James Evans argues that politicians are often to blame for voter apathy.
5th February 2014 is National Voter Registration Day. It is ironic but perhaps necessary that the anniversary of the Great Reform Act is the focus for the ‘Bite the Ballot’ campaign urging young people to enfranchise themselves. In truth, however, parliamentary democracy seems to carry little interest for our young people: only 56% of 18 to 24 year-olds in the UK are registered to vote!
It is easy for established voters to dismiss this debate as one-sided: the league of common sense together with hip-hop star and campaign front-man Tinie Tempah facing off against the ‘can’t be bothered’ generation. But the latter too enjoy eloquent support in the form of counter-culture comedian Russell Brand. And the reality is that many registered voters are not casting their ballots either. In the 2011 local elections, despite a lot of campaigning, just over 40% of registered voters cast their ballots in my ward in Windsor. In the 2010 General Elections, our MPs were returned on an average voter turnout that was about 65%.
The reality is that many registered voters are not casting their ballots either.
I have heard a number of reasons on the doorstep why people don’t vote. Apathy and being too busy co-exist with the conviction of some voters that politicians are ‘all as bad as each other’, and the belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses: voting is apparently contrary to their religion.
Perhaps ‘democrats’ are hoping to change things through an ‘Obama effect’: a charismatic leader who inspires new voters to come out and support them. But politicians need to ‘bite the ballot’ too. We have a duty to engage with our local communities; people should know the person on the ballot sheet, not just the party. We should also empower the public to do more than just cast a vote in May. Maybe parties could offer open primaries to help select their parliamentary or council candidates? Perhaps local people could be encouraged to put forward a portfolio of ‘priority issues’ for politicians to tackle in their area?
Politicians need to ‘bite the ballot’ too.
But even the cynical and apathetic ought to know that there is always a way to make things better: do it yourself! One of the surprising things about UK democracy is how easy it actually is to join a party or stand as an independent candidate for election, especially in local politics. Parish Council vacancies sometimes don’t even attract one candidate, let alone a contested election! So my challenge to the disaffected is simple: don’t just vote, stand!