The Apathy Party sweeps the board again
If non-voters constituted a political party then the General Election results would have been very different. Across the UK, it would be the “Apathy” party that would now be in government with 345 seats, the Tories would be in opposition with 208 and the SNP would have overtaken Labour – controlling 50 seats as against 42.
In Northern Ireland it would have won 17 out of the 18 constituencies, with the sole survivor being Sinn Fein’s Paul Maskey in West Belfast, with all the other parties obliterated.
And this is in an election where voting was slightly up. Good weather and a tight contest in Britain led to a turnout of 66.1% compared with 65.1% in 2010. Northern Ireland was also up, from 57.6% to 58.4%.
Does this really matter?
Actually it matters a lot.
A couple of months before the election the Hansard Society conducted its own poll – and the 12th annual audit of political engagement makes extremely sobering reading.
Only 61% say that Parliament is ‘essential to our democracy’, a decline of six percentage points. Sixty eight percent think that our system of governing needs improvement and 58% that our democracy does not address their interests or those of their family. Only just over a third (36%) think that it does address their interests at least ‘quite well’. Of these, only 2% think that the system addresses their interests ‘very well’; 10 times that number (20%) say quite the opposite, that it does not address their interests well at all.
There are clues as to why. Just 18%, for example, think that the standards of conduct of public office holders are high and separate research from Transparency International reveals that 67% of the public believe that political parties are either “corrupt” or “extremely corrupt”
Apathy indeed! These findings are evidence of a much deeper malaise. If 58% of people believe that our democracy does not address their needs or those of their family, then surely the lack of support for political parties cannot be put down to laziness. It reflects a deep dissatisfaction with the entire system and a lack of trust and confidence in the politicians we elect.
Given public perception of corruption, the most remarkable aspect of the election was not so much why so many did not vote but why so many voted for people for whom they seem to have such a low regard.
That is the stark reality facing politicians at Westminster: any mandate they have has to be balanced against the widespread disenchantment with the political process, the structures of government and themselves.
Ironically one potential casualty of all this could be the Palace of Westminster itself, which is crumbling and in need of urgent repair.
The bill to put things right is estimated at £3 billion: authorising such expenditure at a time of austerity will pose a real challenge for the new government The Hansard Society survey suggests that only 47% of the population would be in favour of restoring the Houses of Parliament.
And in Northern Ireland the crisis is even more threatening: if people are getting more and more disenchanted with our politicians, and they most certainly are, then why would they care that much if Stormont did fall over the present row over budgets?
We could do without more political instability here but the onus has to be on politicians and parties to wake up to the realities. There are more people out there who don’t trust them than voted for them and almost 40% of the population don’t believe that parliament is essential to democracy any longer. It’s time to shape up.