By Julius Burke-Perrin
In two weeks' time, the electorate will flock en masse to polling booths up and down the country to cast their vote in the general election, and accordingly engage in our democratic process. It is this process which is the cornerstone of Western government, the principle that transcends semantics in policy and unites the bitterest of opponents. However, modern democracy now faces a problem greater than almost any other- disengagement.
In this election, 3.3 million 18-24 year olds will be eligible to vote for the first time- potentially making over 10% of the votes casted. However, YouGov research suggests nearly two thirds of these are not certain that they will exercise their newfound right, meaning about 2.2 million young people may not vote. The effects of such apathy are long-lasting; Nick Clegg’s now-notorious pledge to scrap tuition fees meant little as the government in which he now serves tripled fees instead. Why did this happen?
Cross the generational gap and you’ll find the answer in pensions. This has been one of the few areas with funding relatively protected whilst programmes accessed by young people such as the EMA have been slashed. David Cameron himself said in September “I don’t think pensioners should be asked to bear the burden [of austerity]”, exemplifying an unwavering protection of the pension pot. The Conservatives are not alone in this stance either, with Blair’s government introducing reforms to ensure that poorer pensioners are guaranteed a state income in retirement.
Dress it up how you like; politics is a game of winners and losers. The party with the most seats wins, and accordingly politicians will engage with the groups whose support is most necessary. In a pure democracy, each group in society would have proportionate representation- those without a voice, in this instance a vote, will not be heard. 75% of over-60s are certain to vote, compared with just 41% of 18-24 year olds, meaning that in terms of weighting the most “important” group for those seeking power is the post-war baby boomers.
Young people are not the sole electoral celibates, however. Last summer, the Electoral Commission reported that of the 7.5m unregistered yet eligible voters, minorities, the young and poor people were least likely to vote, meaning some of the hardest-pressed groups in society will remain voiceless unless there is a bucking of the trend.
Why do people not vote? Looking at the makeup of Parliament might help. Today, the average age of the House of Commons is 50, not doing much to challenge the view that our elected representatives are actually misrepresentative of a large percentage of the country. This is furthered when considering the ethnicity of our MPs. Just 27 of the 650 come from a BME background, a pathetic 4% considering the UK is 13% non-white. Finally, a third of MPs were privately educated, four times higher than the national average. Overall, this paints a picture of a white, elitist Parliament with exposed groups of society not reflected by those in Westminster.
Perhaps most damningly, whilst one fifth of the population has some sort of disability, fewer than 10 MPs are registered disabled, meaning those most affected by the cuts (disabled people have experienced nearly a third of the budget cuts according to the Centre for Welfare Reform) are also heavily under-represented. All of this creates a dark picture where encouraging people to vote is concerned.
As Elliott Abrams once said, first impressions matter. The public perception of politicians today is depressingly low, creating an inverse reality where Miliband’s negative net approval rating of -18% is considered positive in the eyes of analysts. Over time, politicians have become increasingly homogenous with the idiosyncrasies existing in society sapped out and replaced with bland corporate slogans. Just try and distinguish “a Better Plan for a Better Future” or “Secure a Brighter Future”, the brainchildren of Labour and the Tories. The effect of this merging in image is surely not insignificant; if people cannot tell the difference between politicians as their presentation guarantees; the ability to form an opinion on who resonates with one’s core beliefs disintegrates. This can lead to intense apathy amongst the electorate, especially for those just entering the political landscape for the first time.
Swiss writer Alain de Botton sums up the dangers of electoral indifference well: “A popular perception that political news is boring is no minor issue; for when news fails to harness the curiosity and attention of a mass audience through its presentational techniques, a society becomes dangerously unable to grapple with its own dilemmas and therefore to marshal the popular will to change and improve itself.” The collective inability of large sub-sections in society to vote, or even take interest in parliamentary proceedings, is a structural issue. People tend not to vote if their voices are not heard, but their voices will not be heard if they don’t vote. It is this traverse irony that generates such frustration; the essence of democracy is to provide fair representation yet its current function lets down the very people it exists to serve. This dissidence, if uncorrected, guarantees more of the same for generations to come.