Election apathy needs to be tackled - and here's how to win the voters back


Europe’s election contest dominated the headlines and TV for months on end, yet when it came down to the vote, only a third of the UK electorate bothered to turn up at the polling station.

Pundits put the poor turnout down to the public being bored by Europe’s affairs. But that’s patently not true; even when voters were faced with a juicy Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone fight-off in the last London mayoral fight, most stayed at home. Of the 5.8 million potential voters in London, only 38 per cent turned up to vote. And a significant number of those ballot papers were incorrectly filled in.

After centuries of struggle in getting the vote, why don’t more people want to engage? Is the public really apathetic? Or is it the fault of the political parties which are so locked into 19th-century tribal divides that their views have little resonance with the majority of voters?

If we wait for governments to work out the problem, another century will pass by. Luckily there’s some fresh thinking going on at a new think tank, CoVi, just launched by Caroline Macfarland, to restore trust in politics and promote civic engagement, particularly with those “beyond the party line”. Using an unusual mix of film and social media, she hopes to find out what would switch the young on with a series of online surveys and polls.

By launching the think-tank on the Indiegogo crowdfunding site, she hopes to get mass appeal quickly to help in research and raising funds. It’s a great project, and the 29-year-old Macfarland has gathered together a group of bright minds such Tory MPs Jesse Norman and George Freeman, and Lord Glasman, to get the creative juices going.

Social media demonstrates that it’s nonsense to say the public is apathetic; the speed and generosity with which people responded to Stephen Sutton who raised £4m for cancer research was staggering and shows people care deeply about what they consider to be the important issues. Working out how politicians can connect to the public as Sutton did is the big challenge. Until then, much can be done to improve the technical side of voting too, maybe using social media. Perhaps an iPol-style phone app could be one solution. Our paper-based voting system also needs to be changed to an electronic one, making elections more transparent, easier for voters to use and would eradicate errors like those in the London mayoral contest.

Looking at the TV footage of those queues of voters who had walked miles to their local polling stations in India’s recent elections – in which there was a 65 per cent turnout – should make us embarrassed by our backwardness.

Europe’s Faustian pact

If two-thirds of the UK public didn’t turn up for the European elections because of the devils they do know, then the European Union’s current contest for the new president of the European Commission is a Faustian pact.

This is why: the largest grouping of the 751 MEPs in the new EU parliament get to nominate their candidate who is, de facto, more or less assured of becoming the new president. By far the biggest group is the European People’s Party, a centre-right faction of about 214 MEPs, which is why their man, the pro-federalist Jean-Claude Juncker, is leading the pack. So far he has the support of François Hollande while Angela Merkel has given a wobbly yes. But he has a serious rival in Germany’s Martin Schulz, who has the support of the Socialists, the second biggest party.

The EU’s 28 member states have three weeks until the next Brussels summit to decide which candidate to support in return for other countries getting their commissioners. With the Brits, the Danes, the Dutch, the Swedes and the Hungarians against both candidates, the fight is going to get a lot dirtier. If they can’t agree by the summit, there’ll be late-night horse-trading and that’s when a compromise candidate such as Denmark’s Helle Thorning-Schmidt or George Osborne’s favourite lady, IMF queen Christine Lagarde, might be tossed into the pot. And here’s the pact: not a single vote has been cast for one of the most powerful jobs in the world. Only when they agree on a candidate will MEPs get to vote on the choice – later in July. China looks almost democratic by comparison.

Red Ed and the Red Sox

No wonder Ed Miliband got into a pickle over eating his bacon sandwich and didn’t know the name of the Labour man on Swindon council. We learnt last week that he doesn’t read British newspapers – relying on his special advisers to relay the news – and never switches on the TV in his office. Instead, he reads a US news site, RealClearPolitics, for news and to keep up with a “new global politics of inequality”.

When Red Ed has down time, he watches his favourite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. This is not a spoof political broadcast by the Conservatives or Ukip. These are his own words from an interview with Buzzfeed. Whether you love or hate them, newspapers and TV – however partisan – are still the finest way to judge the mood of a country at its most raw and his decision to ignore them is childish. As to relying on special advisers to translate the news, beware of the messenger ... or end up being a dead ball.

Inside La Huff’s world

The majestic Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post stormed through London last week promoting her new book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life.

Meeting La Huff in the flesh is disconcerting: she’s much taller than you expect; her Greek accent is defiantly strong and she has the most mesmerising effect on men. It’s not an exaggeration to say she had the men present at the lunch hosted by Pi Capital’s David Giampaolo eating out of her hand. Since half the men at the lunch run half the planet, that’s no mean feat.

When she told them that George Osborne had told her at her launch party the night before that the PM forbids devices at cabinet meetings, they squirmed. And when she told them to sleep more, meditate, practise yoga and unplug themselves if they are to find the “third way”, they hid their BlackBerries. But her magic worked: the lawyer next to me whispered he was going back to the office to arrange yoga classes for his staff for free. La Huff rules, OK.

Twitter: @maggiepagano