Voter turnout has been falling steadily across the western world in recent decades, and not least in New Zealand. We have a proud record of high turnouts in general elections, but even here, we dipped below 80% in 2008 and fell further to a post-war low of 74.21% in 2011.
The problem is even more acute with young voters; opinion polls show a growing number of those under 25 with no interest in voting. And turnout at local elections is much lower again.
These figures are of real concern to the older generation who still retain a folk memory of what things were like before we achieved democracy and of the sacrifices our forbears made to do so. They are also a puzzle to politicians and activists who have difficulty in understanding that, to many people, politics is a sideshow that impinges on their lives only briefly – and even then, not very much – at election time.
Short of following the Australian example by making voting compulsory, it is, though, hard to know what could be done to improve matters. We know very little about what makes people not only vote but vote the way they do – thankfully it may be thought, since if we knew more, even more would be spent on trying to sell them personalities and policies as though they were products on the supermarket shelf.
What we do know is, not surprisingly, that people’s views and motivations vary greatly. Some are entirely settled in their preferences, others change their minds according to their perceptions at the time, while yet others make a random choice on the day or do not vote at all.
It is no doubt broadly the case that the electorate comprises two groups of voters with consistent voting intentions at either end of the political spectrum, and in the middle, perhaps an even larger group of undecideds, swing voters and those who do not vote at all.
I don’t think I am revealing any secrets of the polling booth when I recall that my own dear parents, and most of their respective families, voted National all their lives. For them, it required no actual decision; it was just what we – and “people like us” did. It was rather like being a lifelong supporter of, say, Manchester United.
For many voters, in other words, voting – particularly in a broadly right-wing direction – is often seen as a badge of identity, of respectability and difference. It means being part of the successful people in society, those who are a cut above the common herd.
Even if the facts of the voter’s situation may not actually bear that out, to vote in that direction is to express an aspiration that it should be so. And as so often, it is not just a matter of making common cause with the better off but with establishing an identity clearly differentiated from that of the less successful.
There is also, of course, the belief that the “top” people know what they are doing and that the country can safely be entrusted to them. People who have had success in their own lives, particularly in financial terms, are thought to be best suited to run the country – though whether the kind of self-interest that produces personal fortunes is evidence of the breadth of vision needed to run the country is a question rarely asked.
At the other end of the political spectrum, there is an equally committed group of voters who, either as a matter of self-interest or of social conscience, vote in solidarity with those who are struggling and who want to see the power of a democratic government used to offset the economic power of those who would otherwise dominate the marketplace.
It is the composition of this group that is of most interest in terms of explaining falling voter turnout. It is a reasonable interpretation of the opinion polling figures that significant numbers of those who might once have voted in the hope of a government that would give them a better deal have now migrated to the group that despairs of or has no interest in politics and who do not, therefore, show up in the polls.
These are the people – found disproportionately amongst the poorly educated, the badly housed, the ethnic minorities, the unemployed, those in poor health – who have concluded that “the system” has nothing to offer them. Many of them are on benefits or low incomes, and are in debt, with no foreseeable means of improving their situations. As my former colleague in the House of Commons, Tony Benn, once said, “people without hope do not vote”.
The electoral message is clear but unwelcome. A government that puts the interests of the well-off first can relax. As a significant proportion of the population becomes increasingly voiceless and invisible – in other words, devoid of hope – their absence from the polling booths on election day means they can safely be ignored.
Growing inequality can be seen, in other words, as clever politics. It allows a government that is so inclined to deliver to its supporters, but discourages the losers to such an extent that they are in effect disenfranchised.
21 July 2014