Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Voter Vanishes

Democracy’s proudest achievement was to create the opportunity for everyone to play a part in determining who should rule, without resorting to violence. It is an achievement that many people across the world are still striving to emulate.

Yet ironically, in countries where democracy has in principle been established for centuries, the people who are already eligible to vote in elections have shown much less enthusiasm about the power to secure regime change peacefully.

Take a look, for example, at the British Parliament, which long ago inspired the development of democratically elected executives and legislatures around the globe.
In the four parliamentary elections held in the 1950s, turnouts averaged 80%. In the last three elections (2001, 2005, 2010) the average was 62%.

Some might say that despite the drop, 62% is still not too bad a figure in terms of providing some semblance of democratic legitimacy. But let us unpack the numbers to see what is really going on. Although 62% - of the people registered to vote - actually turned out to vote, many people who were eligible to vote had not even put themselves on the electoral register.

Most estimates put the proportion of people eligible to vote in the UK but not registered to vote at 15%. Taking this into account, it means that in the last three elections, only 52% of the people eligible to vote actually cast a vote, leaving 48% of eligible voters not voting (comprising 15% not registered, and 33% registered but not voting).

And furthermore, although on average the party that has gone on to form the government (or take the lead role in running a coalition government) in the last three elections won 39% of the votes cast, as a proportion of all the people who are eligible to vote that represents merely 20%.

So the UK, with its purported respect for democracy, is routinely governed these days by a political party with the electoral backing of merely 20% of all those eligible to vote. Of the remaining 80%: 15% of them omitted (deliberately or otherwise) to register to vote; 33% registered to vote but decided not to use that vote; and 32% voted for other parties they would prefer to see govern the country.

On the basis of there being around 40 million people in the UK who are eligible to vote, that translates to 8 million people backing the government of the day, and 4 times that number – 32 million people – opting not to give that government their support.

In case anyone thinks this is not a fair way to present the balance of votes cast, we should remember that in 2012 Conservative-led Government in Britain strongly criticised the National Union of Teachers when it went ahead with strike action after just 23% of its members voted in support of the strike. With many of the union members not voting, Conservative politicians attacked it for acting on the basis of a “paltry mandate”.

That is what many governments in modern ‘democracies’ are relying on for their right to govern – a paltry mandate.

If people want to put an end to the policies such governments push through, they should aim to rally enough support from the 80% of eligible voters who don’t back those currently in charge, and elect a different government. Even just getting a third of them on side would suffice, and that would already be a stronger mandate. Of course building a political platform and persuading people to back it would be more difficult than just yelling with no coherent policy alternatives to install. But ultimately, the problem with letting votes disappear into the ether is that it just allows those intent on serving the wealthy elite to retain power.

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