Our Responsibilities in a Democracy

First and foremost, our responsibility in a democracy is to get involved; the easiest way to do that, of course, is by voting. But figures for that are becoming increasingly gloomy; more and more people are choosing to vote less and less; a third of registered voters haven’t voted in recent general elections here in the UK (becoming known as the “Unheard Third”).

In the 2015 general election, these are the figures for each party based on the total number of votes cast;

  • Conservative: 42.5% – 318 MPs.
  • Labour: 40% – 262 MPs.
  • Lib Dem: 7.4% – 12 MPs.
  • SNP: 3% – 35 MPs.
  • Plaid Cymru: 0.5%, 4 MPs.
  • UKIP: 1.8%, 0 MPs.
  • Green: 1.4%, 1 MP.

However, silence was the real winner, if you take into account all registered voters; over 30% did not vote. The Conservatives won with 24% of total registered voters; just 20% voted for Labour. By including all registered voters, we see that even the main two parties only have minority support; more people didn’t vote than supported either of them.

If you think that was a one-off, take a look at the 2015 and 2-1-0 election; 34% of registered voters didn’t go to the ballot box, and figures for the main parties look roughly similar when you consider total numbers of registered voters. In fact, the tren is broadly similar when you look back over the past fifty years.

A 2010 survey by Ipsos Mori found that a quarter of people over 65 and more than half of 18s – 24s didn’t vote. Voter turnout correlated with every social indicator; higher amongst older, white, property-owning people in the professional classes.

Another study, this time done by the University of York in 2005 (but still very relevant), found that very few people had forgotten to vote. In most cases, it was a deliberate decision. Over a third (36%) chose not to vote because “it wouldn’t make a difference”. But the main reason for not voting (cited by 80% of non-voters) was because people failed to see any difference between the main parties. As one young man said: “The parties are all brands of the same product.” There was also widespread disenchantment with all politicians: “Politicians are no better than children: they certainly behave like them”.

The survey also showed that many young people cared about politics, though they felt alienated by the political parties and angered by the Iraq war. They were also more likely to regard the electoral system as unfair: half the younger people would vote if a “fairer” system were introduced.

Some 44% of non-voters believed that their vote would not make a difference as the opinion polls all pointed to a Labour victory: “Forecasts put me off: it’s like watching Match of the Day where you already know the scores. People don’t care about something that’s already been decided”.

A third piece of research, conducted by Survation in late 2010, took a detailed look at the attitudes of the Unheard Third. Economic worries ranked highly among all groups: for example, the top three concerns for young people, whether voters or non-voters, were;

  • Not having as much money as they would like

  • Not being able to pay the bills

  • Unemployment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, non-voters are less likely to trust politicians to tell the truth, but not by a large margin – 9% of voters trust politicians to tell the truth compared to 6% of non-voters. However, the massive proportion of people overall who do not trust politicians shows this is not an issue about voting or not voting, but a more general phenomena of the public’s low regard for MPs. That said, non-voters are also more distrustful of journalists, and by a wider margin than in the case of politicians, which suggests that efforts to tackle political disengagement and low voting turnout may need to go beyond just the relationship between politicians and the electorate.

Given the similarities between voters and non-voters in terms of outlook and the issues they care about, perhaps the most important findings of the survey are those relating to the reasons for not voting, as well as the factors that might convince non-voters to go to the polls on election day. Among those who did not vote in the last general election, the top reasons for not voting were:

  • Not believing that their vote will make any difference

  • That the parties and candidates are all the same

  • A lack of interest in politics

  • Important beliefs not being represented by the parties and candidates.

UK politics is failing to address the hopes and issues of the young, many of the older population, and those in the middle who feel disenfranchised by society and the economy – unemployed people, low-income families, people who feel that immigration hasn’t been properly handled, and so on.

This is a scandal. Single party governments are elected by fewer than a quarter of registered voters; this is an active crisis in our electoral system. People don’t believe that it works.

Three things are immediately clear from the figures we’ve looked at just now;

  • Too many people are silent. By choosing not to vote, we leave others to send a local MP to the House of Commons. A government doesn’t need to listen to those who don’t vote, which is causing a very dangerous attitude by the government to have. It then also becomes far easier for non-voters to be easily dismissed.

  • Non-voters hold the balance of power. Even if a quarter of non-voters went to the ballot box at the next general election and put an x against the candidate they liked the most, instead of tactical voting, then other candidates could well stand a chance where they had no chance before. Suddenly, smaller parties become more valuable and powerful in Parliament.

  • If the Unheard Third voted NONE – and active voters joined in – then the protest would be far larger than anything assembled outside Parliament. That protest would be bigger than the votes for either of the two main parties; that’s a really clear way to demonstrate the lack of support for an elected government, and to demand something better.

Voting is morally significant. Voting changes the quality, scope, and kind of government. If we make bad choices at the polls, we get racist, sexist, and homophobic laws. Economic opportunities vanish or fail to materialise. We fight unjust wars, or don’t get involved when we should. We spend millions on plans and programmes that do little to stimulate economies or alleviate poverty. We fail to spend money on programmes that would work better. We get over-regulation in some places, under-regulation in others, and lots of regulation whose sole effect is to secure unfair economic advantages for special interests. We inflict and perpetuate injustice. We leave the poor behind. We throw too many people in jail. We base our immigration and trade policies on misinformation and defunct economic theories. Our votes have the power to change these things but we need the structure and confidence in which to do it; we need institutions and parties in which we can trust.

Each vote counts, but it does not count much. We decide electoral outcomes together. How we vote together has consequences; how you vote does not. However, there are moral principles governing how people ought to behave when participating in voting. Even though individual votes almost never have a significant impact on election results in any large-scale election, this does not let individuals off the hook. Collectively, the Unheard Third could easily make a huge difference to the electoral outcomes.

So what’s the answer? Should voting be compulsory? David Winnick, a Labour MP for over 40 years, argued in 2014 that voting should become a “civic duty.”

“If we want democracy to flourish,” he said in the House of Commons, “common sense dictates we should do what we can to get more people to participate in elections than do at the moment.”

Winnick wants the UK to consider a system similar to that in Australia, where people who do not vote, or abstain, are fined. He insists his proposals do not constitute compulsory voting as such. Those who have religious or other objections would be able abstain, but they would be required to register their abstention by contacting their electoral office in advance or doing so in person at the polling station.

Voting is a fundamental right, privilege and responsibility. People are turned off for a wide variety of reasons, and even in countries where voting is compulsory, they don’t reach 100% of votes. What’s needed is a reinvention of the system to make it attractive and interesting enough; we shouldn’t need to force people to go into the voting booths and then track down the dissenters. The system should be so engaging that it’s tough keeping people away. Isn’t that the conversation we should we having?

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