There has been a growing debate in the run up to the general election on the validity of voting.
The debate was sparked off by comedian Russell Brand, who famously declared: “It is not that I am not voting out of apathy. I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations."
He suggested that politicians were only interested in "serving the needs of corporations" and that an administrative system based on the "massive redistribution of wealth" should replace the status quo.
The Brand argument chimes with those who declare that the parties are all the same and out of touch with ordinary people.
There is also, somewhat ironically, some common ground on the theme between Brand and his arch nemesis UKIP leader Nigel Farage. The UKIP leader’s regular mantra is how the political class are self-serving and out of touch with ordinary people.
The hypocrisy of the view only becomes apparent when it is recognised that Farage is something of an establishment insider himself, a former stockbroker, leading a party made up, at least in part, of ex-Tory Mps and local councillors.
The ruling elites opposed universal suffrage for centuries because it gave the mass of people some say over their lives. “The right to vote was won by the struggle of decent ordinary people,” said Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP. “Democracy brought the Factories Act, national insurance, council housing and the NHS. Don’t’ pass up the right to vote. It is a crucial way of holding those in power to some form of account and democracy includes that and the right to free speech and fair trials..
We must defend it all.”
We must defend it all.”
The vote though has been a hard fought relatively recently won right.
A survey conducted in 1780 showed that in England and Wales just 214,000 – had the vote - less than 3% of a population of eight million. Large cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester did not have an MP between them, yet a “rotten borough” like Dunwich in Suffolk (with a population of 32 in 1831) had two MPs.
Growing pressure for the vote saw the three reform acts passed in 1832, 1867 and 1884. Revolutions taking place in other European countries helped move the British government to act. However, come turn of the century, it was still only male house owners who had the vote, some way short of universal suffrage.
The struggle for the vote was a long and hard fought one. There were notable losses of life along the way such as the “Peterloo massacre” in Manchester in 1819, when the local yeomanry killed 11 people attending a meeting about voting.
Women were not in the voting picture at all during the 19th century. It took the long running battles of the suffragettes to gain the vote for women in 1918, then only for those over 30. Real universal suffrage for both sexes only came about in 1928.
It is noticeable that the growing suffrage also coincided with the growth of the Labour Party as a potential party of government. The first Labour government being elected in 1924, the second in 1929.
The seeming disillusionment with voting has come about over the past couple of decades. Voting levels in general elections stayed in the 70 to 80% range pretty much from 1918 to 1997. There were highs and lows. The highest turnout for a general election came in 1950 when Clement Attlee’s post war Labour government was re-elected on an 83.9% turnout. The lowest turnout came in 1918, when just 57.2% of the electorate turned out to vote in war torn Britain.
Turnouts though do seem to have been on a steady decline since 1992, when there was a 77.7% turnout to return John Major to Downing Street. Some 71% voted to secure Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. It was then that the disillusion seemed to set in with turnouts of 59.4% (2001) and 61.4% (2005). There was a bit of recovery in 2010 with a 65.1% turnout.
A survey by Survation in September 2013 took a detailed look at the attitudes of non-voters. When asked, “What would you say were your main reasons for not voting in the last the election?” over half of respondents expressed disillusionment with contemporary politics.
Some 27 percent of those polled said they “don’t believe my vote will make any difference,” while 25 percent said the “parties/candidates are all the same.”
There is though also a distinct difference in voting tendencies down the generations. So in the last election, just 44% of 18 to 24 year olds voted compared to 76% of over 65s.
This tendency of the elderly to vote, while the young don’t has helped fuel the intergenerational argument in the media. The Coalition government it is argued have recognised that older people are more likely to vote, so they have responded accordingly, seeking to serve this group of people.
On the other side, the tendency of youth not to participate gives them less traction with the government, so they have been hit harder by the likes of austerity based policies. There is some truth in this view, which ofcourse offers a powerful argument for voting.
The question as to why so many people feel so disillusioned with politicians and government no doubt has its roots in much of what has gone on over recent years. It does not seem inconsequential that the fall in voter turnouts at general elections between 1997 and 2005 coincided, somewhat ironically, with a huge upsurge of popular political engagement.
This engagement centred around opposition to the Iraq war and the extremes of capitalism. The response of those in government was to ignore all of those protesters – especially the 2 million who came out onto the streets to protest against the Iraq war in 2003.
There then followed the decade of disillusion with public institutions generally. There was the financial crisis, police corruption, the phone hacking scandal and most pertinently, the MPs expenses scandal.
It has been these developments over the past couple of decades, coupled with a coming together of the mainstream parties on the basic neo-liberal economic agenda that has bred disillusionment with the political system and voting.
There is another unhealthy development on the right, which would benefit from general disillusion with voting and the democratic process. The proponents of this authoritarian view favour good governance over democracy. It is a market driven viewpoint.
The most obvious manifestation of this development has been seen in Italy, where in the wake of the financial crisis the democratically elected government was replaced by a technocratic alternative that was to the liking of the markets. It was an obvious example of governance taking precedence over democracy or perhaps more accurately of markets deciding what sort of democracy they are prepared to permit.
The opposite side of this coin was seen in Greece, where the people revolted against the austerity policies demanded by the markets and elected the left wing party Syriza. This was a case of democracy striking back. The people spoke and were not going to be forced into poverty at the behest of the corporations and neo-liberal European governments.
How things work out in Greece will have significance for the battle between democracy and governance. If the markets don’t like what a democratically elected government does then they have huge powers to destabilise that country, cutting off credit, destabilising currencies etc. Equally, though in the final analysis if people’s votes don’t count the only route left is revolt.
Developments in Italy and other countries post the financial crisis of 2008, show that the calls for good governance , rather than healthy democracy have grown louder. It is wise to remember at these times the populist governance pledges of the fascists of the last century. This, in the case of Mussolini in Italy, translated into a pledge to make the trains run on time.
"Each time a person says they don't vote, the rich and powerful corporations celebrate. It means that they are that bit freer to do whatever they like because there is nobody to hold them to account. When people don't vote the worst elements take control," John McDonnell, Labour MPThe vote has been a right long fought for by working people. It was not easy to get the ruling classes to part up with this very basic right, now is not the time to be offering it up on the altar of technocratic market based economic efficiency.