Ryeview – July 2003

Are Politicians to blame for Voter Apathy?

John Clark writes…

First published: July 2003 – Gazette & Herald

“The public are apathetic and can’t be bothered to vote.” It must be right; it was exactly how I felt about elections, particularly local ones. Commentators, newspapers, television, wireless and most of all politicians, have this view. I had never found politics boring but I had also caught the ‘can’t be bothered’ disease.

In March of this year I was persuaded to stand for the Cropton ward in the Ryedale District Council elections. At first my doorstep experience was similar. The enthusiasm for politics did not even register on the political Richter scale. “You are wasting your time.” “Why are you doing that then?” “I agree with you – but I probably won’t vote!” It clearly wasn’t going to be a high turn out. The electors could see no point in voting. Cropton ward covers an area that had previously been covered by at least three councillors. The problem was not these individuals; it was the politics, the system and the political parties. It was not the electors.

People wanted to discuss the issues. The level of traffic, second homes, road building, the level of the council tax, the environment, housing and of course G.M., i.e. a whole string of political issues. “Can I count on your support next Thursday?” is of no interest. What has happened is that people have lost all faith in the local political system to debate, let alone deliver.

National politics have become a series of fudges. Policy is decided as a result of soft focus groups: policies that will be electorally popular. Political beliefs and principles have almost disappeared. There is as strong a case as ever for some nationalised industries. There is still a case for nuclear disarmament. There is still a case for redistribution of wealth. There is still a case for building council houses. These thoughts are no longer allowed or maybe no one dares mention them.

What is even more concerning is politicians’ reaction to ‘voter apathy’. Blaming the electorate must not be overdone. It would lose more votes! The next approach is to blame the system. Voting must be made easier: e-voting, telephone voting, voting in supermarkets and universal postal voting (not just for those who need). This produces the obscene spectacle of politicians rushing round ‘collecting’ postal votes and handing them in bundles to the returning officer. Of course making it easier to vote will lift the turnout. What it does however is worse. It hides the problem, makes the politicians feel better and does nothing to remove the real cause.

In the campaign one resident of Cropton Ward told me how his grandfather had travelled from Appleby to Bideford so as to cast his Liberal vote in the 1906 election. Post Nelson Mandela’s release from prison the first ‘proper’ South African election produced people walking   for 60 miles and some queuing for nearly two days to vote. They had something to vote for. Politics was real. Democracy was thriving.

The other oft floated proposal is compulsory voting. I would be very much in favour provided there is a ‘cobblers to all of them’ box.

Why do the electorate believe local government is a waste of time and hence not worth voting for? There are two main reasons. One is that central government has taken all the decision-making and the power. Close to this is that ‘the decision has already been taken’ and therefore councillors cannot make a difference. These two often combine, i.e. Central government has already made the decision! At local level people feel totally disenfranchised.

I believe there is a solution. Local councillors are elected to represent, not just accept the ‘inevitable’. If central government has the power and has made the wrong decision then Ryedale council should challenge this long and loud.

A voice needs to come from somewhere. If not then our whole democracy is at risk. The majority in Ryedale believe they are not heard. 90% of the audience at the recent Fylingdales meeting were not ‘reassured’ by the Minister. Most were not in favour of the Iraq war. A large number of Ryedale electors believe the government has already decided on the commercial release of GM crops. A full public gallery for the GM debate at Ryedale District Council showed that there is a need for local democracy. These people clearly demonstrated an enthusiastic interest in the issues. Politicians must stand for what they believe. Many of York’s politicians were surprised that ‘Ryedale’ was the first council in the North of England to go GM –Free. Many of Ryedale’s councillors and the officers may have been equally surprised. Those in the public gallery saw it, to quote one, as ‘real theatre’. It was local democracy in action. There is more to come.

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