Non-voting, the tyranny of choice?

The last three General Elections have seen a rise in non-voting. There are many reasons for abstention, and the figures do not include those who do not register, but amongst the most common excuse is the perception that votes do not count.

Firstly, I should make a very obvious point – one individual vote almost never decides an election. Voting is a collective activity.

I am an electoral reformer, and therefore it would be very easy for me to suggest that voter engagement is linked to an unfair electoral system. However, my objections to first past the post have nothing to do with turnout, and everything to do with creating a modern democracy that is adapted to pluralistic politics.

There are many reasons for not voting, and accessibility is one of them. However, it is also true that politicians are held in low esteem. Some of this will be down to some frankly stupid actions by politicians, but the media has had a large part to play too. Whilst I recognise that bad news sells better than good, the constant drip, drip, drip, of horror stories must contribute to the distrust of those seeking public office.

I am not about to suggest that our media change how they report things – if nothing else a free press is one of the guarantors of democracy. I am just seeking reasons why fewer are voting nowadays.

Regardless of the merits of proportional voting methods, I would hope that many would agree that we can modernise our democracy. One simple step would be to start using online voting, another would be to experiment with a different voting day; Thursdays are working days for most people, so why not try voting at weekends?

Is it ironic that the most recent national election where there was a choice of two produced the greatest turnout? I refer to the Scottish independence referendum. A simple choice, a good level of voter engagement. Has the increase in choice caused apathy? Is pluralist politics depressing engagement? Are the simple choices gone, because you do get some who label us as all the same – an argument that could be interpreted in a number of ways, including that increased choice has made making that choice more difficult.

There are arguments for compulsory voting, although I am yet to be convinced about this. Freedom of choice and compulsion are odd bedfellows. I do think that we should do more to encourage voting, and happen to believe that voting at sixteen will help. This has to be tied to curriculum changes to accommodate an emphasis on how our democracy works and why voting matters.

These statistics illustrate the rise of non-voters. It also shows a rise in support for parties other than the big two, which for the first time in 2010 surpassed the ten million mark as well as out-stripping the second-placed party. Whether this is reflection on the numbers of candidates (the bar is very low for participation in election these days) as opposed to an indicator of support leaking from Labour and the Conservatives I am not sure. I suspect that there is no simple or single answer to this, much like voter engagement and participation.

Lab Con Others Did not vote
1935 7984988 10025083 2981417 8532405
1945 11967746 8716211 3389068 8994317
1950 13266176 10140818 5364130 5521038
1951 13948883 12659712 1987999 6023980
1955 12405254 13310891 1043584 8083668
1959 12216172 13750875 1895605 7540972
1964 12205808 12002642 3448698 8261226
1966 13096629 11418455 2749663 8704576
1970 12208758 13145123 2951653 11007708
Feb-74 11645616 11872180 7804186 8426726
Oct-74 11457079 10462565 7269460 10905819
1979 11532218 13697923 5991221 9859377
1983 8456934 13012316 9192059 11513807
1987 10029270 13760935 8739999 10670598
1992 11560484 14093007 7960583 9647282
1997 13518167 9600943 8167174 12593497
2001 10724953 8357615 7285636 18022712
2005 9552436 8784915 8811159 17067304
2010 8606517 10703654 10377433 15915474


2 Responses to Non-voting, the tyranny of choice?

  1. Pingback: Trends in Not Voting | Enfranchise me!

  2. the tyranny of choice?

    No, it’s the tyranny of an ineffective choice. There is nothing wrong with a multitude of candidates – provided the system can accommodate a multitude of choices. The reality is that in our country there are a multitude of opinions and to boil then down Widdecombe style to a binary choice has to be wrong when so few support either of her preferred binary choices.

    As an electoral reformer you will be aware of the two major issues with our current system:
    – you tend to get the least unpopular minority winning each parliamentary seat.
    – you get a House of Commons that does not represent the diversity of opinion across the country

    Many would claim “but you get a decisive result!” But, do you want a decisive result if it is wrong, a bit of a lottery dependent on which fringe party “steals votes” from which major party, and which excludes so many?

    We misunderstand what our elections are all about. We are electing MPs not governments. The government is in effect elected by the House of Commons when it passes a Queen’s Speech. In that respect our system is one of indirect democracy – and if reformed would have a lot to be said for it!

    This is particularly so as we face a potentially complicated hung parliament. This means that we are unlikely to have a government with a clear parliamentary majority (let alone a popular majority) – we will not have “elected a government”. So it will be up to our MPs, as a Parliament, to decide who forms the executive. This requires them to act as parliamentarians not as party hacks wedded to a series of “red-line promises”, “manifesto pledges” and “policy millstones”.

    If our MPs where genuinely representative of the diversity (of opinion) in the country they would be well equipped to do this.

    We as an electorate have to grow up and not expect minority parties (i.e. currently all of them) to fully implement their manifestos. Likewise parties should be wary of manifestos with too many red-lines. If they do not win an outright majority they will have to compromise. If we do not like the compromise we can kick out those MPs who supported it at the next election. (And in a reformed system, an MP who is unpopular with their party can still appeal directly to their electorate – which makes them freer to defy their party when it comes to voting for a Queen’s Speech.)

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