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Twenty-First Century Apathy

ByMartin Greenacre

Mar 31, 2015

This week more than most, campus has felt remarkably quiet. It could be described as post-election melancholy, as campaign posters are blown away by the wind, and one-time activists are back to working on their dissertations. The university had been briefly transformed by the EUSA elections, and you could be forgiven for thinking that this political mood had overtaken the student body. Yet from over 27,000 students, a mere 3,824 voted to elect our new President.

Although this may not be representative of people’s engagement with national issues, the trend towards disengagement is being felt nationwide, and apathy has become something of a buzzword in British politics in the last decade or so. So are we more apathetic than a generation ago? And if so, is such apathy justified?

Perhaps the most common factor cited for recent disengagement is the convergence of the main political parties in the ideological centre. This convergence is not entirely surprising. In 1997 Tony Blair won a landslide victory on a New Labour platform, aiming and succeeding in appealing to a broad support base, and went on to win two more elections, instigating the longest stretch of non-Tory government since 1762.

Blair himself has previously told The Economist that he fears that Labour has moved too far from the centre ground, meaning 2015 could be an election “in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party – with the traditional result,” meaning a Conservative victory. Politicians currently face the issue that satisfying core voters with undiluted policies could mean not being elected and therefore not having the opportunity to make any change at all. The success of New Labour at the polls would seem to suggest a mandate for centrist policies coming directly from the people. However, since 1997 there has also been a sharp drop in voter turnout. Furthermore, the climate is very different today, as a result of the financial crisis, which can possibly be seen to have polarised popular opinion, as many people no longer believe compromise politics to offer the solutions to the new challenges we now face.

The decline in voting can be traced back to the 2001 general election, when turnout was 59.4 per cent, the first time it had dropped below 70 percent since 1918. A BBC poll of non-voters at the time found that 65 per cent said they did not trust politicians. Meanwhile, 77 percent said there was no point in voting because it would not change a thing. A 2000 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into the attitudes of young people found that one reason for their cynical views towards politics was due to being “the first generation to have grown up with Parliament being televised”. Having an insight into the jeering and bickering of Westminster seems to have done nothing to endear young people to our politicians.

The perceived similarity of the major parties, and perhaps a more general climate of pessimism perpetuated by the media, may lead many to question the change politics can offer at a national level. Maths student Edward Pike is one of, presumably, many who feel no strong connection to a particular party. He says that since any party will have to make similar decisions in government, he would not vote on the basis of party policy, but, rather, “It is likely to be the candidates that already make a difference in the area that would receive my vote.”

While the current political landscape may turn many off politics completely, there are others who are still highly politicised, who find themselves with no place in the system. Second year history student Louis Wright is a member of the Labour Party, but says he is increasingly disillusioned with the direction of the party and of politics in general. He says, “The clamour for the centre, by the major parties, has left those on the margins horribly under-represented, forcing us to seek alternative methods of participation, in order to make sure our voices can be heard.” Some would argue that the first-past-the-post system of voting exacerbates this issue, as it leads many to regard a vote for another party as a wasted one.

While disillusionment may be an inclusive phenomenon, young people remain those least likely to cast their ballot. What’s more, it is possible that students in particular will have been rendered more apathetic than ever after their failure to have their voices heard after the 2010 election. The Liberal Democrats’ undelivered promise not to raise tuition fees, despite widespread student demonstrations, may have left many first time voters disillusioned, and feeling that their concerns have been ignored. Even in 2010, only 44 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted.

The result of this seeming disengagement of young people is the creation of a vicious cycle. Young people don’t vote, so politicians ignore their needs, so young people don’t vote. In an interview with The Independent, shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan warned of the disenfranchising effects on young people, when politicians focus on the needs of the elderly because they are much more likely to vote. He said, “If you’ve got a candidate with an hour spare and a choice to go to an old people’s home or a sixth-form college, 99 percent of campaign managers will say you’ve got to go to an old people’s home. That’s because 94 percent of them are on the register and 77 percent of them will vote.”

However, even if faith in political parties and elections has fallen, young people, especially, often engage in other ways. The internet, for example, has played a greater role in mobilising support behind specific issues, where change may feel more tangible. A campaign to put women on Britain’s banknotes, with an online petition which gained over 35,000 signatures, is one which saw visible results. Many young people also engage with local issues, and partake in demonstrations.

September’s referendum was widely noted for the way it engaged the public. Not only was the turnout 84.5 percent, but it saw an overwhelming grassroots mobilisation. It remains to be seen whether this translates into sustained engagement with politics in general, but it did seem to suggest that there is a willingness to engage with issues which truly affect people. One poll of Scottish 16 and 17-year-olds found that a quarter had joined a political party since the referendum.

In recent years many people have become disillusioned with the political system. However, there does not appear to be a total lack of willingness to engage. Among the conclusions in the Rowntree report was that young people’s boredom with politics “should not be confused with apathy”. The challenge for politicians is to overturn the negative image many people have of them, and harness the energies of the disengaged.


Photograph source: Hornsey Journal

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