The most bizarre thing about the recent British general election was how a campaign could be both fascinating and boring at the same time. There was definitely something interesting going on, partly due to the closeness of the race and partly just because it amounted to the end of an era in electoral politics. But it was also dreadfully dull – with the various political parties being more bland than ever, and the austere policies of Labour, Lib Dems and Tories converging into an unattractive centre. It’s not surprising therefore that despite the heightened public interest in the campaign, voter turnout didn’t improve much at all. In fact, the real winner of the campaign was “The Abstention Party” – due to the fact that more of the electorate choose not to vote than the numbers that voted Conservative. [Read more below]
Once you take into account the large number of the British population that abstained from voting on polling day – 35% - you can see just how unpopular the three main British political parties are. The Conservatives scored only 23.5% of the electorates’ votes, Labour got only 19%, and the Liberal Democrats received only 15%. Altogether, then, the major parties could only claim 57% of the electorates’ support. Thus the Abstention Party was hardly mentioned by political commentators – it, rather than the Lib Dems, was the major success story of 2010.
Turnout over time
The United Kingdom has traditionally had quite high electoral participation. The average turnout figure since the introduction of universal suffrage (1929) and the election of New Labour (1997) was 76%. Of course in the 1950s it was at its highest at 84%, and in 1992 it was still relatively impressive at about 79%. The law few elections have seen it plummet: 2001: 59.4% and 2005: 61.4%. So the most recent figure of about 65% was an improvement. Of course, turnout normally improves when the public detects that the election is close and that their vote might have more impact on the resulting government. There was also a large number of people pleading for the unenthusiastic public to vote for ‘the lesser evil’, and this would have increased participation. What’s so surprising therefore is that the turnout figures weren’t higher. Why weren’t they?
Few people voted in 2010 because they quite simply couldn’t see anything worth voting for. Electoral alienation was strong. This doesn’t mean that people weren’t interested in the election or that they were apathetic, but just that they couldn’t find the enthusiasm for what any particular party was offering. There was nothing radical, meaningful or challenging on offer. Certainly there was nothing particularly leftwing being put forward to voters. Most of the economic reforms being proposed involved austerity and “more of the same” Blairite economics. Thus disillusionment reigned, which is not the same thing as indifference. As Michael Stipe sings in the R.E.M. song What’s the Frequency, Kenneth, ‘To turn away in disgust is not the same as apathy’.
During the campaign, this voter alienation was nicely examined in a Guardian newspaper article written by Ally Fogg – see: Political Compass points to alienation. Fogg argues that there is a disjunction between the ideology of the masses and that of the elite parties. She ponders whether ‘the values of political parties in free-market capitalist democracies do not really correspond to the political values of their electorates’. I think she’s right. Many British potential voters felt marginalized by the fact that the converging policies of the three major parties were more in line with what Fogg calls the ‘vast majorities of the financiers, the bankers, the magnates, the press barons, the takers and makers of multinational capitalism’. Thus, the British election in 2010 was a ‘circus’ – fascinating to watch, but hardly inspiring.
Liberal Democrat anti-politics
Obviously the Liberal Democrats were the big success story of the campaign, if not on the actual polling day. The Lib Demos posed as the anti-political option in the election, and thus picked up the support of some of those voters that wanted to tick a box saying “None-of-the-above”. This isn’t a recipe for picking up strong and loyal supporters, and hence the party could rise and fall quickly on such a strategy. Nick Clegg aptly acted as a receptacle for those that were sick of politicians, but it seems that he soon became identified as just another mainstream politician. Certainly, as the politicalcompass.org chart below for the election shows, the Lib Dems were hardly a left alternative to Labour and the Conservatives.
The leaders debates
The so-called ‘game changer’ of 2010 were the three televised leaders debates, yet most commentary on these suggested they were dull and uninformative affairs. Certainly they didn’t get the ‘television turnout’ that they expected. Predicted viewership was about 21 million, yet all three debates struggled get more than 8 million watching. So, yes, the first ‘historic’ debate got more viewers that an episode of Coronation Street, but is this really such an impressive achievement? The word ‘hype’ comes to mind.
Other elements of the campaign also suggested a lack of participation. One article talked about the ‘absence of true public engagement in the election campaign, the dearth of posters in windows, the absence of ordinary people’s voices’ in the campaign (See: Why today’s election really is momentous).
Other forms of electoral protest
I was pleased to see that some electoral reform activists started a “No Candidate Deserves My Vote! party” to provide a more active form of electoral abstentionism. After all, failing to turnout to vote is a fairly passive protest. And spoiling your ballot is also problematic. According to the Guardian article, Real choice in this general election, the purpose of the party was ‘to provide a "none of the above" option to be automatically added to the bottom of every ballot paper of the future’.
But the most offbeat, yet still impressive, advocacy of protest voting came from Noel Gallagher, who vowed ‘to cast his vote for Carlos Tevez: "I'm going to take my voting card," he said, "and I'm going to put in massive letters 'Tevez is God' and throw it in the polling station’.