By Areeq Chowdhury and Stephen Lambert
It’s depressing to see so few people vote. And it’s even more depressing to see how little we care that few people vote.
Voting is the basic feature of democratic participation. Universal franchise was finally reached by 1928 in the UK when all women over 21 got the vote. Yet time after time, election after election, millions of us fail to do so.
It’s futile to say that all politicians are the same, that most of them are in it to ‘’feather their own nests’’ or that your vote won’t make a difference to the result. Vote for the candidate you believe in, or vote for the least undesirable one. Vote for the ideals that you support. If your candidate loses, campaign and try to change the view of family, friends or neighbours for the next time.
Our liberal democracy, with the values of tolerance, equality and liberty, didn’t simply appear out of thin air. If only our schools taught us the meaningful history of the struggles and sacrifices of our ancestors both here and abroad, rather than a factual recall of the traditions and tribulations of English kings and queens. It is wasn’t for the chartists, trade union and labour movement and suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th century working people and their families would not have a proper say in the governance of the UK. Likewise, millions of people died or suffered appalling injuries in the Second World War, to preserve our freedoms and democratic traditions which we all take for granted, from the tyranny of Hitler’s fascism.
Switch on the news on any given day and you will be exposed to pictures of those fighting for democracy or as a result of the actions of others seeking to suppress it such as Islamic State or the BNP.
On June 8, we’ll be asked to choose the person, the party, and the ideals that we want to shape our future society. A hundred and four years to the day before that, there was a North East woman who died in hospital after stepping in front a horse. Her name was Emily Davidson, a suffragette. She was someone who spent much of her life fighting and campaigning for women to have the right to vote. She was imprisoned nine times, undertook protests which included hunger strikes and hiding in the chapel of Parliament on the night of the census. She died trying to throw a ‘Votes for Women’ sash around the neck of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
But it’s not sufficient to recount tales from the past and then expect people to cast their ballot. In April, the Government announced that they will erect a statue of another suffragist, Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square to celebrate the 1918 Representation of the People Act which gave women aged over 30 the right to vote.
Yet we have governments that will honour campaigners with statues or plaques but pay lip-service to the ideals they stood for by doing little to reverse what has been dubbed a democratic decline or ‘’democratic deficit’’.
The recent ‘Metro-Mayor’ elections which took place across England saw voter turn-outs of less than 28%. In the West Midlands conurbation, the election was decided by 4,000 votes, while at the same time 1.4 million didn’t take part at all.
How-come? Is it really because people believe that it doesn’t make a difference? Every pavement we walk on, every item we eat, will have been influenced by a political decision taken somewhere whether that be in the Town Hall or in the House of Commons. If it is the case that our citizens don’t recognise that, then surely we must put that right. It is the Government of the day’s civic responsibility to do so.
Those elections weren’t a one-off. They symbolise the problem we face. In the least well known about elections, such as the as those of the Police and Crime Commissioners, as many as eight out of 10 don’t participate in the vote.
But even in the most talked about votes, the ones covered by every day by the media, the ones in which millions of pounds are poured in, and where every celebrity from List A to List Z is telling people to take part, the problem still persists.
In the EU referendum last summer, 13 million people didn’t cast a vote. The result was decided by a margin of just over 1 million. At the 2015 General Election, there were more than 15 million non-voters or abstainers. This is a crisis of participation. It’s a crisis that is largely neglected by the national media. And a crisis that has been side-lined by the Conservative. There have been more efforts to get Ex-Pats signed up to the Electoral Register than the army of homeless rough sleepers in our major cities.
This is a crisis that can’t be just down to individual responsibility. People are not simply to ‘’lazy’’. As Labour Party activists we don’t that there is anyone out there who is truly ‘’apathetic’’ and cares little about how their future will be affected.
No doubt millions of our fellow citizens will not vote on June 8th. Maybe it will be 15 million or even 20 million this time. How far must turn-out in Britain fall before we as a nation decide to take action. To its credit Labour has in place Cat Smith, the Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement who has done much good to raise the issue. But more needs to be done. There needs to be a civic awakening and a democratic drive by the next Labour Government to undo this demise. Otherwise, year by year, election by election, we will slowly become a democracy in name only.