Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The big voting switch off

It’s a measure of New Labour’s “achievement” in over 12 years of government that whichever party wins the upcoming general election will achieve scant support from voters because larger numbers than ever intend to stay at home. According to the latest NatCen British Social Attitudes (BSA) report, the number of people who feel they have a “civic duty” to vote has fallen sharply.

The drop has been particularly marked amongst both young people and those who say they have little or no interest in “politics”. The BSA survey found that 85% of those who think “it’s everyone’s duty to vote” cast a ballot at the last election in 2005, In contrast, just a quarter (24%) of those who don’t think it is worth voting did so. However, now fewer people in Britain feel an obligation to vote than at any time since the question was first posed in 1991:

 Only just over half (56%) now think that “it’s everyone’s duty to vote”, down from two thirds (68%) in 1991.
 Although only a minority of people (18%) go as far as to say that “it’s not really worth voting”, this figure has more than doubled since the early 1990s, when it stood at just 8%.
 Only just over two in five (41%) of under 35 year olds feel they have a duty to vote.

New Labour consciously set out to take the politics out of politics, assuming the role of the senior management team in charge of Britain PLC. Fewer and fewer people therefore saw the purpose in voting when they were being told that markets and not governments would decide their fate in terms of jobs, housing, pensions, education and so on. At the 2005 election, New Labour won with the support of just one in four of those registered to vote on a turnout of just 61%.

Now representative parliamentary democracy, which was inextricably tied to electing Labour as a party that would carry through reforms of capitalism, is on its last legs. As Sarah Butt, co-author of the survey, commented: “The decline in civic duty means it is possible that, regardless of whether the next election provides voters with a clear choice between parties or a more closely fought contest, we could again see large sections of the population remaining at home on election day.”

The survey also shows another consequence of New Labour – a swing away from support for redistribution from the wealthy to poorer sections. This outcome is clearly the result of a government that has encouraged exactly the opposite, creating a more unequal Britain (another survey published today shows the number of children in “severe poverty” has grown sharply). John Curtice, author of this party of the survey, noted: “In repositioning itself ideologically, New Labour has helped ensure that British public opinion now has a more conservative character.”

Political representation developed out of the bitter and long struggle against the ruling classes for the vote and basic democratic rights. In Britain, it led to the creation of the Labour Party and eventually to reforms like the health service achieved through Parliament.

Now this historically important but nevertheless limited from of bourgeois representative democracy without power is in terminal crisis. Globalisation has reduced the control of the national state over the economy and thus eroded the basis for achieving reforms through elections to Parliament.

It was this process that transformed Labour – founded on reforming capitalism – into an outright capitalist party. Its leaders have shut down internal democracy and transformed New Labour into a party that promotes war and the market capitalist economy in competition with the Tories. No wonder voters are switched off!

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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