Friday, 4 May 2012

An Electoral Landslide

Early reports suggest that one group won yesterday’s local election with a massive share of the registered voters, getting almost six times the next highest result and over twice the number of votes of all the other parties combined. By any measure this is a massive electoral landslide. This group was the “I didn’t vote” group. Turn out at yesterday’s elections is projected at a shocking low of just 32%, the lowest it has been since local elections in 2000. In one ward in Bristol the turn out was only 6%. It’s possible to retort that these were only local elections which don’t matter as much and that the only real choice that matters is the general election. This is the wrong view for two reasons. First, local elections do matter as local council are responsible for many of the services we receive and will be responsible for more and more as powers are devolved outwards by the Coalition’s Localism act. Second, turnout for recent general elections has also been disappointingly low. Turnout at the 2010 election was 65%, in 2005 61%, in 2001 59.5% compared to 71% in 1997 which was the lowest since 1945. Whilst the most recent general election turnout was twice that of yesterday’s local election, it is still very low when you consider what this means in terms of support for each party. At the last general election the largest party was the Conservatives with 36% of the vote which translates to only 23% of the total public. 

One explanation often given for low turnout is that people are tired of the same old politicians. If this were the case then you’d expect far higher levels of support for independent candidates. In reality very few independents succeed in getting elected and tend to get a small share of the vote exemplified by Siobhan Benita’s performance in the London Mayoral contest who, despite being more qualified than an average independent candidate but is still far behind the top two candidates. The other explanation is that people want a different option to the policies being put forward by the three main political parties. If this were the case you would expect higher polling results for other political parties. Whilst this local election has seen higher than usual level of support for UKIP, Respect and the Green party, their overall representation is still extremely small relative to the total number of councillors. The only exception to this is the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, but there has been no equivalent in England. Another explanation which has stronger pull is that people don’t vote because their vote doesn’t matter. One point in this explanation’s favour is that if we were to vote in our own self interest, it is rational not to vote. The Paradox of Voting points out that because there is such a small probability of your vote being the deciding vote you’d get more out of your time if you spent it doing something else. It is considered a paradox by people that believe that humans are rational and self-interested.

One solution to the paradox of voting is to see voting as an altruistic act. That it is us contributing to our own wider community. Voting still represents a way in which we can help create a better world. The window display at the front of Methodist Church house says “Love your neighbour? Use your vote”. Through taking part in the democratic process we can improve the lot of others and help the poor and the vulnerable. If you read through the work that the Churches have done on public issues over the years you can see why politics should matter as a Christian. Voting is a part of that. But as the paradox shows, it’s not that effective by itself. By writing to MPs and making our voices heard through protests and action we make a much greater contribution. The question people should be asking themselves is not “What’s the point in voting?” but rather “What’s the point in just voting?”. Voting is only the first step in political engagement. It’s sad to see so many people not taking that step but we should not call on people just to vote but instead to fully engage with the issues involved and to continuously be engaged all year round.