The better we treat democracy, the more it’s worth

The third biggest party in the latest YouGov poll is not the Lib Dems, or UKIP. It is a party which capitalises on voter anger and disinterest, attracting the portion of the electorate who know nothing about  politics and do not want to know. It is, of course, the Don’t Know/Would Not Vote Party. We can expect their share of the vote to be bigger at the ballot box come 7 May 2015 – voter turnout at general elections has not got close to 70% since 1997.

We are in an age of unconscious apathy. George Orwell said “All issues are political issues” but contemporary society didn’t hear him. The first question to do with politics asked today is not “what do you think?” but “are you actually interested in that stuff?”. Politics is not part of someone’s identity, but a quaint and slightly bizarre hobby for nerds and intellectuals (and if you’re reading this then yes, dear reader, you’re probably one of them); something similar to chess or bird-watching.

The Conservative party and Labour party have both seen decline in grassroots support. Labour lost five million voters between 1997 and 2010, whilst in 1992 the Tories won over three and a half million votes more than they did in 2010. Yet it has not exactly been a zero-sum game for other parties. Lib Dem support has collapsed since going into the coalition, whilst although UKIP have increased in popularity, they would do well to even win a seat in the next parliament due to FPTP. Aside from the nationalists, all other parties remain on the fringe; the glare of public spotlight sporadically falling on them at around the peak of their public exposure, like when Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time, or George Galloway won in Bradford West.

The apathetic public surely lose the right to moan about bin collections, the NHS, schools, roads and taxes if they do not bother to vote. We hear the same old refrains: “they’re all the same”; “they’re all self-serving, power-hungry and morally bankrupt”; “they’re all incompetent and useless”; or “it never makes a difference anyway”. None of these statements are true. Even if from the far left or right the three mainstream parties look similar, try saying the same if you include Respect, UKIP or the BNP. As for the second and third gibes, I am one of the few who believes that the average ever-maligned politician does want to, and can, improve things for his or her country. Finally, politics does make a difference that you can see everywhere if you open your eyes. Orwell was right: public services, taxation, the law, culture… it all depends on who is in power. Even if the four statements were all true, that is not necessarily excuse for giving up on politics. Those who can could find a new candidate, stage a demonstration, or run in an election themselves.

Democracy allows the people to collectively make a very important decision for themselves, yet I doubt they make it with enough prudence. The politically committed must spend far more time analysing manifestos, policies and speeches than everyone else, yet it is everyone else who knows the least in the first place. Many will simply vote based on prejudicial half-truths about parties and politicians. Others will vote based on self-interest (although they may pretend their best interests are aligned with the county’s best interests): “who promises me and my family the best deal?” In such a climate, politicians are reluctant to admit harmful truths: that there must be less spending or more taxes; or that climate change requires everyone to be more efficient or consume less. Few voters are sufficiently competent in economic theory to properly scrutinise a manifesto, or have enough knowledge of history to see the repeated mistakes of different governments.

Those who are politically committed will often limit themselves to reading information suited to their biases, refusing to be challenged by other works. This is, ironically, increasingly the case in a more diverse media environment. Consider the website ConservativeHome, which has in part taken the place of newspapers like the Telegraph as the home for Tory grassroots. Whereas the Telegraph publishes news stories not necessarily related to politics in a fairly unbiased way, ConservativeHome is a swirling, bubbling cauldron of right-wing, partisan opinion. This is what Peter Oborne of the Telegraph said about it:

“For most Daily Telegraph readers, who read the newspaper over the breakfast table or on a commuter train, Conservative Home requires an explanation, which is best conveyed by the famous phrase of the great West Indian cricket writer CLR James: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

The same remark applies to politics, only more so. The growth of the internet has encouraged the development of a monocultural community of young men (very few women) who are devoted users of Twitter, serial attenders of think-tank breakfasts and keen analysers of each and every political event.

Conservative Home insists that it speaks for mainstream Conservatives, a claim that I used to be sympathetic to, but which is surely now only believed by BBC television and radio producers, and which needs to be exploded. The lives of most Tory supporters are too interesting, enjoyable and civically engaged for them to read it.”

There is a risk the politically committed will become ever more strident and intolerant in their views, to the detriment of politics. This is at least better than using the plethora of television stations and internet sites to avoid politics completely. As Nick Cohen says in his excellent book “You Can’t Read This Book”: “The Web and satellite television risk confining interest in the vital concerns of the day to a minority of politically engaged hobbyists.” The Internet has massively facilitated political activism, but are the people who have taken advantage of this just the same people who would be interested in politics anyway?

To give a banal example of the public’s disinterest in politics, ex-MP Louise Mensch, who was one of the most avid tweeters in parliament, has 86 thousand followers. Grime artist Skepta, who has not even had a top ten single, has over three times as many. Even three parody accounts for Manchester City footballer Mario Balotelli have more followers than Mensch. We now take political freedoms for granted, so value them little and exercise them even less. The economic shock and recession do not seem to have awoken political consciousness within the public. I fear that it will take the most brutal of shocks to revitalise the public sphere of political debate.

Related posts:

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The injustice of the Lords reform controversy

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