Can moderate public engagement be a good thing?

Scottish referendum ohot by gerardferryimagesWhile I was a governor at a primary school, we had a yearly dilemma. By law, we had to hold an annual meeting with parents. About a dozen usually turned up. Normally the same faces. Interested and engaged, they gave us good feedback and a nice time was had by all. Soft drinks and nibbles supplied.

But a dozen parents for a school with several hundred pupils was considered low. So, annually, we considered ways of increasing parental attendance, only to be frustrated. After several attempts, I jokingly suggested that the only way to increase attendance was to announce that, at the next meeting, we would be showing a preview of an experimental Swedish sex education video which we were considering showing to pupils. I figured this would bump up attendance two-fold: drawing in those parents who were appalled at the suggestion of showing the video to their children and also those who were curious to see it.

The truth was we could think of no further way of increasing attendance at the meeting.

A nearby school did think of a way of increasing attendance at their annual parents’ meeting. They made seven teachers redundant. Their subsequent meeting was chock-a-block with angry parents.

People will get out of their armchairs if they angrily oppose something, or if they are worried about an issue.

Last week, we had the inspiring example of the Scottish referendum with the highest turnout of any poll there for sixty years. Lord Ashcroft has done some polling on why people voted how they did. Yes voters were mainly concerned about the NHS and angry with Westminster. No voters were chiefly worried about the currency proposal and pensions. The referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime example of a binary decision given to voters, the consequences of which could last for centuries. Hence the high turnout.

So, what are the lessons for turnout at normal elections? Should we be concerned about a 65% turnout at the 2010 general election, compared to 84% in 1950?

I would argue that, yes, we should try new ways of increasing voter turnout/engagement, but perhaps we shouldn’t be that concerned by modest turnout.

If people are angry or deeply concerned about something, they will turn out in their droves. Lower turnout may simply be a sign that a large number of people are, if not content, not angry. Be careful what you wish for. If there is some awful economic disaster or some crazy proposal made, turnout could soar. But perhaps a quiet life is preferrable.

Photo by GerardFerryImages

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Or more worryingly though perhaps low voter turnout indicates people are not content, are angry but don’t feel any mark on their ballot paper will make any difference.

  • “Last week, we had the inspiring example of the Scottish referendum with the highest turnout of any poll there for sixty years… So, what are the lessons for turnout at normal elections? ”

    1. Knowing when the vote will be probably helps turnout.
    2. Having the issues argued about face to face on live TV probably helps turnout.

    … another thing which would probably help turnout would be if the general election could present a clear choice between alternative futures. [One of the failures of the last Labour government was not undertaking a comprehensive spending review covering the period 2010-2014 so we did not know what their version of austerity would have looked like].

    Perhaps in the build-up to the general election period the BBC could invite each of the major parties to nominate a subject for a BBC special on which the party thought they had a distinctive policy.

  • Julian Tisi 22nd Sep '14 - 1:25pm

    One of the reasons turnout is low in UK elections is that due to the electoral system we use, there are far too many places where the result is a foregone conclusion. That increases voter apathy because why bother voting when your vote will not really count. There are lots of bad side-effects to this. Voters are ignored in such areas, as are their views. Politicians will chase the needs of the floating voter in the marginal constituency “Basildon man” or whatever it’s called now. But if you’re not a Basildon man, prepare to be ignored.

    PR is not a panacea but there is good evidence to show that it increases voter political engagement and engages politicians in looking at votes across the board, not just in a few areas.

  • Simon Banks 23rd Sep '14 - 7:13pm

    There is some truth in this: obviously in a crisis, or at a fundamental turning point, engagement will increase. But I can’t see how someone can be happy with a contented electorate with no idea that things could be better staying right out of politics to the extent of not bothering to vote, and be a Liberal. There is, after all, poverty in this country and a climate change crisis worldwide.

  • David Rogers 23rd Sep '14 - 7:56pm

    “Angry with Westminster”? Have they forgotten that just over 4 years ago that was Brown and Darling?

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