Labour are looking like a credible contender once more. In last week’s local elections, the party, which had been enjoying a significant lead in the polls, won 38% of the vote. This is still short of the 40% watermark, which, it is often accepted, needs to be reached if a party is seen to be in a position to form a majority Government. Meanwhile the Conservatives won 31%; the Lib Dems 16%. The Tories are nine points down on 2008; Labour are up 16.
But amid all these points and percentages, perhaps the most important figure is this: voter turnout is estimated to have been just 32%. In other words, only a third of people who are registered to vote turned up to cast their ballots (in some wards this was as low as 8%). This is the lowest turnout in English local elections since 2000.
Is this indicative of endemic apathy across the country? Or deep disillusionment with the current political system?
The answer is both.
The question whether, at a time when central government has imposed, top-down, deep cuts to public spending (the deepest since World War 2), people perceive their local council to be impotent is a highly pertinent one. But 32% also speaks volumes about people’s perceptions of politics and the ‘Westminster Village’, which, as its name suggests, is increasingly seen as isolated, out-of-touch and disconnected with people’s real lives and concerns. Recent polling by YouGov and the influential, centre-right think tank Policy Exchange revealed that 81% of people believe that politicians don’t understand the real world at all. Almost two thirds of people said that political parties were all the same. As the think tank’s deputy director points out “the ‘Westminster Village’ is seen as a bubble that doesn’t really understand the concerns of ordinary voters who are struggling to make ends meet.”
The majority of people think that neither the Prime Minister David Cameron nor the Chancellor George Osborne understand the problems faced by ordinary British people (70 and 74% respectively). Two thirds of people see the Conservatives as a party of the rich. And while this, coupled with the big local election gains, should be good news for Labour, they too are also thought of as disconnected with people’s daily lives (albeit, more in tune than the Tories). Over half of people say the same for Eds Miliband and Balls as they did for Cameron and Osborne above; a similar number doesn’t trust the party with their money or the economy.
There are few excuses for not voting; people died (and, in many countries, still do) to secure this as democratic right. In Australia, voting is a civic duty and has been a legal requirement for the better part of a century. Australians who fail to vote, and without good reason, can be fined. There are good arguments for implementing a similar policy here. But while it will certainly incentivise people to go out and cast their ballot, it does nothing to alter people’s perception that the politicians voted in are out of touch.
What do you think? Should people be made to vote? Do politicians understand the concerns of ordinary citizens? Join in the debate and leave your thoughts below.