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Friday, December 27, 2013

Anger and democracy

Today's Guardian reports on an opinion poll that reinforces what many of us have known for some time, namely that people are angry with politics and politicians and as a result they are not voting.

They say that the research, which explores the reasons behind the precipitous drop in voter turnout, particularly among under-30s, finds that it is anger with the political class and broken promises made by high-profile figures that most rile voters, rather than boredom with Westminster:

Asked for the single word best describing "how or what you instinctively feel" about politics and politicians in general, 47% of respondents answered "angry", against 25% who said they were chiefly "bored".

Negative sentiments vastly outnumber positive, with only 16% reporting feeling "respectful" towards people doing a difficult job, while a vanishingly small proportion of 2% claim to feel "inspired".

The young are equally as bored with politics as they are angry with the politicians, whilst UKIP turn out to be what we had always suspected, the anti-politics party; a fact which explains why they are able to get away with a host of controversies that would have sunk any other political party:

When Harold Wilson won the 1964 election, more than three quarters of people cast their vote and turnout was roughly equal across the generations. But according to data from Ipsos Mori, at the last election 76% of over-65s were still voting, while only 46% aged 18-24 were going to the ballot box.
Rage is the dominant sentiment across just about every sub-stratum of the electorate, but is especially marked among men, northerners, voters over 45 and the lower DE occupational grade.

Labour voters, too, are disproportionately cross. But supporters of Ukip, the party that put itself on the map in 2013 with big gains in local elections, reflect the mood of the times most intensely: more than two-thirds, 68%, say the thought of politics and politicians makes them more angry than anything else.

Deborah Mattinson, a former pollster to Gordon Brown and now an expert at BritainThinks, believes politicians have not begun to grasp the scale of the problem. "Voter disengagement is getting worse and worse," she says. "Nobody is really taking it seriously enough."

Recent high-profile celebrity interventions on the subject have served to underline the growing disconnection. The former England footballer Michael Owen told the Guardian for the paper's series on voter apathy that he had never voted.

Russell Brand expressed the disaffection of many in October when he told Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight that he had never voted because he "can't be arsed", adding later: "The only reason to vote is if the vote represents power or change. I don't think it does."

After the interview, which received more than 10m hits on YouTube, Paxman said he understood Brand's decision, dubbing Westminster politics a "green-bench pantomime … a remote and self-important echo-chamber".

Reflecting such sentiments, the polling shows that ennui is more marked among the young, rivalling fury as the dominant feeling about politics among voters aged 18-24, who are evenly split 34%-34% between boredom and anger.

Boredom is marked in one other group, too – those voters of all ages who admit to being unlikely to vote. But even among those who rate their chance of turning out as four or lower on a 10-point scale, the angry marginally outnumber the bored, by 41% to 40%. When asked what puts people off voting, the cause of that anger is the perception that politicians do not keep their promises. Nearly two voters in every three, 64%, nominated the failure of governments to honour their pledges as something that would put them off casting a ballot – higher than any other factor.

People are still talking about politics of course, but their interest is in the issues not the petty wrangling. Many are put off by corruption scandals and abuse of privileges, which for all the fuss of a few years back, does not appear to be going away. Nor will it whilst some politicians continue to legally milk the system and resist reform. Many still do not get it.

The other problem is in people thinking that politicians are all the same, and in many ways they are right. We are caught up in consensual morass, all seeking to appeal to a limited number of floating voters in a few key marginals.

Attempts to differentiate ourselves flounder against the rocks of  a disbelieving public as increasingly desperate promises to freeze energy prices or to ignore the economic realities and increase public spending are seen as nice to have but completely unrealistic. It just adds to the impression that we will say anything to get elected.

This is not to say that it was different in the past. It was not. What has changed is the level of scrutiny of politics. The decision to bring television cameras into the House of Commons chamber was an important step forward for accountability and transparency, but who can blame the public for not liking what they saw?

Newspapers, television programmes, radio shows and other media, including blogs are no longer bound by the self-imposed conventions of the past. They have a 24/7 agenda and huge amounts of space to fill. They are either doing so by exposing scandals, real or imagined, or they are boring us silly with endless political debates filled with talking heads.

If you believe that I am writing as if I have a solution then you will be wrong. I think I understand the problem but I do not have a clue what to do about it, how to re-engage voters. Maybe a more representative voting system will open out political debate and give people a greater choice. Perhaps stricter rules and a new culture of openness will eradicate abuses. But how do politicians win back the confidence of people? Will time be a great healer? I have not got a clue.
What prompted larger voter turnouts in British elections was a genuine competition in approach and ideology between the parties.

Politics in the UK is now on a par with a few supermarkets, all competing for the same narrow range of customers through cynical manipulation, when the products are basically all the same.

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