Robert Maynard Hutchins once opined that “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”
As this General Election began, there was every chance that it would be just another painfully lingering stage in the atrophication of our politics. Even those of us who have been a part of the reforming insurgency for years have felt alienated from our own political processes, disenfranchised by constitutional arrangements which have advantaged a cosy establishment deal for sixty-five years. For decades we have been told by the Labour and Conservative parties what our democratic choice is. It is a political narrative that has been reinforced by a media establishment that, as David Yelland rightly pointed out on Sunday, has become indistinguishable from those two old parties.
The television debates have changed everything.
By giving Nick Clegg the exposure that the Liberal Democrats have sought for years, they have shown that there is a credible third choice. They have revealed, comprehensively, that the Liberal Democrats can survive appropriately intense levels of public scrutiny, outside of the exhausted – and exhausting – monologuing of Brown and Cameron.
However the debates are only half of this extraordinary political story.
The Rage Against The Election Facebook Group is symbolic of the other.
The debates have combined with the democratisation of comment through mediums like Facebook and Twitter to demonstrate exactly why Labour and the Conservatives were right to fear offering choice to voters: people want to make their own minds up.
Voters are sick to the back teeth of smug politicians ignoring their fears and concerns, whilst abusing expenses paid for by the taxpayer.
They are no longer prepared to be told how it has to be.
Labour and Tory politicians, and their media conglomerate friends, have always been very quick to scoff at the idea that people are interested in subjects as dry as reform of the way we vote. Very late in the day, and terrified of the implications of a huge surge in support for a reforming third party, they are now waking up to the fact that, in an era where people expect there to be clarity, logic and fairness in the decision-making process, the electorate are far more sophisticated than they had hoped. Even more terrifying for parties that have thrived on being able to control the political message, they are terrified that people now have the tools to express their anger.
I wonder what that anger will look like if the creaking constitutional arrangements that inform our decrepit voting system fail to reflect their wishes?
Tom Stoppard once wrote “It’s not the voting that’s democracy; it’s the counting.” He could not be more right and Vernon Bogdanor, writing in today’s Telegraph, shows how comprehensively our electoral system could fail an electorate that is determined to change the way in which politics is done in Britain. The Conservative manifesto proclaims support for the system on the basis that “it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with.”
As he points out, on current projections, “In some polls, Labour is pushed into third place. But, through the quirks of the electoral system, the party could still win the most seats…”
People are not stupid. More over, as Stoppard identified, it’s the counting that matters.
The fundamental misjudgement that commentators make is to think that people, particularly young people, are disinterested in voting.
They are not.
They are disinterested in a rotten and unrepresentative politics that ignores them.
In fact, young people are some of the most savvy, discerning and committed voters, doing so on a regular basis. Crucially, the vehicle for their engagement, like the debates, is television. And worryingly, for Brown and Cameron at least, they expect the result to reflect how they vote.
Remember the reaction to allegations of vote-rigging on X-Factor and Big Brother?
If Labour get least votes, but end up with most seats, I can’t believe their won’t be fury at what could only be described as constitutional vote-rigging. Just as importantly, the Tories’ defence of the status quo, that has served them so well in the past, will be demolished by an absurd and outrageous political reality.
Vernon Bogdanor asks “Is first-past-the-post on its last legs?”
Even before May 6th, Rage Against The Election suggests the answer is a damning yes.