David Aaronovitch: What I'd do to make them vote

'As with supermarkets, no one gives politicians the benefit of the doubt any more. Blind loyalism is, rightly, out of fashion'
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The Independent Online

I would like the electoral commission to explain the following for me. How does it come about that the parents of almost half the children in my oldest daughter's class managed to waltz off at the end of last term without paying for the class year-book? They'd been told several times over several weeks that it would cost a fiver each to produce the traditional end-of-school, cutesy tome full of the photos and writings of their progeny – material that will jerk their tears in years in come. And they still couldn't be bothered. Who did they think was going to make up the shortfall? God? Tony Blair? Friends Provident?

There are always those who never turn up, never do a thing, never volunteer. Sometimes the reason is poverty, though the poorest often manage something. And there are many single mums and dads who find life hard, but they aren't the worst offenders. Some parents are simply too busy, what with weekends in the country and weekdays in city offices, even to send a donation to the school fund. A good number are just liggers. If it's going, they'll take it. If not, oh well. There's no point in trying to guilt-trip them – they simply think that such distemper is your problem.

Would we call such people apathetic? Or maybe they're complacent. Are they alienated by the more activist parents? Or convinced that they have nothing to offer? Do some go about in a protective bubble, guided always towards their next task, and refusing to be diverted? I know this matters, because I know what a thin strand of activism connects some of the most important aspects of the school. So is it my fault that they're so inactive, or theirs? Is there anything to be done?

I mentioned the electoral commission because yesterday it came up with some reflections on the low turnout at the general election and some thoughts on how participation might be increased. My analogy is not exact. We are not handicapped by a school newspaper full of chic abstentionists arguing that it's more sexy not to be involved. And the benefits of running a Tombola stall that raises £30 for the computer room are a great deal more obvious than putting an X by the side of Bloggs's name. And yet they still don't bloody do it!

Back to the commission, whose report started out with the following sentence: "The big drop in turnout on 7 June – down to 59.4% from 71.4% in 1997 – is surely the single most important aspect of the 2001 general election." (This is too journalistic, by the way. To a historian the word "surely" is out of place – let's wait a decade or two for that.)

Since the election (and even before) theories on low turnout have been thrown about with the esprit of a modernist painter. The redoubtable David Butler has studied the figures over the years and concluded that people are less likely to vote when they are content, when there is little difference between the parties or when they think the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

I don't know what the scientific evidence is for Butler's arguments, but a popular left-wing variant on it is the doctrine of "No difference". If the parties were more ideological and more sharply defined, less anxious to appeal to the centre ground or the tiny number of swing voters in the marginals, then more voters – energised by the conflict – would participate. Labour could be the party of the labouring poor, the Tories could be the party of the bourgeoisie, and we could get back to the good old days of 1926. This notion is so trendy you could wear it.

The head of the commission, Sam Younger, himself gave this theory some credence yesterday. But even if you thought it was true, what could you do about it? The pretty derisory vote for the Socialist Alliance (shares not much bigger than the old Communist Party used to get), including in the so-called Labour heartlands, does not suggest a latent support for a return to the class struggle. And are we really prepared to urge the Tories to steal the BNP's clothes for the sake of energising the apathetic?

Younger also made a tiny bow in the direction of that other current favourite, the idea that there are zillions of citizens out there involved in politics, but not in conventional politics. And if we could only draw them in, then... I first heard this argued over 20 years ago during the brief period of the CND revival. In fact I argued it myself. Glue together gay politics, pro-abortionists, black groups, trade unions and so on, and who cared if Mrs T kept winning elections? El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!

There is a degree of truth in the idea that national party politics is just a particle of the politics out there. But most people aren't involved in any groups or any campaigns, not even the ones to stop incinerators or legalise cannabis. And the activists who march to save the countryside or to cut petrol tax are almost certainly more – and not less – likely to vote in elections. They are, after all, the ones who think that something can be done.

What we do know is that those in the managerial and professional occupations are half as likely to abstain as those in manual jobs. This has been going on for long enough to be the stuff of folklore, making Labour nervous of rainy polling days. The elderly are more likely to vote than the young, the married than the unmarried and the geographically settled than the nomadic. If we could make voters older, more uxorious and nail them to their floors, voting rates would soar.

But why more abstentions than before? Social change: some of the old allegiances have broken up, there is a lack of class solidarity and a decline in partisanship at the same time as there is a rise in consumerism. In political terms consumerism can be very passive, and it certainly doesn't lend itself to crusading, no matter how Tesco and Sainsbury's may argue otherwise. As with supermarkets, no one gives politicians the benefit of the doubt any more. Blind loyalism is, rightly, out of fashion. Which party has the cheapest sausages?

Political consumers also understand, in a way that their grandparents may not have done, exactly when and where their votes matter. They are right to believe that, in most places at most times, their one ballot makes virtually no difference.

Here's what I'd do. If I were a politician I'd regard it as a compliment if people accused me of being a loose cannon, of being gaffe-prone or of shooting my mouth off. I'd burst the boys' alienating tittle-tattle bubble by suspending the operation of the Westminster lobby, and sending back to their papers and corporations any journalists who'd been at the House for more than 10 years. I would make quoting unnamed sources in newspapers an offence in the PCC code.

I'd introduce multi-member seats with MPs elected by single transferable vote, plus a top-up system, so that every vote mattered. There would be voting on two consecutive days, a Sunday and a Monday, and voting by e-mail and phone. There would be two televised leaders' debates, a chancellors' debate and a foreign affairs debate. In prime time. By law.

After that, what would be left would be the democratic liggers, the people who will never pay for their year-books, no matter what you do. Sod 'em, I say.