From 1950 to 2015, general election turnout has fallen by nearly 20 per cent. Alumni Jason Cowley, editor of New Statesman, and John Denham, former MP for Southampton Itchen, discuss the mood of anti-politics in the UK, and how to re-engage the electorate.
Jason Cowley (BA English and Philosophy, 1989) editor, New Statesman: When people believe that something matters and there are real issues at stake, the result can be extraordinary engagement. Look at what happened in Scotland during the referendum campaign. The future of Scotland and of the United Kingdom were at stake, and people of all ages responded with great interest.
However, there is perhaps something about the way mainstream politics is conducted at Westminster that doesn’t quite ignite people’s interest. That might come down to the professionalisation of politics. Many of our leading politicians come from a very narrow social and educational background. George Osborne talks of the “guild” of professional politicians, of which he is a part, as are many others, such as David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Nick Clegg and so on. By that, Osborne means politicians who leave Oxbridge, work as special advisers to politicians, progress to safe seats, and are fast-tracked into the cabinet. That process creates a type of identikit professional politician from whom many people feel alienated. There is a sense that these politicians know little of the world outside Westminster or Whitehall.
I am also struck by how narrow and parochial the election campaign was. None of the party leaders were talking about foreign affairs or Britain’s role in the world and that was a significant miss. Whatever your views are on Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, they were genuine national leaders with vision and the acumen required to command a significant majority.
My time at Southampton coincided with the Thatcher boom years. The first election in which I voted was the Conservative landslide victory in 1987. Most of my fellow students voted Tory and the main opposition to the student Conservative club at the University was not Labour but the far left Socialist Workers Party. The students’ Labour group had very little presence on campus, which reflected the mood nationwide. Even then, in the late eighties, among the student population, there wasn’t a great sense of political engagement or idealism, which surprised me. A lot of people I knew wanted to work in the City for one of the big banks or become corporate lawyers.
A change in the voting system might engage more people. Our “first past the post” system means that too many of us live in safe seats. If you live in a safe seat (of which there are 400+) and want to vote against the incumbent, your vote is almost meaningless. However, under proportional representation, your vote would at least count in a way it cannot at present, and political parties might be more inclined to work harder for that vote. I live in a safe Tory seat and I did not have one leaflet put through my door or see a single Labour candidate out on the street. If it was a marginal seat, there would have been a lot more activity. You would have felt something was at stake.
Politics is among my primary interests yet I also accept that many people are simply not interested in the day-to-day activities of Westminster. Do I support compulsory voting, as in Australia? I don’t think it should be a stipulation of the state that you vote. You should have the freedom not to vote if you wish not to do so. But given that so many people struggled so hard to enfranchise the majority, I think people ought to vote. If no one party appeals to you, then spoil your ballot paper as a mark of protest. Above all, make the effort to understand the issues and to work out what you think about them.
John Denham (BSc Chemistry, 1974), former MP for Southampton Itchen, and parliamentary private secretary to Ed Milliband: I would challenge those who say there is no point in voting. They are profoundly wrong. There is a moral obligation to respect the democratic process and to understand that it is a precious thing and that any other way of changing society will be worse. That said, the point about democracy is that you have a choice as to both who you vote for and whether to vote. The idea that you are in a democracy where you don’t have a choice seems to give rise to a contradiction. The challenge behind increasing voter numbers is establishing a connection between someone voting and something changing as a result. With a programme like the X Factor, you can see before your eyes how the votes mount up for certain candidates and who has won. Voting in a parliamentary or council election isn’t so straightforward. When I started in politics 30 years ago, it was much more common for someone to say, “I will always vote Labour, that is the party for someone like me.” If your ‘team’ was running the country, you could be reasonably comfortable that they would give you a better deal than the other team would. But the notion of class blocks and people seeing a political party as representing their section of society is much less well-established now. People can’t vote for their team and feel they are likely to have the best possible result. They want to see change coming from their vote and that is hard for politicians to establish. People also need to feel that there is something at stake.
If people think that there are genuine issues, they will queue for hours in the baking sun in order to cast their votes.
In that sense, enabling people to vote online, or having fixed-term parliaments allowing greater election build-up, or lowering the voting age, won’t make the slightest difference. The evidence from the Scottish referendum was not that lowering the voting age suddenly made a whole generation interested in politics. It was that the devolution campaign seemed to be about something quite profound. If politicians don’t manage to establish that there are some big options in front of people, then lowering the voting age will simply extend the age at which fewer people vote. Politicians do need to help themselves. There are political activists my age who think that the media is the News at Ten, or reading the Guardian or Telegraph. I have to explain that half the electorate never watch the news and don’t read a newspaper in a paper form. Technology has to reach voters in all the places they expect to receive information, to receive opinion and be able to contribute to it. Political parties that don’t do that will fail.