Yesterday, on his LBC radio show, the Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg entered the political ‘debate of the moment’ by describing ‘NEWSNIGHT’ presenter Jeremy Paxman as someone who made nearly £1 million per annum from politics by sneering at it.
This after Paxman’s entertaining interview joust with Russell Brand, in which the butterfly-minded, free-wheeling, actor/comedian riffed at length on his disillusionment with British politics and appeared to encourage young people not to vote – see here on YouTube: BRAND INTERVIEW
The issue subsequently rippled outwards when Paxman publicly revealed that he had personally become sufficiently fed-up with the Westminster bubble that he chose not to vote in a recent General Election, without specifying which one.
Meanwhile fellow comedian Robin Webb has laid into Brand in an article for the ‘NEW STATESMAN’, claiming that it was ‘absurd and silly’ for him to try and dissuade young people from voting, provoking a robust response from Brand.
What exactly are we talking about here?
It’s voter apathy. Politicians, who have grave difficulty in understanding the thought processes of those who feel disconnected from politics, constantly fret over the subject. It is only to be expected that General Elections attract a greater turn-out than local ones, but let us examine some statistics. In the UK, just 15% of the electorate voted in the recent Police & Crime Commissioner elections; 46% voted in the equivalent local council elections; 24% in European elections; and 65% at the 2010 General Election. For politicians, this is a problem. They live their lives by devising party policies and then trying to persuade the British public to vote for them, so that they can put them into effect. Or, at least, pretend to.
The cynical amongst us might prefer to put it the other way around, viz. that politicians spend their lives trying to get us to vote for them every four or five years, so that they can play at running the country, or else opposing those that do. Their attack on voter apathy is essentially twin-forked: firstly, not to vote is an ‘abdication of citizen responsibility’ and secondly, those who choose not to vote can only blame themselves for the state of politics – because, at the end of the day, ‘you get the politicians you deserve’.
To my mind, neither of these arguments cut much ice with non-voters like me. Why? Because they’re negatives – ‘You must vote, otherwise it could be worse’.
Is that really true? Respect for UK politicians is at an all-time low in 2013. I believe the primary causes are firstly, dismay at the general quality and character of people who are attracted to politics and secondly, revulsion at the seemingly corrupt and hypocritical nature of the Westminster ‘system’. There is a widespread perception that professional politicians are playing a rather surreal and cynical game. A game to which is attached an inconvenient requirement to consult and gain approval of ‘the public’ every so often. Once that is done, they can devote themselves exclusively to the processes and privileges that come with the pursuit of political power.
To some degree, the arrival in 2010 of genuine coalition politics in the UK has taken this to a whole new level. Never mind what was in their election manifestos, once the votes came in, the Conservative and Lib-Dem parties found no difficulty at all in abandoning a slew of their cherished principles and policies in order to horse-trade themselves into an arrangement by which they could share power for five years.
I understand why politicians are afraid of voter-apathy. Electoral endorsement is part of the ‘green fee’ they need to pay, in order to play their Westminster game.
But why should anyone vote for people they do not trust and who – it can be confidently asserted – spend hundreds of thousands of pounds every year on consultants and surveys trying to establish exactly which policies will be popular with voters?
A key factor in voter-apathy is the underlying sense in which the British electorate feel that their politicians will continue playing the game, irrespective of how we vote – and even whether or not we do.
As it happens, for me, Nick Clegg is a perfect example of the type of politician the electorate despises. Superficially, he looks and sounds like a charismatic politician – hence his unexpected and disproportionate success in the 2010 Election televised leaders’ debates – but, at the end of the day, he’s just a politician-by-numbers who can spew political-speak by the metre. A salesman, not a guru.
The worse thing about Clegg is that, when he finally gets the voter-bullet, he’ll simply move smoothly into a non-elected position of influence, either within the EU or the House of Lords. No amount of voting will rid him from our lives.
If things were different, I’d probably change the habit of a lifetime and waddle down to the polling booth myself.