THE PEOPLE who did not vote at the general election last year are not apathetic. They are angry about the present state of the parties and many of them are disillusioned about the entire political set up.
Those are the findings of a major new study released last month by the Hansard Society, an independent non-party organisation funded by the electoral commission. The overall turnout at the general election was 59 percent, down 12 percent from 1997 and the lowest figure since 1918 (an election where 100 MPs stood unopposed). The overall total hides even greater disenchantment among some sections. Among 25 to 34 year olds the turnout was 46 percent and for under-24s it was 39 percent.
The study was based on interviews with hundreds of non-voters from across Britain. It shows that one of the main reasons people do not vote is because they feel that all the main parties say the same thing.
- 'In the old days you had Labour on the left and Conservatives on the right. Now they are in the middle' - male, 18-34, 'activist' non-voter, Nottingham.
- 'None of the parties appealed to me. A lot of people don't want to vote for Labour but there's no alternative. Therefore they don't vote. Well, they're not going to vote Tory' - female, 18-34, 'activist' non-voter, Nottingham.
- 'This is the first time I have not voted. This time I felt all the parties were muddled into one. You need two separate parties and that's what we haven't got now' - female, lapsed voter, Plymouth.
A BBC poll taken just after the election showed that three quarters of those who did not vote gave as their main reason their belief that 'it would not change anything'.
That same survey found that two thirds of those who voted Labour in 1997 but did not vote in 2001 said it was 'because Labour is too right wing'. Further comments from people in the Hansard Society study show that many are suspicious of the way the system works.
- 'The majority of MPs are toffs. They haven't got a clue what is going on in an inner city - male, 18-24, non-voter, Stockport.
- 'I don't think they have an idea of how an old age pensioner copes today. They have never had to think on that level' - female, 45-65, lapsed voter, Plymouth.
- 'They just got a pay rise, didn't they? They don't suffer, you know. They hear of people, but they don't suffer themselves. Until you suffer yourself you don't really understand. I don't think they really understand what the NHS is like, all the waiting' - male, 25-45, rare/non-voter, Watford.
These points mirror much of what socialists say about the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy. Mainstream opinion pretends that the way to boost turnout is to offer more postal voting, voting on the internet or voting for a longer period. But the roots are political, not about access.
Some people see not voting as a protest. 'Not voting is like a vote in itself,' as a non-voter from Stockport said. But we should not simply celebrate the 'rise of the non-voter'.
Our rulers did not concede the vote without a fight and they would be pleased to have even less participation in elections than now. The US ruling class is perfectly happy with a situation where half the population does not vote and official politics is reduced to a rich man's game. Blair and his acolytes can pretend that everyone is happy with New Labour if they simply stay away from the polls. New Labour is much more worried by a big vote for a socialist alternative.
It is also possible that people who do not vote are drawn towards cynical right wing views rather than left wing ones. The challenge and the opportunity is to offer a real electoral alternative. That means building the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party. When asked what would inspire them to vote, people made comments such as, 'I think a polarisation of the parties so they are a bit more different is what would need to happen.'
The millions of non-voters should be offered an organisation rooted in working people's experience which also reflects their desire for more left wing alternatives. But we also have to throw ourselves into struggle outside parliament - strikes, direct action and demonstrations.
Read the whole study: www.hansard-society.org.uk/NoneoftheAbove.htm