last the election?” over half of respondents expressed disillusionment with contemporary politics.
Some 27 percent of those polled said they “don’t believe my vote will make any difference,” while 25 per cent said the “parties/candidates are all the same.”
There is though also a distinct difference in voting tendencies down the generations. So in the last election, just 44 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted compared to 76 per cent of over-65s.
This tendency of older people to vote while the young don’t has helped fuel the intergenerational argument in the media. The coalition government, it is argued, has recognised that older people are more likely to vote, so they have responded accordingly, seeking to serve this group of people.
On the other side, the tendency of youth not to participate gives them less traction, so they have been hit harder by austerity-based policies. There is some truth in this view, which of course offers a powerful argument for voting.
The question as to why so many people feel so disillusioned with politicians and government no doubt has its roots in much of what has gone on over recent years. We have seen a decade of disillusionment with public institutions generally. There was the financial crisis, police corruption, the phone-hacking scandal and most pertinently, the MPs’ expenses scandal.
It has been these developments over the past couple of decades, coupled with a coming together of the mainstream parties around the basic neoliberal economic agenda, that has bred disillusionment with the political system and voting.
There is another unhealthy development on the right, which has flourished when people are disillusioned with voting and the democratic process — the favouring of “good governance” over democracy. This is an authoritarian market-driven viewpoint.
The most obvious manifestation of this has been seen in Italy, where in the wake of the financial crisis the democratically elected government was replaced by a technocratic alternative that was to the liking of the markets.
It was an obvious example of “governance” taking precedence over democracy or, perhaps more accurately, of markets deciding what sort of democracy they are prepared to permit.
The opposite side of this coin was seen in Greece, where the people revolted against the austerity policies demanded by the markets and elected Syriza. This was a case of democracy striking back. The people were infuriated at being forced into poverty at the behest of the corporations and neoliberal European governments.
How things work out in Greece will have significance for the battle between democracy and governance. If the markets don’t like what a democratically elected government does then they have huge powers to destabilise that country, cutting off credit, destabilising currencies and so on. Equally, though, in the final analysis, if people’s votes don’t count the only route left is revolt.
Developments in Italy and other countries in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 show that the calls for good governance, rather than healthy democracy, have grown louder.
It is wise to remember at these times the populist governance pledges of the fascists of the last century. The vote has been a right long fought for by working people. It was not easy to force the ruling classes to yield this very basic right. Now is not the time to be offering it up on the altar of technocratic market-based economic efficiency.
As John McDonnell MP has said: “Each time a person says they don’t vote, the rich and powerful corporations celebrate. It means that they are that bit freer to do whatever they like because there is nobody to hold them to account. When people don’t vote the worst elements take control.”
*morning star - 4/5/2015