So far however, I regret to say, the story I’ve been picking up has been fairly massive public indifference to the whole business, certainly compared to other elections over the past forty years. Public participation rates have been sinking since the sixties. A recent poll in the Times reported that more voters want a hung parliament than government by any of the three established parties. You can drive along whole swathes of road without seeing any evidence that there’s anything going on at all.
It may be that everything will ignite tonight in Manchester — midget wrestling has a curiosity value, if nothing else. However there are three massive facts about UK general elections which may go some way towards accounting for the absence of public interest:
- Such is the UK parliamentary voting system that the vast majority of results may be assumed before the thing begins. Whilst politicians piddle about with constituional reforms that are, frankly, irrelevant, like the composition of the House of Lords, they mask the fact that the system for electing the House of Commons renders the majority of votes cast irrelevant. The problem began with the abolition of the old Victorian multi-member constituencies, and has been acknowledged since the 1930’s, but it’s never been in the interest of the political nomenklatura to do anything about it. Sure it’s not fair, but they’d rather the other lot won for a season, as long as they got their shot at what Lord Hailsham called “elective dictatorship” another day. Not very surprisingly, the public become jaded about a process in which 25 million of their votes seemingly make no difference to the result. Polls consistently exhibit an eerily similar majority in favour of electoral reform to the proportion who opposed the Iraq war — around 60%. Frankly, the outlook is not encouraging. There’s a website which can tell you how powerful your vote is here. On it I discover that the average UK voter has five times more chance of their vote making any difference than I do.This fact in itself is not exactly going to bring people out onto the streets, is it?
- People think they see a professional political class getting fat on ther earnings, and this breeds cynicism. Actually I don’t think this is entirely fair — most MP’s point out they could have earned as much and more money doing something else, but the expenses scandal revealed an astronomic degree of public anger and frustration. This is about more than just garden gnome allowance. It was instructive to hear Mrs Blair asked why she needed six houses. Her answer was that the Blairs, in fact, only have five houses. They had bought six, but one was far too small, and had had to be bashed into the one next door. Talk about missing the point.
- Looking at the manifestos, the contest is not about where the ship is going, as much as how the ship is running. The manifestos are basically management pitches, and, frankly, my dear, most people don’t ignite about such stuff, especially now UK governments have developed a whole web of agencies, quangos and outsourcing to avoid taking any real responsibility for anything. They all talk the same language about public services. They all refuse to be honest about their values or lack of them. They all get bogged down in policy detail and there is some evidence that people have no idea whose policy is what. A recent Times Poll discovered that voters could only identify 50% of key pledges with the correct party. I learnt yesterday, for example, that if I vote Conservatve they will “use pupil level annual school census data to include service children for a pupil premium in schools ensuring they attract extra funding.” It’s not quite the Gettysburg address.