Politicians, understandably, have never been more detested. The public's attitude towards them, best summed up as "a plague on all your houses", has never been more strongly or widely felt. And, in the aftermath of the expenses scandal and, significantly, MPs' initial bemusement and dismissal of the consequent overwhelming public hostility, no one should be much surprised.
But this week Gordon Brown is expected to fire the starting gun for a 6 May election. It is the first poll in 18 years where the outcome is in the balance, and, in the current economic climate, is it a particularly vital choice. How to square this antipathy – a positive hostility stronger than mere apathy – towards politicians, with the importance of the choice at the ballot box?
Today, The Independent on Sunday launches One of the Above, an unprecedented campaign to persuade Britons to vote. We understand – indeed, we share – much of your anger, but we unashamedly believe the right to vote is one of the most precious freedoms we can have, and that we all have a responsibility to exercise it.
We take this step not in the interests of any one party: the stakes are greater than the partisan interests of any political group. This is about the health of our democratic system. And if voter participation is a yardstick of the vitality of our democracy – and it is hard to think of a more telling indicator – the situation is alarming.
As we report today, more than 3.5 million eligible individuals are not on the electoral register. Even more troublingly, a poll for this paper suggests that 18 per cent of the electorate is "certain not to vote", up from 11 per cent in 2005. Only 44 per cent of those questioned said that they were "absolutely certain to vote".
These figures would have been astonishing to earlier generations for whom voting was a civic duty. Indeed, that feeling survives among older voters who are far more likely to vote than the young. The trends are disturbing: at the last election, the estimated turnout was only 61.4 per cent, though that was at least higher than in 2001, when the turnout, at 59.4 per cent, was the lowest in modern history.
The indications are that participation in this election is likely to be lower still. Between 1997 and 2005, turnout fell from 71.5 per cent to some 60 per cent. Even if people assumed that a Blair/Labour victory was a foregone conclusion, this is a striking change. There is a troubling mismatch between the blanket coverage given to the election, and the number of people sufficiently engaged by it to vote. Our campaign is nothing less than an attempt to persuade our fellow citizens to re-engage with democracy.
There is still a chance to register; it is easier to do so than ever, because the electoral register closes only 11 days before the election. The Electoral Commission is engaged in a vigorous attempt to persuade young people to register, advertising in unprecedented ways and places: on Facebook and in magazines such as FHM and Heat. And with good reason; in the last election, only 37.8 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted. Some recent case studies suggest that over half of young people are not registered. Yet this is a generation which readily engages in reality television votes; it is not apathetic on single issues such as climate change. We must find a way to harness the commitment of the young.
A number of voluntary bodies are making credible efforts to persuade people to use their vote. The Scouts are asking eligible members to register. And groups as diverse as Stonewall and the Catholic Bishops' Conference are encouraging individuals both to vote and to question candidates about issues that matter to them. Meanwhile, soldiers fighting for democracy in Afghanistan are effectively disenfranchised at home.
There are reasons why fewer people vote. The electoral system is imperfect; people in seats with a big majority may feel that one vote hardly counts. Some people would be more inclined to vote if the options included None of the Above. Yet there are very good reasons to vote in this election. The recession means that whoever wins will have a formidable task in rebuilding the economy. Jobs, livelihoods and the future of the economy are the issues at stake here. There is enough dividing the parties on how the crisis is to be handled to make it worthwhile making a choice between them.
But as the Prime Minister says in his letter of support for One of the Above, the important thing is to vote. Our campaign can only make a difference if our readers play their part; we very much hope you will.
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