Apathy in the UK
Gordon Brown doesn’t seem to be doing so well, and New Labour’s glory days have definitely come to an end. But the government’s been flat lining for a while now, with the turnout to the 2001 election, the lowest nationally since the war. So where did it all go wrong? And why don’t we care?
Political apathy is understood to mean a reluctance – or lack of motivation – among the general public to vote in political elections. In the 2001 general election, what the extract refers to as a ‘high level of political apathy shown by the electorate’ was illustrated by the fact that only 59.4% of the public voted, compared to 71.4% in 1997. The two groups whose inclination to vote dropped most severely was in 18-24-year-olds (just 39% of whom voted,) and among the working class.
Both these social groups have, in the past, been considered the stronger supporters of Labour, so one of the causes of this apathy may have been a feeling among them that their success was imminent anyway, alternatively or perhaps as well as an increase in party de-alignment as Old Labour supporters came to believe Tony Blair’s form of government no longer represented their interests, and was catering more towards the middle class. This would explain the section of the extract which said: “At opposite extremes were Winchester with a 72 per cent turnout [a mostly middle-class area,] and Liverpool Riverside [considered a working-class Labour safe seat,] with 34%.
The 2001 general election saw the lowest turnout from the electorate since the Second World War. As the extract from part a) suggests, this has been of some concern to political scientists and arguably to politicians themselves. However, it seems that the general public are able to produce a whole host of reasons why not to cast the vote they are entitled to.
Perhaps the most common – and serious – cause of this sudden increase in political apathy is that of party de-alignment. The shift in the Conservative agenda towards issues such as climate change and public services – generally associated with far more left-wing parties – and the creation of New Labour since Tony Blair’s election which has come hand in hand with a tendency to cater more closely to the middle-classes as well as corporate businesses has brought originally opposing parties closer together at the centre of the political spectrum. There is a feeling among the general public that the necessity to vote no longer exists, as there is so little difference between the two dominant parties that the election result will have little effect on their daily lives and therefore this has lead to a dramatic decrease in party identification.
Although this has had an effect on Conservative supporters, arguably it has been Labour that has suffered the most as a result. Many originally – even lifelong – supporters of the Labour party have become disillusioned by the party’s definite shift in policy and target audience. Where once the Labour party was designed to promote the rights and influences of the worker’s Unions, it now seems to be at odds with them, and so had lost much support from the working classes. A reduction in leadership popularity was another factor for both major parties but especially for Tony Blair, who commanded 82% of the public’s satisfaction in his performance as Prime Minister in June 1997, and only 49% in December 2000. In fact, Labour support dropped most dramatically in working-class areas that had previously been considered as ‘Labour safe seats’, although because these areas were Labour safe seats, this had a surprisingly small effect on the party’s overall success, which having been interpreted as a foregone conclusion, ironically added to the decrease in votes from Labour supporters. This assumption of Labour’s eventual success in the election may also have resulted in a less energetic campaign from the party itself.
However, other reasons given by members of the public for their failure to vote can be far more mundane and practical. According to the polling organisation MORI, which conducted a survey soon after the election of June 2001, the reason most frequently given by the public for not voting was that it was too inconvenient for them to reach the polling station. The fact that 21% of those interviewed provided this response may be reassuring in the sense that it was not for more political reasons that they failed to take part, though at the same time slightly disconcerting that the British public should be so poorly motivated to be actively involved in the political process of their own country!
Other reasons given included being away on election day (16%) which seems reasonable enough and can’t be helped; not being registered to vote (15%) which once again is a practical justification but may still communicate a sense of indolence among the population; failure to receive a polling card or postal vote (11%); and a disappointing 10% claiming they had not voted because they were ‘un-interested in politics’, while of those who did vote 42% claimed they did so because it was their civic duty. However, this does not appear to be a view held by the majority of the British electorate today. Failure to vote can also be cause by a lack of confidence in the political process or electoral system as a whole, or in protest against not only those in power, but those who oppose them. Additionally, only 39% of young voters (age 18-24) participated in the June 2001 election as many felt they were not well-educated enough to make an informed decision.
The influence of the media was undoubtedly another powerful contributor to the low turnout of the general election. Compared to one or two generations ago, the media’s presentation of political campaigns has become far less enthusiastic and perhaps more seriously, their presentation of politicians, both in general and on an individual basis, has become far more pessimistic. Media coverage and the exposition of politician’s lives – as well as the vast publicity directed towards any form of political scandal or misconduct – adds to the cynical perception of Britain’s MPs as individuals, and results in a continuous decline of trust from their electorate.