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Apathy In The UK


If the people of Spain proved anything after the Madrid bombings, they proved that their democracy, hard won after the infamous Franco years, matters to them. They had something to say to the ruling Popular Party, something about lies, trust and war, and they said it clearly; 77% of Spain’s electorate went to the polls and turned the conservatives out of office. Contrast that with Britain. At the last British general election, in 2001, fewer than two thirds of us (59%) could be bothered to cast a vote. Marking a ballot paper is the single political act that most of us are allowed, and allowed only rarely, but the centuries-old campaign for universal suffrage seems to strike four in 10 adults as an irrelevance.

Spain, you may believe, faced special circumstances. Al-Qaeda’s bombs in Madrid forced the country to renew its opposition to a war that all but a few of them detested. José María Aznar’s decision to conscript a nation against its will was itself anti-democratic. After the massacres, the electorate were redressing the balance. Britain, it could be said, has no such motive.

Yet how does that explain other recent European elections? How is it, for example, that not even half the voters turned out for the Scottish parliamentary elections, yet 62% of the French exercised their rights last weekend in what were, after all, only regional elections? How is it that 76% of Greeks acted to choose a new government a couple of weeks back?

That we have a problem, one shared with America, is obvious. Around the world elections still matter to those who have the right to hold them. The belief that political apathy is universal in developed countries simply does not hold water. The real difficulty lies in explaining what is wrong with Britain.

Last week the Electoral Commission published the results of an “audit of political engagement” and quantified the scale of British disaffection. It found a growing number of people who know little about politics and care less. Only 42% could name their MP. Only 36% were satisfied with the work done by Westminster. Only 27% trusted politicians. And only 51% said, if you believed them, that they were certain to vote.

Typically, 74% of respondents were nevertheless happy to agree that it was their duty to vote. Equally, 75% declared that they did want a say in how the country is run, but fewer than half of those (36%) believed that voting made any difference. Interest in politics was at its lowest since the polling company Mori began to survey opinion over 30 years ago.

One fact is scarcely coincidental: this collapse in interest began when New Labour came to power in 1997. In 1992, I was one of a hapless bunch of hacks given the thankless task of following John Major on the campaign trail and trying to make him interesting. Rumours as to his ineffable dullness were not, it turned out, unfounded. At the time I decided that one of the circles of hell must involve travelling the length and breadth of Britain by Tory coach and Tory airplane just to hear the same astoundingly turgid speech over and over again. Yet if I felt that way, how would voters feel?

In 1992, for the record, turnout was 78% when Major pulled off a surprise. In 1997, when Tony Blair was given his chance and things could only get better, the figure was still a respectable 71.5% as a swathe of disillusioned Tory voters stayed at home. So what has happened since?

One New Labour myth, still aired by its cheekier representatives, is that people are simply too content to bother with voting. Unemployment is low, Gordon Brown has his little economic miracle to boast of, and people still prefer Blairism to the alternatives. A variation on the theme, first heard after the 2001 election, is that a Labour victory is taken for granted, with apathy as a result. If nobody believes that the Tories can unseat the government, even after being rejuvenated, supposedly, by Michael Howard, why bother?

For this argument to work, you have to assume that faith in Blair endures. True, his opinion poll numbers are still higher than you might have expected, given the events of the past year, but the days of pre- eminence are gone. In any case, even if Labour were to win the 2005 election by a healthy 60-40 margin, a 51% turnout would give them the support of only 30% of voters. If apathy actually claims a majority of the electorate, for the first time since the introduction of universal suffrage, it would be impossible to claim that a Blair government is either trusted or legitimate.

Governments have come to power often enough while commanding the support of less than half of the voters. In multi-party systems such results are almost inevitable. But the Electoral Commission’s findings indicate that there is now a boycott in the making. The Tories might not appeal, but this sort of apathy suggests that Blair has been a big disappointment to a lot of people. In seven short years the promise of a new sort of government for a new country has been squandered.

The danger, of course, is that the phenomenon will not be temporary. As America tends to demonstrate, when people lose faith in the political system they rarely regain it. Yet even in the United States the recent Democratic primaries showed an upsurge in interest in politics among people determined to rid themselves of George W Bush. The turnout in November is unlikely to impress Spaniards or Greeks, but it could be better than it has been for many years. In Britain, no such prospect presents itself. Belief in politics is evaporating.

What, though, is wrong with abstentionism? If there is little actually to choose between Labour and the Tories, why not demonstrate contempt for the bunch of them? Vote for either and racist immigration policies remain. Vote for either and your country’s foreign policy will still be run from the White House. Vote for either and you will get, by and large, the same economic prescriptions. Europe might throw up some linguistic nuances, but we would still remain outside the euro zone. Why not simply ignore the whole charade?

A couple of reasons. First, there are several repositories for conscience, particularly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where nationalism (or Unionism) provides alternatives. Equally, there are now socialist parties across the United Kingdom and the Greens for those seeking something new. As things stand, none of these parties can achieve much in general elections, but they could be influential if the next government has a small majority.

Equally, nobody should be taken in by Labour politicians who claim to be worried by apathy. By and large, people who are failing to vote are people who want no truck with Blair. Better that they stay at home, the strategists believe, than vote for opposition parties. It falls to a sensible electorate to confound such hopes.

If the Electoral Commission is to be believed, nevertheless, 49% of us have no interest in such calculations. Anti-war sentiment has not bolstered the Liberals or the SNP. The loss of trust in Blair after a string of half-truths and lies has not resulted in a groundswell of active opposition. Half the electorate has simply detached itself from the political life of the country.

They no longer seem to believe that the railways or the NHS will be sorted out. They no longer have faith in an economic prosperity that has put affordable housing beyond their reach. And, in what looks like becoming the defining cliché of his premiership, few now believe a word that Blair says.

It is a strange paradox. Disillusionment with a government has brought apathy, not opposition. Blair, for all his messianic speeches and warmongering, has put Britain to sullen sleep. If the actual choice of government is between New Labour and old Tories, half of us are declining the indignity.

We have a leader, in short, whose people do not care to be led. Even as Blair taxes us with his democratic aspirations for the people of Iraq, his real legacy is an electoral system at home, in whose name a war was supposedly fought, that is on the point of collapse. That, I suspect, is what is known as an irony.

28 March 2004