First appeared in Highley Forum and Highley News, May 2015.
The problem with the current wave of disillusionment felt by the public towards politicians and the political process is the complacency that the resultant apathy creates; complacency erodes democracy, a process that goes unnoticed until its results are felt, by which time it is too late to do anything about it!
If I asked if anyone was happy with the way things are managed by Shropshire Council I’d put money on no hands going up. And yet in Highley the turnout at the last local elections was 27%. Out of an electorate of 2,529 only 676 people voted.
So apathy expressed through a lack of participation during elections, a failure to engage in discussion and failure to contribute to matters of local significance.
There is nothing new in all of this. Since the middle of the last century many liberal democracies have experienced declining electoral participation, but that doesn’t make it right. During the 2001 general election, the UK experienced its lowest level of turnout since universal suffrage was introduced here in the UK in 1928.
Yet turnout of below 50% in an election raises questions about the health of a democracy and puts a question mark over the legitimacy of whichever individual or, as a consequence of that individual being elected, whichever political party subsequently comes to government because that individual is a member of that political party. No one questions the situation thus created as a result of over 50% of the electorate effectively disenfranchising themselves. That’s the way it is. Democracy?
But does apathy really threaten democracy? I reckon it does when you consider democracy in terms of local government because it impacts directly upon our lives and apathy, complacency, allows free rein to whoever takes advantage of the opportunity created by that apathy.
I’d argue that you need to understand the two terms and get your head around apathy being dependent entirely upon one’s interpretation of the term ‘democracy’. But we don’t question what we believe it to mean because we tell ourselves that despite the shortcomings we still live in a democratic state, as witness access to free elections and freedom of speech. As long as we have all of that we have democracy. But do we, if we don’t use it?
On that basis, apathy is about the public’s disconnection from and disenchantment with political parties, some of which can be tracked along social status, education, and peer pressure. They are arguably the main determinants of participation in the political process, in which voting is central.
Yet moves are afoot at Shirehall which directly affect everyone in the county and cast doubt on the reassurance contained in that simplistic picture of democracy, the one we salve our consciences with. And it’s not as if these moves have been carried out in secret, they haven’t, although they haven’t been heralded in banner headlines either.
But notwithstanding that the details have been buried in a few column-inches inside the local press, had they been emblazoned across the front of the Shropshire Star I doubt they would have raised so much as an indifferent mental shrug from the electorate. As a consequence of that apathy those moves at Shirehall are being carried out in the certain knowledge that they will have no consequences for the people introducing those changes. That’s a racing certainty, because the people introducing those changes know that no one actually cares what they do and that, even when they wake up to what’s happening, it’s too late to do anything to stop them.
That’s the consequence of apathy, of allowing yourself to become victim to the disconnection and disenchantment that political parties have instilled in you. They’ve done a good job, haven’t they!