Saturday, March 29, 2008

Apathy? Who Cares?

The Hansard Society annual audit on political engagement (the fifth) has just been published and is available on their web-site. The key findings are:
  • Only 13% say they are "very interested" in politics; 19% say they are "not at all" interested. Just 51% say they are "interested".
  • Only 53% say they are certain to vote at the next election.
  • Only 41% say they have discussed politics with friends or family in the last two years.
  • Only 31% believe that "when people like me get involved in politics, they really can change the way the country is run".
  • Young people are less likley to be interested in politics; so are those in social class DE, readers of tabloid "newspapers", people who belong to an ethnic-minority and - for some reason - the Welsh (!).
  • 12% say they know "nothing at all" about politics and 45% "not very much".
  • Only 23% of 18-24 year-olds say that they will vote.

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian argues that "what makes people vote is having something worth voting for - and something to vote against". There is something in this: turnout in last year's French Presidential election (where voters were presented with a clear choice) was fairly high (over 80%). The old refrain that politicians are "all the same" is, Toynbee argues, "not wrong in these strange political times". There are many reasons why people don't vote. Those who favour a "cyclical" explanation argue that, if an election is closely contested, turnout will go up. On the other hand, turnout at the next election would have to rise by an astonishing 17.6% to match the 1950-66 average and by 10% to match the turnout in 1997. That seems to me unlikely. Toynbee advocates electoral reform - she argues AV (a "small change") could be introduced in time for the next election. The trouble is, if AV were introducted, this change would probably block what might be called "proper" electoral reform: the introduction of a PR system. In any case, it is hardly a remedy for the deeper malaise Toynbee identifies: the feeling - that many people have - that it doesn't really matter who wins, it will be "business as usual" for the corporate fat cats, that political engagement is simply futile. I can't see that changing any time soon. Prediction? turnout will go up next time; but will fall far short of 70%.


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