Is Widespread Voter Apathy Acceptable In a Country Like Britain?

Voter Apathy Party - Futurama

Britain’s relative peace and prosperity are no excuse for us to shirk our duty to be informed and engaged citizens

This blog has little time – and much contempt – for voter apathy and the politically disengaged.

Only last September, while the Labour leadership contest raged, I was complaining about low-information “swing voters”:

What if the fabled political centre doesn’t exist – or is only a small group casting a large shadow, while another unacknowledged mass of voters goes unnoticed and un-courted by the main political parties?

[..] What if rather than there being a rich goldmine of real centrist voters out there – people who pay close attention to politics and legitimately arrive at a position somewhere between Labour and the Tories – there is instead just a massive, congealed fatburg of low-information voters bobbing around, people who simply haven’t paid enough attention to come to an informed opinion about the great issues of the day?

By contrast, Janan Ganesh has an interesting and thoughtful piece in the Financial Times, basically defending non-voters and holding them up as an example of everything that is going right with our society:

All politicians understand Yes, No and Undecided. Only the winners understand Don’t Much Care. Mr Cameron communicates crisply because he knows most people only tune in for a few minutes a day. He does not lose himself in marginalia that no swing voter will ever notice. Rousing a nation through force of personality is something leaders do in films: the real art of politics is accepting apathy and bending it to your purposes.

[..] Apathy is a respectable disposition in a country where, for most people most of the time, life is tolerable-to-good. There are nations with much hotter politics, and they tend to send refugees to tedious old Britain.

This should be the most obvious thing in the world. You will have several friends who match this profile of contented languor. But among politicos, on the Labour side especially, it is a shock finding. They priggishly elide apathy with dysfunction: if voters do not care, something must be wrong with the body politic.

Ganesh concludes:

Apathetic Britons are not waiting to be redeemed. They just have lives to get on with. Not only are they apolitical; they rouse themselves to vote every five years precisely to stop hot heads and crusaders from running their country. They like Mr Cameron because he governs well enough to save them having to think about politics. He is prime minister because someone has to be.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Janan Ganesh’s view of the political landscape and voter apathy as it currently stands. But I do take strong exception to any suggestion that this is how things should be in an ideal Britain, or a prosperous Britain.

Do I have the right to expect and demand that everyone else share the same interests and obsessions as me, or that they campaign for them and partake of them as loudly and vociferously as I do? Clearly not. Everybody should be free to pursue their own happiness in any way that they like, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of anyone else.

But what happens when one bloc of people acting as a bovine herd of politically disinterested consumers allows the dominant political class to get away with just about any scheme, machination or conspiracy that they choose? Such people may have the right to stay glued to Britain’s Strictly Come Bake Off On Ice while our democracy erodes and collapses from within, but does their apathy and lack of interest not infringe on my right to live in a society where the government is properly held to account? I would argue that yes, it does.

Now, I can’t tie the politically disengaged to a chair, clamp their eyes open and force them to watch Today In Parliament on an endless loop. Nor should I be able to do so. Even if we could take the hugely illiberal step of forcing such people to pay attention to politics or even make voting mandatory, by their bovine nature many of them would make ill-informed, capricious or spiteful voting choices which would hardly enrich our democracy.

But if we can all accept that the right of the non-voters to sit on the couch and fester in their own KFC grease trumps my desire to make them sit up and pay attention to several highly pressing political questions which will have profound consequences for how Britain (and even humanity as a whole) is governed in future, can we at least stop putting these bovine people on a moral pedestal?

Where Janan Ganesh goes too far in his article is when he praises the politically disengaged as a symptom of a well functioning system where all of the major existential and ideological questions have been settled, leaving nothing to argue over besides pernickety points about the technocratic management of our public services.

For in truth, some of the biggest questions facing human civilisation have indeed not yet been settled. They have just been masked and papered over by an artificial political consensus among the major British political parties and the Westminster-dwelling establishment.

There is a political consensus that the NHS is a glorious institution, a bureaucratic idol to be worshipped and uncritically praised from dawn to dusk, as well as the best way of delivering universal healthcare to a large, developed country. But the NHS model does not exist in any other major modern democracy – there is, in reality, no intellectual consensus that it is the best solution. There is just a lazy ideological consensus of convenience among the political class, who prefer to pander for votes by singing hymns of praise to the NHS rather than talking critically about how to make British healthcare better.

There is a near-universal political consensus among the establishment that the European Union is a Good Thing. That this one particular very dated mid-century form of internationalism represents the future of European governance, and that the nation state is antiquated and passé. A vocal minority of British people begged to differ, and now – despite the kicking and screaming of the establishment – we are going to have a referendum to decide whether or not we want to remain part of the Brussels club. The Westminster elite always claimed that there was such a popular pro-EU consensus that a referendum was unnecessary, but clearly this was not so.

And so it goes, from issue to issue. What are in fact gross and damning failures of imagination or political courage from the main political parties are continually presented as some high-minded form of consensus that Britain has got all of the major questions figured out. But the rise of UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP and the coming EU referendum tell us that this is in fact not the case at all.

Therefore it is worth going back to Janan Ganesh’s assertion and asking which came first: the chicken or the egg? Are many voters really disengaged and apathetic because they are broadly satisfied with the status quo and an often-artificial consensus between the main political parties? Or is this dull, suffocating consensus actually the reason why so many people are politically disengaged in the first place?

Nothing in Ganesh’s article provides convincing proof that it is the former – that millions of people stay home on election day because they are broadly happy with the way things are. That’s not to say that such people do not make up an element – potentially a sizeable part – of disengaged voters. But even these voters are not excused.

Maybe these people really are content with the status quo and impatient to get on with their lives, more concerned with moving up the property ladder or buying the latest iDevice to show off to their friends than they are with tedious subjects like welfare reform or the EU referendum.

But such people should be criticised and urged to step up, not praised or held out as an proof that the system “works”. There is nothing noble about forgetting one’s duties as a citizen as soon as one reaches a position of economic comfort and security. Having 2.4 children, a house with a paid-off mortgage and some cash in the bank does not alleviate one’s responsibility to think about how best to secure prosperity, security and freedom for everyone else. And so long as the state has the power to regulate the things which we are allowed to drink, smoke, eat, read, hear, associate with or say, we are derelict in our duty as citizens if we blithely ignore what the government of the day is doing.

Janan Ganesh does an excellent job of summarising where we are, of describing what Britain is like at the moment. But where he and I part company is our differing view of whether the status quo is anything to be remotely pleased about.

Swing Voters - Couch Potato

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