Voter turnout declined steadily for decades until 1997 when it nose-dived, only to turn upwards again in the last two elections. While a number of factors influence how people vote, such as the perceived closeness of the result, the general trend is downwards and the heady days where over 80% of the electorate voted seems unimaginable now.
The irony is that the greater the number of people who think there’s no point in voting, the more wrong they become. When there are only a few non-voters they are unlikely to be able to make a difference, whereas the 18 million people who didn't vote in 2001 could have swung the election any way they wanted, after all Labour won with less than 11 million votes cast for them.
Ask people why they don’t vote and most answers are variations on the same theme – ‘it wouldn't make any difference anyway’, ‘they’re all the same’, ‘nothing will change’. This is in stark contrast to the candidates themselves who claim the difference is between a glorious, prosperous future (their party) or the utter ruin of the country (the other party), regardless of how far apart their policies really are.
The parties have been getting closer over the past 30 years, following an inexorable convergence to the centre ground as they chase voters. The belief is that ‘our’ people will always vote for us regardless of what we do because they detest the other side so much, so we don’t need to worry about them, instead we will concentrate on attracting the wavering voters in the middle.
As the centre ground shifts so shift the parties, as has been the case on Europe, immigration and benefits over the past decade to name a few examples where politicians have been running after the public mood. Why people are so disaffected is that these party manoeuvrings are reactive, based on opinion polls and focus groups, politicians chasing after the people rather than leading them.
What is needed is a politician who will put their flag in a new place and say this is what I believe in, it’s different and radical but it’s the right thing and I will do everything I can to persuade you it’s the right thing. If they succeed they create a new centre ground, much like a new product coming along which isn’t a variation on what has gone before but changes the whole nature of the marketplace. This is what happened with Labour and nationalisation after the war, and what Thatcher did in the 80s. It’s also the genius of Barack Obama, being able to persuade American voters that he stood for something radically different and better, without ever actually saying what that was. The exception is occasions like the Scottish referendum where the decision is so big it's a flag in the ground election by default.
When a leader does this then policies suddenly matter, values matter, the future matters and sound bites and image fall away. The financial crash put the nail in the coffin of unbridled free market ideology, but we have yet to find a political leader of a main party who will stand up for something profoundly different, instead they cling on to a discredited ideology too fearful that if they did put their flag in the ground then it will be in the wrong place. That is why our politics seems so stale at the moment, let’s hope a political leader with a fresh outlook and the courage to stand up for that outlook comes along soon.
This post was meant to be about our own elections we’re having at the RSA at the moment for our Trustee Board and Fellowship Council but I rather got carried away. However, we do think our strategic review is taking us in an exciting new direction so, in the spirit of this blog, if you’re a Fellow and haven’t voted, do take time to look at the candidates here and put your cross on the ballot paper.
Oliver Reichardt is the Director of Fellowship at the RSA
Follow him @OliverReichardt