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A national holiday cannot solve voter apathy

ByOliver Lemarchand

Nov 25, 2014
courtesy of rikki’s refuge

The question of electoral reform, in spite of its contemporary prevalence, is a decidedly arid topic. Amidst calls for a national holiday on general election days, the debate appears devoid of any life, of any ‘everyday’ impact. It is this issue which serves to embody the very reason why reform is under discussion. However, as an attempt to cure the disaffected electoral body from the ills of the façade known as ‘participatory democracy’, electoral reform of this sort is but a placebo.

While the discussion surrounding electoral reform is a necessary conversation, highlighting that the political system must begin to analyse its own problems, the proposals being debated are of limited significance. The first proposal put forward by the Commons’s political and constitutional reform committee entails a national holiday on voting days for general elections, branded a “radical change” by the Chair of the committee. The symbolic importance of the act may be argued, elevating the significance of voting and creating a culture which celebrates the democratic right to vote.

But the physical impact of the change would, it appears, alter very little. As noted by the Chair of the Committee himself, the 2010 general election witnessed a voter turnout of 65 per cent. It is glaringly evident that deeper issues are widening the rift between politicians and the constituents whom they represent. One such problem often underlined is the recurrent distrust of politicians. A catalogue of episodically catastrophic ‘mishaps’, including the expenses scandal, the continuing involvement of the military in the Middle East, and the infamously underhand relations between politicians and the media as revealed by the phone-hacking scandal, have extinguished the diminishing flame of trust in those who populate the Houses of Parliament. A national holiday may create a semblance of the ‘success’ and ‘achievement’ of democracy, but it acts as a thin veil over the alarmingly undemocratic disconnect between voters and politicians.

Furthermore, the voter turnout for the independence referendum in Scotland of 85 per cent has been hailed by some as exemplary of democracy’s potential in the UK. What differentiated the Scottish electorate in the referendum from a UK general election, or a European election? Amongst varying factors, the most significant aspect of the vote was its regional focus. Conversations with friends and family members around the country demonstrated an anxiety stemming from the hitherto unexperienced feeling of empowerment. Each vote in the referendum carried a certain weight which is absent from the general election. This is a simple logical consideration; voters manifest much greater interest when their vote is deemed to impact them closer to home, on an everyday level.

Of course, this proves an inherent issue with the centralised state. However, the example of the referendum should provoke wider discussion. The debate over the meaningless implication of a national holiday should be substituted for a nationwide conversation regarding regional autonomy, granting voters a purer sense of participatory democracy in elevating the decision-making powers of regional governments. The tangible sense of political engagement experienced during the course of the referendum can, and should, be a recurring feature across the United Kingdom.

Electoral reform is, whilst useful in unlocking the closely-guarded debate surrounding the make-up of the political system, ultimately of little consequence. The focus upon mundane matters such as national holidays and compulsory voting fails to address the concrete causes of voter apathy. The committee is guilty of tip-toeing around this prominent disconnect between the politician and the electorate.

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