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Paul Vallely: Voter disillusionment imperils democracy      

05 July 2024

A mood of ‘anti-politics’ was evident during the election campaign, says Paul Vallely

Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to the West Regwm Farm Events Venue in Whitland, Carmarthenshire, on Wednesday, the final day of the election campaign

Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to the West Regwm Farm Events Venue in Whitland, Carmarthenshire, on Wednesday, the final day of the election ca...

“ARE you two really the best we’ve got?” an audience member, rather rudely, asked Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer, during the BBC head-to-head election debate. Americans asked the same question after the debate between a blundering Joe Biden and a blustering Donald Trump in the United States. One wag summarised the choice for US voters as the “old man” or the “con man”.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of contemporary politics — in the UK, in the US, in France, and throughout Europe — is an increase in disillusion and disengagement among so many of the electorates.

There is more to this than what we used to call voter apathy. The number of people voting in elections is an indicator of the health of democracy, and, in British general elections, the numbers voting have been in decline since 1997. Alarmingly, according to one poll during the campaign, the “don’t knows” actually outnumbered those intending to back Mr Sunak. Yet Labour’s status as the natural government-in- waiting was tempered, for many, by its stance on divisive issues such as Gaza and trans rights. Many voters were unable to find one party that represented all their views.

In part, this may have grown out of a sense of voters’ impotence at their inability to influence massive issues such as Brexit, Covid, energy rises, and the cost-of-living crisis. Politicians appeared to feel powerless here, too, which is why so much of the campaigning, particularly on the Right, was characterised by frustration and fear. “When voters are grouchy and angry, they don’t want to hear about rainbows and sunshine,” one US pundit advised.

Some voters are so disgusted with the political mainstream that they turn to extremists with apocalyptic rhetoric about immigration, security, and national identity. The rise of Reform UK is only one example of that. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and other European hardliners feed on the same discontent.

Throughout the UK election campaign, pollsters detected what Scarlett Maguire, of the opinion research company JL Partners, called a “very strong, very pervasive” mood “of anti-politics”.

Most alarmingly, this was strongest among younger people. Back in 2019, the British Election Study found that barely half of under-25s voted. Since then, it has felt, from the views expressed during this campaign, as though young people have only become more disenchanted, and therefore less likely to vote.

In part, that must be because the last 14 years of Tory administration have disproportionately trampled hope out of the nation’s young adults — faced as they are with extortionate rents, student debt, and a job market with low real-term wage growth. Young people feel more economically insecure, politically ignored, and cynically disheartened than the average voter — and all the rhetoric of the mainstream parties has not been enough to win back young people’s trust.

Some appear to have turned to smaller parties, most obviously the Greens. In Britain, the younger generations have not, thankfully, assisted the rise of the far Right, as they have in France and Germany. We must pray that they do not, in the future, turn to such solutions. But we should take note of this trend to youthful disillusion and detachment. If it is not arrested, then the future of our democracy could be seriously imperilled.

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