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Lessons to be learned in engaging the electorate

Apathy among Britain's voters may be the result of a lack of intelligent debate

 

IT SEEMS QUITE likely that the British public will make their views quite clear today. The largest proportion, probably more than 30%, will show what they really think about the democratic process by not bothering to cast their votes.

 

Since pollsters predict that fewer than 30% of the voting population will vote Labour, it is quite likely that the Labour Party, whatever its majority in parliament, will come second to the apathy party.

 

This is all part of a longer and wider trend. Tony Blair won his landslide majority in 1997 on fewer votes than John Major received in 1992, when his majority was slim. The overall turnout dropped from 77.9% to 71.6% the lowest for more than 70 years.

 

And it is not just a UK issue; the Japanese election turnout collapsed from 73.3% in 1990 to 44.5% in 1995. Participation in American presidential elections has been dropping for decades. Does this mean that people have lost interest in political issues? Maybe not.

 

In the past few years, massive anti-globalisation rallies have taken place in the streets in Seattle, Prague, and London, disrupting trade negotiations and bringing cities to a standstill.

 

When British lorry drivers decided that fuel tax was too high, they blockaded a few refineries and nearly brought the country to a halt.

 

So why do people feel so disengaged from the general election that they are withholding their votes? Maybe they are fed up being treated like children.

 

Politicians can tell you, in private, their views on highly complex subjects such as crime, the euro and asylum seekers, but when it comes to speaking in public they restrict themselves to simplistic soundbites in case they might offend anybody.

 

At the morning press conferences, political correspondents ask detailed questions but the replies are invariably a repeat of that days chosen spin.

 

And it is not just the politicians who seem to have given up on intelligent debate. When John Humphreys interviewed Tony Blair on the Radio 4 Today programme, he spent most of the interview asking Mr Blair to disown Keith Vaz.

 

This was hardly the issue of the day, far less the election, but Mr Humphreys seemed more interested in getting Mr Blair to slip up and generate a sensational news story.

 

This dumbing down of political debate just seems to be getting worse and worse. Can anything be done to rescue the situation? Is it possible for political parties and the public to engage in more constructive way?

 

What about the e-election? In last years US presidential campaign, 47% of online users surveyed said they used the net to make their voting decision.

 

Despite Gore's technological credentials, it was actually Bushs team that made the running. They provided an online tax calculator that told voters how much they would save under Bush's tax proposals; a Bush site, debatefacts.com, presented instant responses to Gore points and had 500,000 unique visitors in the five hours following the televised debate.

 

The Bush campaign even managed to raise more than $6m from more than 40,000 contributors in online fundraising.

 

One site, opensecrets.com, asked who’s paying for this election?, while another, millionairesforbush.com, partly answered it.

 

More than 90% of US election candidates had a website. Here in the UK general election it is a rather sorrier tale. The major parties have invested in web presences, but these are limited to little more than online brochures. Fewer than 10% of candidates provide a website, or even an e-mail address.

 

In a survey published this week by the Industrial Society, Whatever happened to the e-election?, only 2% of UK internet users said they would look at election materials online, while 84% said they would steer well clear.

 

According to Infonic, a net monitoring company, there is more online discussion of test cricket this week than the election.

 

At least in Scotland, the potential for engagement seems healthier. Every MSP has an e-mail address and proceedings of the Scottish parliament and its committees are streamed on the web. Records of all proceedings are readily available online and an e-mail address is given for submissions.

 

The International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University has developed an e-petition system that the Scottish parliament has agreed to recognise.

 

So lets hope that by the time of the Scottish elections in 2002, by these and other means, we can have a decent quality of debate about our future, and rise a little above the yah-boo of UK politics.

 

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