If you have beta-blockers, prepare to swallow them now. No reading material is more likely to send the resting pulse racing towards lethal tachycardia than a ponderous piece about political apathy, assorted disillusionment, and why I have a hunch that a catastrophically low turnout will be the tragic tale of the 2015 general election.
In a frantic bid to sex things up, we turn for both support and an erotic frisson to the beardily grizzled Eros of Newsnight. “At the next election we shall have a choice,” observes Jeremy Paxman, “between the people who’ve given us five years of austerity, the people who left us this mess, and the people who signed public pledges that they wouldn’t raise student fees, and then did so... It won’t be a bombshell, if very large numbers of the electorate simply don’t bother to vote.” Indeed it will not. It will be a disaster, however, if turnout sinks towards, or God forbid below, 50 per cent.
These reflections were inspired by the recent interview in which Russell Brand told Paxo, with flamboyant verbosity, why he has never voted in any election, and why– barring the revolution this sybaritic Che Guevara craves – he never will. At the time, a mock-outraged Paxo said that those who “cannot be arsed to vote” have no right to opine about the democratic process. Without recanting from that traditional line – one with which I, like Brand, couldn’t disagree more – he now admits that he couldn’t be arsed to vote at one recent election himself because the choice was so unappetising.
There he spoke for a vast and burgeoning segment of the nation. After peaking in 1950, when almost five in six (83.9 per cent) voted, general election turnout, though fluctuating, did not dip below a respectable 70 per cent until 2001. Then it crashed to 59.1 per cent. Four years later, an Iraq-damaged Tony Blair won a reduced but healthy majority of 66 with a wretched 35.2 per cent of the vote on a pitiful turnout of 61.4 per cent. He had won an alleged mandate with the support of a fifth of the electorate.
In any sane country, this would have activated an eardrum-shattering claxon to alert us to a grave threat. When an almighty government and a PM with quasi-dictatorial powers can be elected by one in five of those registered to vote, the very definition of democracy is called into question. Something must be terribly wrong with a system that allows such an anomaly, but apathy is clearly a two-way thing: rather than desperately examining the causes with a view to correcting them, our masters shrugged a collective shoulder, ignored the problem, and carried on claiming the expenses.
Turnout picked up a little in 2010, but the prospects for 2015 look bleaker than ever. The Paxman analysis of the three parties’ horrendous lack of appeal is brief and rather crude, but it does have the ring of an accurate reading. The game now for the two main parties is not how best to win, but how to lose least badly (Ed Miliband is rumoured to be relying on a “35 per cent strategy”, modelled on Blair’s winning number in 2005), while core-vote survivalism is the solitary strategy left for the degraded Liberal Democrats.
How we reached a state of such mass disaffection is a complex question with various explanations, the most obvious being the end of the Cold War, the triumph of free-market capitalism, and the emergence of a limp consensus which Mr Miliband’s gentle, leftward repositioning of Labour cannot disguise. When there is no ideological conflict and no clear distinction, politics and politicians tend to become dull. The feeling that the identity of the governing party makes minimal difference to people’s lives (not one currently shared, perhaps, by the disabled, the poor and others victimised by the Coalition) was reinforced by the global financial crisis which clarified the government’s impotence.
The blandness, greed and venality in evidence at Westminster these recent years has not helped. Nor has the fecklessness. Presented with the challenge of re-engaging swathes of the electorate – some simply not bovvered; others as clever but frustrated as Russell Brand – the political class has suppressed any latent urge to try to make politics big again with grand themes.
Quite the reverse, they seek sanctuary in the smallness of microcosmic tactical manoeuvring of the type guaranteed to increase the apathy rather than diminish it. Writing yesterday in The Times, Rachel Sylvester looked ahead to the Tory game plan under Lynton Crosby. This will involve a variant on the kind of marketing micro-targeting pioneered by Tesco, with its face-recognition software to direct advertising with unnerving precision at petrol station customers. Potential voters in marginals will be split into a myriad of incredibly refined social and economic sub-strata. With the use of focus groups and intricate polling, each will be messaged accordingly.
This is the reduction of politics to a minor branch of sociology, in which increasingly refined experiments treat voters as Pavlovian dogs, whose emotions can be stirred and manipulated at will, or as lab rats to be prodded and electrocuted to test behavioural responses. If more rats than ever leap off the sinking SS British Democracy and sit on their arses in 18 months, who could blame them for that?
What we need is a change to the voting system to recognise that apathy is not the same as either Brandian repulsion at the irrelevance of any vote or Paxonian disdain for the choices on offer. A huge chunk of the electorate which would love to vote has tired of holding its nose, and this needs to be formally acknowledged.
It would be not be sufficient for a ballot paper to include “none of the above”, although this is clearly an essential start. Many millions deserve the chance to say “I loathe you all” actively rather than passively.
Let us conservatively imagine that 20 per cent voted for none of the above, which would almost certainly be more than the Liberal Democrat vote share in 2015. In that event, the broad church of The Disillusioned would warrant a representative on every election night TV panel. It need not be a comedian (contrary to the received wisdom, there is no law mandating this), though it might be fun to see Russell Brand reprise his entertaining Socratic dialogue with Mr Paxman.
Some would vote for none of the above because they do not trust the state, others because they had had it with the pieties, hypocrisies and avarice. Some would be rampant nihilists, others disappointed idealists. Even an anti-political movement is a coalition of sorts. But adding non-voters to nose-holders, The Disillusioned already form a clear majority of the electorate, and this (forget Ukip) is the fastest growing electoral demographic.
They pay their taxes and the licence fee, and deserve a voice. If enough of them were allowed to speak, who knows, it might send an electric charge through the political classes sufficient to shock this flatlining democracy back to life.