The problem of the non-voter

Photo by Element5 Digital on

I thought I’d write a little bit more about the problem of the non-voter and who it is a problem for. My friend who is passionate that we all must vote shared this graphic with me as part of our conversation.

This kind of graphic is often favoured by political parties when they are in opposition.  They use it to show that if people who hadn’t voted had in fact turned out, then the incumbents would have been kicked out.  The aim is to persuade two groups of people how to act. First, they hope to persuade non-voters to turn out and support them. Second though, they hope to influence their own party in its decision making.

Back in the late 1990s, the Tories were swept out of power by Tony Blair’s New Labour.  For quite some time, Conservative pundits comforted themselves with the belief that Blair hadn’t won by persuading people to switch their vote. Rather, the problem was that Tory voters in their millions had chosen to sit out the 1997 and 2001 elections.  This convinced them that what they simply needed to do was to double down on a more purest Thatcherite agenda, push hard on Brexit, privatisation, immigration control etc and appeal to their traditional core base. 

I think we’ve seen something similar from the Labour side over the past 12 years. There is a belief that the reason why Labour have not been able to get back into power is that their own voters have stayed home and so all they need to do is re-engage their core base. 

This thinking assumes that people will always only vote in line with their historic tribal preferences.  Whilst a lot of people will choose to withhold their vote if disaffected, this belief misses the point that many people did switch from Labour to Tory in the 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 elections.  In the same way, whilst there were a lot of disenfranchised Tories who stayed home from 1997, a lot of people who had voted for Thatcher did switch directly to support Blair.

The thinking also assumes that non voters represent a homogenous group and so if you appeal to them on mass that they will come across to you on mass. However, it isn’t as clear cut as that. The 15.5 million people who chose not to vote in 2019 will include those who might have been persuaded to vote Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem and probably in fairly similar proportions to those who did actually vote.

Further, it assumes a level of confidence in our own ability to determine what those voters want. Hence, there is the always the assumption that the reason people stayed home was because our party wasn’t pure enough, not socialist enough, not right wing enough (depending on which party it was).

We suffer from confirmation bias. The other week in conversation with some friends, we talked about what working class voters really wanted.  There was I think  a strong consensus that many working class voters were turned off by the particular obsession we’ve seen from Labour with identity politics and a failure to address what are often termed “bread a butter” issues but then we began to diverge.

One of my friends is a lifelong, passionate socialist and he was convinced that working class people have a strong preference for public ownership among other things. My experience is that people don’t really care too much about who owns what.  They don’t really mind if a private company runs the buses, supplies their internet or ensures they have electricity.   They do care that those buses run on time, that their internet doesn’t cut out and that they are able to afford to pay for their electricity.  They don’t like the idea of people becoming greedy and unaccountable. So the idea of fat cats exploiting monopolies doesn’t go down well. 

I think that the evidence is there.  The opportunity to own your own home and to buy shares, the prospect of life without inflation wiping out your savings and the possibility of tax cuts giving you more disposable income have proven popular in working class communities.  There is a risk that those who lean into socialist thinking will miss those points because it doesn’t fit with their ideology.

However, working class people have been horrified to see people who don’t seem to have worked for their money get filthy rich. They wait for buses that don’t turn up, they struggle to pay the gas bill, they continue to live in communities that were brutally destroyed by the collapse of heavy industry and high employment in the 1980s. They know that their communities haven’t recovered from that and indeed nor have their parents and grandparents.  People who lean into free-market politics may not be able to see those things too well.  We hear and see what we want to hear and see.

Now, here is the problem for our politicians.  It has looked for the past decade as though there isn’t an obvious route back to power for Labour.  And until they get to grips with why many people don’t want to vote for them -whether by staying home or voting for someone else -then there won’t be a route back.  If Labour assume that simply getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn and relying on Tory incompetence and the collapse of Boris’ popularity will be enough to see them back into power in 2024 I think they will be disappointed.

However, this may well be the undoing of the Tories too. They may discover that all too soon, with Brexit out of the way and with communities feeling let down again that those new votes in Red Wall areas were only lent to them.

Then what?  Well political parties become convinced of their immortality, but they are not permanent features. We have seen so obviously in France what happens when politicians lose touch.  There the traditional parties have completely been replaced.  At a local level we saw how the traditional parties were replaced by their more extreme alternatives in Northern Ireland.  There have been warning signs here before and perhaps we’ve become complacent because they were not realised but the risk that people turn to the extreme hard right or hard left hasn’t completely gone away in Britain.

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