In the 19th century political reform was a hotly debated topic that often captured the imagination of the public. The various reform acts, the Chartist movement, the suffragettes etc all played their part as Britain’s political system attempted to transform itself into a modern democracy.
The establishment and the Conservative party resisted every change but step by step, through genuine people power, change gradually happened. By 1928, every adult over 21 had the vote and the powers of the unelected House of Lords were restricted.
The most alarming aspect about the recent political system is the now complete disinterest shown by most of the electorate.
We have an electoral system where most people’s votes do not count, where the majority of seats have been held by the same party for over 40 years, where a government with a large majority can be formed with 36% of the votes (2005), where a party can get nearly a million votes but nothing to show for it (UKIP), and where the votes of 1.6% of the electorate can decide the entire election (IPPR) – but people don’t care.
Turnouts for general elections are going down, those for other elections are usually around a third. Even the recent Welsh referendum, the most important vote in the history of Wales, only got a turnout of 35%.
And of course the upcoming AV referendum – a recent poll shows that while 84% are aware of it, only 46% know what it is about. And while I am campaigning for the Yes vote, I fear that on the day the combined power of the mass media, the Conservative party, the remnants of old Labour, and the apathy of the electorate, will win the day to get a comfortable No vote. The establishment will be overjoyed and voting reform will be put to bed for 20 years or so.
How did we get to this state of affairs? Why is it that people will rush to vote in the X- Factor and Strictly Come Dancing yet can’t be bothered to make important decisions which will affect their lives? If they abolished voting tomorrow, how many people would be marching down Whitehall in protest?
Part of the problem is of course with the politicians themselves. People are generally disenchanted with politics. ‘You’re all the same’ we often hear on the doorsteps. All the main parties report reduced membership. Communication and spin is carefully managed whereas one small slip can end a career. People feel distant from politicians. As the saying goes, whatever the vote, the government always wins.
There is also the disinterest and selfishness of modern times. As Mrs Thatcher famously put it, ‘there’s no such thing as society’ – and she is right. Not only in politics - all voluntary, charitable and church organisations report a lack of interest and participation. Many people simply want to shut the front door, switch on the TV and hope the world leaves them alone.
Many times I have heard that people are angry about the expenses scandal, angry about getting a Council full of Tories with only a fraction of the votes, angry when their preferred party has no chance so is a wasted vote. Yet when you mention changes to the voting system, the reply is ‘oh, it’s all right as it is’.
It is a vicious circle. We can only win back people’s interest in politics through wide political reform. Yet major political reform won’t happen because of people’s disinterest.
So I have a suggestion. For a one-off experiment, let’s make voting compulsory at the next general election.
Each ballot paper can have an extra option ‘no vote’ for an abstention, and we must bring in ways to make voting easy by post, by phone and internet. If we can make the census compulsory, why not the ballot paper?
With the aim for as close to a 100% turnout as possible, the disinterested and apathetic will have to give it some thought, even if it is to spoil their paper. And some of those may develop an interest, join a party or campaign.
This may speak off interest amongst others – and what we all want to see is greater political involvement amongst communities, a greater quality of debate, more ‘real’ people rather than professional politicians, and higher membership of all political parties. And hopefully, we will eventually see some genuine political reform.
This way, we may finally break the circle to bring politics back to the people – whether the people want it or not!