Where Have all the Voters gone?

by Donald Barnes

from Signs of the Times, No. 18 - Jul 2005

It was my 20th General Election. I was too young to remember the disaster of 1931 but old enough for the triumph of 1945 though at 19 considered too immature to vote but not to fight. So I approached the 1950 Election with excitement and exciting it was. Labour was expected to win again with its 150 majority somewhat reduced (shades of 2005). It would gladly have accepted the 66 of 2005 but was squeezed to a miserable 6. But one record it had and retained. The turnout was an amazing 84%! In those days people thought it mattered and believed it could make a difference.

Fifty five years later it felt as if little of consequence was happening - few window bills, no one on the knocker, no feverish last minute activity. Election programmes on radio and TV were a bore, an interruption to the regular diet. I recalled a previous occasion when an elector told me that Guy Fawkes had the right idea. A 59% turn out in the circumstances was about right. What were the reasons? An inevitable result - a poor government, an unelectable opposition? In 1997 after 18 years of Conservative rule there had been great expectations. All seemed set fair, Labour had a giant majority; the economy for once was booming, everything seemed possible. We expected change and looked forward to it. Good things did happen - devolution for Scotland and Wales, help for the poor and unemployed; but real change? 'New Labour' soon looked like 'Old Thatcherism' writ large. The old institutions stayed in place. The monarchy remained untouched: indeed when it faced serious trouble the Prime Minister came to its rescue. The House of Lords lost some of its hereditary peers but little more was done. It did however prevent some of the worst measures which the very subservient Commons sent up to it. There were still some bishops to represent the Church, the churches or religion? All of them exclusively male. Parliamentary and Cabinet government seems to have been replaced by a Presidential system taking little notice either of party or people, but terrified of the tabloid press. Few that elected Labour in 1997 can have expected the Iraq war, student loans, foundation hospitals, selective education or legislation to restrict basic human rights and freedoms or the latest proposals, which include a return to wartime Identification Cards which even in those days did not, as far as I am aware, succeed in the capture of a single spy!

Political activity at a local level does not seem to make much difference. I live in a constituency which in the past has always returned a Conservative. In 1997 that changed. Our new Labour member has taken a very independent line on most of the major issues. As a postal voter I was asked by the local party whether I had received my vote and how I had used it. I said that I had voted for our MP but it was a vote for him and not an expression of confidence in the government. My enquirer replied 'I think you will find that is the view of most of our local party members'.

Previously our local branch had met to re-adopt our candidate. The rules were strict and only three of us were on time and eligible. We three were all male, white and over 75! The future does not look encouraging unless the parties get their act together. The Conservatives seem destined to shoot themselves in the foot with yet another drift to the right. The Liberal Democrats have good ideas but do not carry conviction as an alternative government even if they receive more Labour deserters. News of the cancellation of debt for African countries suggests that Labour (very soon we hope to be led by Brown) may be treading new paths on this and climate change but will need to win popular support from our own people.

What of the Church? The days of 'Faith in the City' and 'Faith in the Countryside' providing real opposition to the Thatcher regime were heady days to live through. Shouts of Marxism were grist to the mill. The Church meant trouble for those in power. Today things are different. The gay issue and anti-abortion are of little interest politically, and Church involvement reinforces the view that we are not on the wavelength of ordinary people and whatever attraction these things may have for the American Christian Right or reactionary Rome of Benedict XVI they influence few votes here. It is sad that Rowan Williams whose appointment was greeted with such enthusiasm has thrown away the good will this engendered.

So back to the missing voters. Fewer and fewer will turn out to vote for candidates who if elected will in the words of Iolanthe 'leave their brains outside, and vote just as their leaders tell 'em to'. We need MPs who will take on the party whips and refuse to be bullied. The whips do not send them to Westminster, we do; and we expect them to use their own judgement to represent our best interests. My own MP is back in Parliament for a seat he could easily have lost because enough of us voters knew he would never be 'lobby fodder'. We have to ask all our candidates 'which do you fear most: rejection from above or below?'

This will infuriate and, I hope, terrify the party bosses, but could make voting for the rest of us a worthwhile activity again.

Donald Barnes is a retired priest in the Diocese of London. He was on General Synod from 1985 to 1995.