Election time

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Last updated: November 13, 2019

But we do contend that participation at election time requires all of us to turn out. In this fragmented age, there are few remaining bits of “glue” that bind the nation together. A general election is one of the unifying occasions in which we can all celebrate. Every election determines the future direction of Britain’s politics, and that is never boring. If voters treat democracy with contempt, then they themselves deserve contempt.

To the TV interviewers, the public give a range of reasons for their reluctance to turn out: “There’s no point, it’s a foregone conclusion”, “My constituency is a safe seat anyway”, “Politicians are all the same”, “None of them represents me”. Different reasons none of them valid. It is true that, had we a proportional voting system in this country, every vote in the country would be equally vital.

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Nevertheless, no MP can take their electorate for granted: no seat is “safe” in perpetuity. In some countries, notably Australia, a simple solution to dwindling turnout has been found: compulsory voting.There is some agitation for the system to be introduced here. But we would not like to see it come to that. Elections should celebrate democracy: enforced celebrations tend not to sparkle. But if the idea is to be relegated to the dustbin, it falls on all of us to exercise our right to vote. If you don’t like any of the names you see, then spoil your paper if you must. 02 November 2000 guardian Quite recently the Britain in Europe campaign did some polling to establish who, among well-known personalities, would be likeliest to sway public opinion in a putative referendum on the euro.

In Britain’s European elections the Conservatives’ victory was real; but it was based on lower aggregate share of the national vote than in any election in this century. The principal fear that stalks the Government is that their core supporters will stay at home. Simultaneously, it is possible to see in the willingness of the fuel protesters to take to the streets or motorways further evidence – which some spuriously use to justify the protests – of a disillusionment with conventional politics.Against this unpromising background come all sort of ideas for more fully engaging the electorate in the mainstream political process. But governments – including this one – are hardly blameless.

If you double-count spending figures, if you over-present, above all if you regard the parliamentary system (in the Blair administration’s case explicitly) as only one, rather than the primary one, of many forms of modern democracy, you do a disservice to what elections are all about.You also incidentally become too reliant on a press, which can bite you as energetically as it once drooled over you. Here, turnout, at least in England and Wales, where there is no lawmaking Parliament to rival Westminster, turnout may actually be significantly higher than in 1997. First the differences between the parties – not only on Europe but also on tax and spending – will be much wider than they were then. Secondly, and more conditionally, past experience suggests that turnout will increase in direct relation to how close the polls suggest the election will be.This doesn’t mean the nuts and bolts don’t matter Turnout at the 2001 election hit an all-time low.

If the trend continues, it won’t be long before fewer than half the electorate bothers to vote in general elections. A survey by the Independent Television Commission suggested that a quarter of all those eligible to vote had ignored TV coverage of the election, compared to just 6% in the 1997 election campaign. The survey found 40% had switched channels during the 2001 campaign to avoid election news; 70% said they had little or no interest in it.The tempting explanation is to blame broadcasters for failing to engage the audience with interesting election programmes. Another poll apparently confounds the view that voters have become more apathetic.

An Electoral Commission survey conducted during the summer suggested that 58% were very or fairly interested in the election, 6% more than in 1997Indeed, the statistics suggest a large proportion of the variation in turnout is explained by the margin of victory predicted by the final polls. Polls may be viewed with suspicion but they do feed public opinion.Of course, polls are not the only factor determining turnout. In the run-up to the 2001 election, many voters questioned in focus groups felt disillusioned that more had not been achieved under Labour but were sure the Tories could do no better. Few could think of any big issues on which the two main parties offered radically different and attractive solutions. Obviously, some people make a decision not to vote because they are not interested in politics, cannot see the outcome will make any difference to their everyday lives and therefore cannot be bothered.According to this research, voter apathy is the least important reason for not voting: only 10% of the Electoral Commission’s sample of non-voters said they had not voted because they were “not interested”. These investigations are likely to lead us all in the wrong direction.

Politicians will have to look a lot closer to home to work out why so many could not be bothered to vote. The apathy of focus group respondents suggests that low turnout in the 2001 election was a consequence of unfulfilled promises from Labour on the big issues they promised to tackle, coupled with a feeling that there was no alternative.

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