Leading Article: Voters will return to the polls when they are engaged by the politics

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the perennial delights for connoisseurs of British political life is observing the many ways the representatives of the various parties find to prove that they actually did very well in elections their candidates failed to win. Yesterday was no exception to this rule, as the SNP claimed victory in the Hamilton by-election because its losing candidate dramatically reduced the majority Labour had at the general election (while Labour complained of the fragmentation of the vote among a "host of candidates"). Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats, who managed to win only 634 votes, spoke opaquely of "sowing things on stony ground".

What no party addressed in great detail is the continuing decline in turnout at elections over the past few years, for that is a vote against all of them and all their works. But consider the record: the turnout in the general election in 1997 was the lowest since 1929. Since then we have had local elections, in 1998 and 1999, and a Euro election in 1999, all with very low electorate participation. Thursday's by-election in Wigan brought out just 25 per cent of eligible voters, and although Hamilton's 41.33 per cent might seem respectable by comparison, in fact it was the lowest ever turnout for a Scottish by-election.

Of course there are always plausible reasons cited to explain away this or that low turnout. In 1997 the voters were convinced by the polls that Labour would win, so they did not feel any urgency to come out; this week the voters of Hamilton were annoyed at Labour's calling an election to replace George Robertson long before it was necessary for the transparently tricky reason of upsetting the SNP party conference. But a general trend needs to be explained in broader terms.

There is evidence from opinion surveys that voters have become disenchanted with politics, measures of trust and confidence in politicians have declined. The press, as former prime minister James Callaghan said yesterday, gives senior political figures "a very rough ride", demanding answers to problems before ministers have had a chance to consider what to do, much less do it. In defence, politicians and their spin doctors have learnt to produce anodyne responses to avoid being caught out. Combined with the consensual politics which have replaced the old feuds over privatisation, trade union power and redistributive taxes, voters have little left to decide except a change in management.

But turning away from politics is not the same as growing bored with restaurant menus or losing interest in television comedies. How can we have a civic order that embraces the needs of everyone without the participation of the entire citizenry? Some countries have concluded that the answer to this conundrum is to require voters to turn out to vote, and fine them if they don't. But the invariably large turnouts that follow obscure the important lesson to be had from what amounts to passive boycotts of the whole process.

We should take up some of the suggestions that have been made to make voting easier, such as moving elections to weekends and introducing electronic ballots that can be cast on the Internet. But these nostrums won't reverse the tide on their own. What will do that is meaningful politics that engage the voter. The next general election may well be fought over joining the euro, which will at least occasion real debate about substantial matters. And the coming mayoral elections in London (with their celebrity candidates), and later in other cities, should give identifiable political personalities a chance to take responsibility for matters in the voters' own backyards. When the choices are seen to matter, the voters will be back.