In his Observer column on Sunday Andrew Rawnsley starts with an extract from a party leader’s speech and asks us to guess which leader made it:
“This government took power in difficult economic times. Our mettle has been tested. Though the challenge before us is daunting, I have confidence in our country.
“This summer, as we cheered our athletes to gold after gold, Britain remembered how it feels to win again. The Olympics put up a mirror to Britain and showed us the best of ourselves. United behind one goal. One Nation. We can do big things.
“Real achievement in the real world takes time, effort, perseverance, resilience. To come through the storm, to overcome the challenges we face, we must rediscover that spirit. The job of this party is to bring out the best in this country. To come together, to join together, to work together as a country. To unleash and unlock the promise in all our people. That’s the prize. A country for all, with everyone playing their part. So let’s get out there and do it.”
This is, of course, a mashup. It interleaves lines from each of the three party leaders’ speeches. But you could imagine any one of the leaders delivering it. They assemble their speeches from a selection of feel-good platitudes bolted together. Those platitudes are no doubt focus grouped to see how well they play with swing voters.
And that is, in many ways, the problem.
It’s hardly a new problem. The parties have all focused their sights to compete for the votes of the same few thousands chronically indecisive voters, who are willing to hand their vote to the party who seems to be offering them – personally – the best deal. This becomes ever more transparent. Rawnsley reports that:
The emerging strategy for the next Tory election campaign is to concentrate on just 80 seats, their 40 most vulnerable and 40 targets. That demonstrates a narrow ambition and a lack of confidence that they can secure a majority.
This fight for a narrow sliver of the middle ground is a key reason why many more voters feel disenfranchised and don’t bother to vote. The all too familiar refrain is that all the parties are the same, they’re all as bad as each other, and none of them speak for me. It’s a stitch up and there’s no point voting.
It turns politics arse about face. Political parties could stand for something identifiable, developing a policy platform rooted in their beliefs and then attempting to convince the public to vote for them. Instead we have politicians working out what tickles the swing voters’ sweet spot and then working backwards to assemble a suitably alluring manifesto. If you’re not careful beliefs and principles become rather incidental to – indeed possibly an inconvenience in – the grubby grab for power. George Potter offered a characteristically robust post on the issue back at the start of the summer.
While the parties are in thrall to the marketers trying to finesse the message so it presses all the right buttons for the undecided, there would be a much bigger prize to be won if those who don’t bother to vote could be mobilized. Only 65% of voters turned out in the 2010 General Election. While that was an improvement on the 61% in 2005, the number of people registering to vote in 2010 increased far more than the number who actually bothered to do so. Perhaps the campaign itself didn’t galvanise them sufficiently to head for the polling station. Over 14 million voters didn’t put a cross anywhere near a box.
These are familiar problems. And they have consequences.
We know that younger people, renters and those in lower social classes are less likely to vote. We know that older people, home owners, and those in higher social classes are more likely to vote.
The fact that policy in areas such as housing, taxation and welfare systematically favour the latter group over the former is no doubt entirely coincidental. But it reinforces the sense that politicians don’t speak to or for the disenfranchised.
What can be done about it?
Of course the big picture is framed in terms of the deficiencies of the first-past-the-post voting system. We know that no one setting up a modern electoral system would use it. But the chances of changing that were blown last year in the AV referendum. At least for a while.
And at a structural level it is inextricably tied to the increasingly entrenched power of economic elites, frequently filtered through the outpouring of Think Tanks. Many of the disenfranchised believe that politicians are largely the playthings of big business and the banks. Unless political power and economic power can be more effectively unhitched then that impression will remain.
Another option is working on better voter registration. At least if voters are on the system that is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for them to vote. And one or other political party might take an interest in speaking to the apparently apathetic.
Although voting is formally compulsory the evidence suggests that in some areas registers are far from complete, for a variety of reasons. In some areas – typically those that are densely populated and with mobile populations – more than a quarter of potential voters can be missing from the electoral register.
Universal suffrage was a major achievement in the extension of citizenship. But it is not an achievement that is assured for all time. The incidence of articles in publications such as the Daily Telegraph that echo the Tea Party refrain of “no representation without taxation” is regular and, it feels to me, increasing. There are elements on the political right actively seeking to roll back suffrage and restrict the vote to those who contribute sufficient income tax. This, they believe, would entrench Conservative rule by formally disenfranchising those outside the labour market. Some fear that individual voter registration will indirectly contribute to this by causing more people to drop off the register.
Beyond that is the issue of compulsory voting. But liberals tend to get very exercised about compulsory voting because it takes responsibility away from the citizen. While that is true, it is a question of costs and benefits. It might be argued that administering to a moribund political system the shock of having to take account of the full range of views and interests among the electorate would be a benefit that outweighs the cost of a small impairment of individual liberty.
But policy isn’t really thinking along those lines.
Clearly there are also new ways of trying to encourage certain segments in of the electorate to get involved in political processes, such as using social media to reach out to younger voters. But I’m not sure how many of these new approaches can be generalised beyond quite local initiatives or are genuinely scalable.
One small change that crossed my mind, following an exchange on Twitter, was whether we could look at whipping within political parties.
Not in the sense that the Andrew Mitchell saga needs to be put to bed by his resignation. Or in the sense that those rumours about a particular senior Tory politician, the dominatrix and the hard drugs need to be investigated more thoroughly.
But what if whipping were prohibited and all votes in Parliament were free votes? It would expose most Parliamentary debate for the pantomime with a preordained finale that it is.
Party leaders would not be able to rely on lobby fodder. Leaders wouldn’t be able to whip disgruntled members into line using threats or bribery rather than persuasion. They would have to come up with some cogent arguments about why their proposals were the best way forward. Perhaps they have to offer some accurate, rather than misleading, evidence and give some consideration to the causal mechanisms that are supposed to deliver the claimed benefits. And in a free vote the opposition would have to come up with more persuasive arguments that these proposals were a bad idea.
Politicians would have offered more of their reasoning up for scrutiny and appearances in the media might – just might – comprise a bit less old flannel and a bit more reasoned discussion. Opponents would have more incentive to identify misleading and mendacious arguments and advance better ones. It might lead to a few defectors to walk in to the voting lobby with them.
Of course it wouldn’t banish the politics of the process, and the arguments that MPs are likely to find convincing enough to capture their vote are likely to align with their political ideology. But it would inject some uncertainty into the process and, perforce, improve the quality of debate. It might lead to the rejuvenation of a more sophisticated political rhetoric.
And in trying to persuade their own troops party leaders would be offering voters some better arguments than they do at present. That might increase people’s interest in the political process.
I’m sure this would be written off as a recipe for anarchy in the Parliamentary process. I don’t think that would follow at all. And it would be worth experimenting to see if it made things better.
I’m not, though, holding my breath that it’s going to happen any time soon. The very feebleness of party leadership would prevent it. I’m sure the party leaders would have no confidence that they’d be able to carry their party with them. The leaders can’t let go of whatever disciplinary techniques they have available, even though backbenchers appear to be increasingly immune to them.
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