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Voting? Why should we bother?

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The home of British democracy. But does voting actually make a difference?

In a political seminar late last year, I announced to my university peers that I didn’t intend to vote at the General Election, much to their surprise. Was this not one of the most ‘exciting’ electoral races in the past two decades, and did I not live in one of the most hotly contested constituencies in Scotland? The usual arguments reared their heads—policy won’t change if the public don’t use the powers that they do have; voting is a duty and references to those countries in which the democratic right to choose your government is unheard of. The idea that, in an age where youth ‘apathy’ is considered a serious barrier to active participation in the democratic process, someone with fairly developed political opinions should fall into the ever growing category of people who do not vote at elections was not one with which they were comfortable.

Last month we revisited the issue and my original intention seemed less strange. More politically engaged people—including the lecturer who took the class—are considering making a conscious decision not to participate in a central part of the democratic process because they don’t see it as representative.

In Edinburgh South—one of the key marginals in Scotland where all three main parties have a chance of winning—the campaign is in full swing. Residents have received letters from candidates and other party figures, often focussed on younger constituents, talking about their priorities at the election. All are keen to court the student vote and have been working with their supporters at campuses around Edinburgh to increase their student profile. Turnout here is likely to be high- Labour won by just 405 votes in 2005 so the potential for a change of hands is a considerable possibility.

The competition isn’t so impressive elsewhere. The Electoral Reform Society, who campaign for a change to the UK’s electoral system, claim that some 382 seats- more than half of those in the House of Commons- are “safe”. Here, no matter how intensely candidates or party members campaign the outcome of the election is inevitable, with one party’s lead being so great that it will not be overturned.

The Voter Power Index, which calculates how much power voters actually have in their respective constituencies, puts Edinburgh South as the tenth most influential constituency in Britain. Based on the number of registered voters and the likelihood that the seat will see a different party elected than in 2005, voters have the equivalent to 1.013 votes.

This is a stark contrast to elsewhere in the country, where on average voters have about a quarter of a vote very little chance of influencing the election. Next door to Edinburgh South, in Edinburgh South West, Chancellor Alistair Darling commands a majority of over 7,000 votes in one Labour’s safest seats in Scotland where based on the Voter Power Index system, voters have the equivalent of just 0.172 votes next month.

According to Dr Ken Ritchie, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society: “These winners will take their seats in Britain’s Safe Parliament. Voters will never be able to boot these MPs out under our present system. Most will leave office on conditions of their own choosing after careers measuring into decades. They form a class of MPs that are, quite simply, elected for life.”

The problem, however, goes beyond the unrepresentative nature of the electoral system. Even in those constituencies where marginality increases the influence of the electorate, choice is far from plentiful.

Take the key issues dominating the election: the three main parties all agree that public spending needs to be cut. The difference, they say, is in the way they would go about it. The Tories would get stuck in this year and tackle Britain’s ‘structural deficit’ as would the Liberal Democrats. Labour would wait until next year before introducing their spending cuts, but all agree that the economy is in a dire condition and spending will be reduced. There are different promises on which frontline services will be protected, but by and large the debate is over style, not substance.

Again, while there are some differences in terms of implementation and approach, all three are committed to tightening border controls. Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would introduce a National Border Force, whilst Labour would continue to strengthen current border control systems. All three support points based systems for allowing migrants into Britain.

On a national teaching forum, one user registered their confusion at the point of it all: “I’m stumped. I feel absolutely no affiliation with any of the parties, no strong desire to see any of their policies actualised. No real feeling that any of them will make a difference.”

The Labour Party’s move away from the centre-left in the 1990s has left us with an increasingly blurred political landscape. Instead of party politics that offers the public genuine choice, we have an electoral system where the main issue seems to be management and minor policy skirmishes. That is why the difference between a one percent National Insurance rise and a rise in income tax has become one of the main talking points of the election -as important as it may be for some, it is hardly the epitome of an ideological divide. How many voters could take a page at random from a parties manifesto and identify the party on the basis of policy alone?

People under thirty who have grown up in this era of catch-all parties have little experience of genuine ideological debate. Scotland’s proportional representation system may allow us a bit more choice, but at Westminster we know we are realistically choosing the best of a bad bunch. The idea of voting as a civic duty is seriously undermined- why should voters choose the least worst option?

Is it not true that you vote for a party to give them a mandate to govern? What if the party for which you vote based on a particular issue introduces another policy somewhere down the line that you completely disagree with- such as those who voted for Labour in 1997 because of their passion for education but were vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq? As one of those considering not voting said to me during a discussion over the election: “What am I supposed to say when they do something that makes me so angry that I want them out of government?”

David Cameron, when launching the Conservative manifesto, talked about less government and more people. But with people turning off from an electoral system that they don’t think represents them, making politics about the people demands more listening and less talking.

Written by Nick Eardley

April 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm