More dispatches from the life front. First, on May Day four teenagers got on the Tube at Belsize Park, in north London: two boys and two girls. One boy wore a baseball cap and carried a skateboard, the other – about seven foot tall – wore a baseball cap and carried a black felt-tip pen. The girls were leather-clad and multi-studded and rolled cigarettes that they did not smoke. Then, casually, the tall boy turned slightly and began to scrawl a black graffitist's tag line on the window of the carriage. "Don't do that!" I told him. At which he stopped immediately and looked completely stunned. As though, in all his long defacing existence, no one had ever suggested to him before that he might actually desist.
On the radio at tea-time, a few of Britain's many non-voters – "apaths" might be a good word – were getting their usual pre-polling day airing. One woman gave her reason as being that she came from a non-voting family. I had never heard that one before.
The next day, I went down to the polling station and cast my vote for our local Liberal Democrat councillor, Margaret Little, ignoring the claims of Labour (no chance in my ward), the Conservatives, the Greens and a few others. Arriving back at my shed I discovered that the think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, had anticipated events. Their e-mail began: "The low turnout in yesterday's local elections should come as no surprise considering the failure of the political system to engage the public in democratic processes between elections, argues the IPPR in a new report published today (Friday)."
The professor whose report the IPPR was publishing was arguing a familiar line. "The public isn't apathetic about politics," he told his electronic readers, "but the way we do politics. People are interested in political issues but feel that politicians are failing them – which is why we're seeing ever lower turnout." He felt that people needed to be consulted more about decisions. His ideas included a Public Opinion Resource Centre to conduct consultation and then – in advance of debates – to inform MPs and peers of the results.
The same morning, in another newspaper, a Grand Columnist opined that low turnout in local elections was rational and a function of the powerlessness of local government. The annexation of power by national government (though not, in his view, supra-national agencies) had rendered local voting almost pointless. This is an analysis that, as a devolutionist, I would like to believe.
But I don't believe it. Across Europe voting rates are down. In national elections (where, according to the Grand Columnist, more power resides), voting rates are down. They're down where they have first past the post and down where they have proportional representation. They're down where the vote is close and they're down where the margins are wide.
Nor is it even a function of the existence of alternatives. Seductive though the "no choice" argument is, it doesn't work. Even if there were a thousand candidates offering every possible policy from fascism to anarchism and all stops between, the voting rates would be down. Nor has it got anything to do – as I have heard argued this week – with the dashing of the high expectations that people had in 1997 of a new Labour government. This is for the pretty simple reason that they didn't have very high expectations. It is forgotten now, but five years ago there were enormous complaints about New Labour's paltry five pledges and the party's apparent timidity. Apathy ruled until the very last week of the campaign. Even so, if you could prove to the world that the Government had fulfilled every single one of its promises, I don't believe that turnout would rise by one single percentage point.
Many people just don't see voting as being their job. It's what gets done by those as can be bothered to muster an attitude towards it, like your parents, or professional people or busybodies. I encounter not apathy but atomisation, consumerism and passivity. Not towards everything, but towards most things. The consumer rights experience, after all, is to sit back, let others do the work for which they are paid and then complain about it. In politics, this passivity was once mitigated by group and class loyalties, but both the electorate and then the political parties have cast these ancient allegiances aside. My graffiti artist looked surprised at being corrected, because I had intervened when it wasn't my job. My job was to watch him at work and then to complain to London Transport about the state of their trains.
There is a journalist's version of this, by the way, expressed this week in the sentence: "Politics is the problem, not the media." But I can't see this distinction. The media can decide the agenda and constrain our public discussion of politics, often setting its terms. Unless we recognise this, we are saying that it is the job of professional politicians alone to get people to vote or to participate in politics. The people, of course, must never be blamed. Which is why we get so few satires like Brass Eye.
There is, however, another factor in all this. Running things is a complex business, full of detail and compromise. Again the Grand Columnist laments that politicians do little to "quicken the blood". Over in France there's been a fair bit of blood quickening going on, and now people don't seem to like it. This upsurge could be linked to an intellectual revolt against modernity and against the easy assumptions of progressives. Value is being given to localism and opposition is raised to globalisation and the imposition of external, alien (or, in left-speak, "non-indigenous") values. José Bové trashes McDonald's and campaigns for French cheese. Jean-Marie Le Pen proclaims the glory of an eternal France full of cheesemakers. Back here on May Day, according to Guy Taylor's diary (published in this newspaper), the key chant was "Resist, Revolt, Fuck Capitalism". Now there's a slogan under which many can unite.
There is a fascinating essay about French culture and politics in this week's New Statesman. The writer, Joshua Winter, sees Michel Houellebecq, the fashionable and brilliant French novelist, as something of a template for the revolt against progress. A former Communist, Houellebecq is now a comfort to the right. Anti-Islamic and anti-globalisation, "he appears to believe in nothing and oppose everything", says Winter. Winter then quotes an interview that Houellebecq gave to a writer called Andrew Hussey. "They believed in progress," Houellebecq says of the preceding generation, "the consumer society and sexual happiness and they were naïve and wrong to do so."
Growing up is the most extraordinarily difficult thing that we have to do. All that bloody responsibility. And these days, so many places to hide from it, so many excuses not to embrace it. It's amazing anyone votes at all, beyond naive old progressives like me. But at least I'm not a soppy apath.Reuse content