A few days ago I sat down to write an article about this election that is coming up, to try to explain why neither I, nor the other Samizdatistas, nor, apparently, very many of the British electorate, were getting very excited about it. Last time around, the voter turn-out was way down, and they are predicting the same thing again only more so.
However, I think it is important to distinguish between boringness and the decline of the overall vote, because an election can still be extremely exciting for those who remain excited by it, yet turn off lots of others by the million. Witness recent Presidential elections in the USA.
So, in this posting I will concentrate on the decline in the British voter turn-out in successive general elections, and speculate about why this has happened.
In order to try to understand this, I googled my way to this short piece, which I found very informative.
It shows several things. First, it shows that the vote has indeed declined. See the first graph of voter turn-out for each general election since the war.
Second, it explains where. Basically, the voter decline has been most severe in the Labour inner-city strongholds. The voting decline is largely a working class – or perhaps one should say ex-working class – phenomenon.
What gives? Why are these people not voting as much as they used to?
Let me rephrase the question by turning it upside down. Why did they ever bother to vote in such huge numbers in the first place?
I think the answer is that they voted because people who cared about them, and were of use to them, asked them to and told them to. A sociologist would say that they were all members of a voting tribe, for whom voting was a norm. An economist would say that they voted in exchange for favours that fellow tribesmen gave to them. In practice, such things are but different facets of the same thing, reinforcing one another to the point where separating the two notions becomes impossible.
Not that Britain’s working class voted Labour in the nineteenth century. There was no Labour. But they did vote. Individual interest and collective values, tribal and national, both pushed them towards voting, in huge percentages. With the rise of Labour, working class votes flowed towards Labour, but never completely. There were always millions of working class Conservative voters. But this posting is about the total number of votes cast, not who they were cast for. In the twentieth century, partly in response to all this working class voting, a welfare state has been created.
This has undermined voting, by separating the working class from its traditional leaders and protectors. In the Friendly Societies, and then in the Trade Unions, benefits, both monetary and in kind, flowed to members, and votes flowed from members, in exchange or as part of the order of nature, whichever sort of wording you prefer.
But when you now get your welfare cheque, nobody tells you which way to vote if you want to go on getting it, or even to minimise the fuss in getting it. And, your welfare cheque has the effect of making you less dependent upon favours from other identifiable human beings, of the sort who might have political preferences and allegiances.
Voter decline is especially concentrated among the unemployed. This makes perfect sense, once you stop thinking merely about people’s opinions and interests and think instead about where – and from whom – they might, or, now, might not, be getting such opinions abnd being told about such interests, and whether or not they bother to act on them by voting in accordance with them. Sure, the unemployed have all sorts of economic interests and opinions that make them vote this way or that way. But, as many an apathetic non-voter has explained, why bother? One vote will not make any difference.
In earlier times, your one vote made a hell of a difference. If you did not supply it, you suffered tangible losses in the form of grumpiness from known individuals whom you needed to keep on the right side of. Not any more.
But now, look again at that voting chart. The usual way to look at it is to say that it is a flat line, and then a fall off a cliff in 2001. But another way of looking at it is to see it as smooth descent, with a massive plateau-like interruption to that descent. Look at it this way, and 2001 becomes the norm. It is the years from 1970 to 1997 that become the oddity. What were they about? 1950, 1951, 1959, 1964, 1966, 1970 and 2001 are all in that same declining straight line. 1955, which I shall ignore, is an anomaly, for being too low, as it were. And all the years from 1970 to 1997 were, so to speak, too high. What might that be about?
I think that the answer is that in twentieth century Britain there were two welfare states, and not just the one. There was the “individual” welfare state, the one that gives you your individual stash of money, week after week, which more and more people have been gradually sucked into relying on. And if it is true that people have only gradually been sucked into involvement with that, then that would make sense of the underlying steady decline in voting.
However, meanwhile, until lately, there has been another welfare state, in the form of vast industries kept alive by nationalisation, subsidy, and general political coddling. The argument about whether these were a good idea got seriously started after Harold Wilson had added several more such industries to the ones that already existed, that is to say in about 1970. The argument got more and more heated, and became white hot when Mrs Thatcher shut them down.
For as long as this second welfare state lasted, and for as long as the argument about whether it should last lasted, that caused millions to vote. Their work-mates, union superiors, and so forth, told them to vote Labour, if they were in the politically supported industries. And, there was also a tidal wave of anti-Labour voting from people who, given the chance to vote against it, wanted the industrial welfare state done away with. Again, they told each other to do this.
And then, that all stopped. There was one final hurrah of high turn-out in 1997, when three things happened simultaneously. First, millions of people, who agreed with Thatcher’s policies but who loathed her personally and loathed even more her ghastly Conservative lieutenants and supporters, were finally able to give the Conservatives a good kicking without rebuilding the industrial welfare state and ruining the country. Second, millions more people, who had become exaggeratedly optimistic about the new entrepreneurial arrangements which Thatcher had supposedly ushered in and who had then got hit badly, also gave the Conservatives a good kicking. And third, people got excited about Blair.
Then, they stopped being quite so angry with the Conservatives, stopped telling each other to vote, and stopped being excited about Blair, and the vote fell off that cliff.
My surmise is that the suddenness with which Thatcher shut down the second of the two welfare states is what caused the suddenness in the decline. Suddenly, all that voting, against it, but especially for it, and after a brief punitive spasm of anti-Cionservative revenge, also stopped.
This time, there may or may not be an anti-Blair vote (we shall see), similar to all those disillusioned ex-Thatcherites who voted Labour in 1997 because their wallpaper companies had gone bust and they were reduced to minicab driving. Lots of Labour people make now vote against Blair and his Iraq war by voting Liberal, or even Conservative. So the result, in the sense of relative performances, may this time be very different. Or it may not. But the decline in overall turn-out looks set to continue, for all the reasons described above.
The one thing that might halt it would be if the number of public sector workers recruited by Labour since 1997, a revived version of the collective welfare state that Thatcher closed down, was big enough to get a whole new slab of people back to the polls, voting Labour presumably. But maybe not, because of the anti-Blair anti-war factor.
Two final comments. First, voting is subject to long time lags between cause and effect. I have written as if what some guy at work says to you yesterday decides how you will vote today. Actually, of course, voting this way or that way is more like a habit, which may outlast the circumstances that gave rise to it by several decades. For that reason alone, I would expect the vote to decline again at the next election. Simply, a whole bunch of people who got their voting habits years ago will be dead and gone, and replaced by another new set of apathetics. That cliff the graph falls off is only a cliff because you put 90 percent at the top and 50 percent at the bottom. If it went from 100 to zero, that fall would be seen as only the beginning of what it might turn into.
And finally, a pre-emptive comment, about the EU. I do not think that the EU has had much to do with this voter decline. Whether the British government is good for you or bad for you, helpful to you and your friends or harmful, is still hugely affected by who that government is, and it will be for quite some time. At present, we have two front benches who more or less completely agree with each other, apart from one liking Blair and the other not. But that agreement is because they agree, not because the EU has forced them to agree.
Besides which, what about the USA? Overall turn-out has been worryingly low there also, for all those who worry about such things, has it not? And for longer. The USA is not a newly conquered province of anything bigger, is it? Well, maybe it is. Maybe, like the rest of us, they are being conquered by a new global elite, of gradually increasing relative importance. To put it another way, there is, maybe, some small thing like an EU factor at work here, but if there is, it is not confined to the EU.