Political Engagement Is Broken in a Disengaged Society – And Politicians Need to Drop the Polsplaining Before Turnout Plummets to a New Low

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I will confess that ever since I became eligible to vote at age 18 in 1997 (yes, I know, a wee bairn) I have found the run up to General Elections to be totally absorbing and that was before the age of the Internet. How things have changed – the influence of 24-hour news coverage, social media and Twitter on political campaigning has infused electioneering and immediate democracy with manna from the political gods for those who are interested enough to savour it.

But what about everyone else? What about the millions of people who are not engaging in political debate. What about those who, despite television debates and daily intensive coverage of manifestos and mishaps, still struggle to name the leaders of the main political parties, let alone their key pledges for the election. How about those who, despite knowing what each party says they stand for, find nothing within the pledges or policies which represents or respects them?

Social media offers an interesting insight into political engagement given that Twitter has its own gender segregation: significantly fewer female twits tweet political tweets; male twits dominate. A little like Parliament itself, one could say. The 50:50 Parliament campaign has its work cut out if it cannot replicate a 50:50 engagement in political discussion, let alone political representation.

It is also a prime opportunity to witness or even experience on the doorstep the political art of condescending arrogance: polsplaining (not unlike ‘mansplaining’, a phenomenon documented by Rebecca Solnit in her essay Men Explain Things To Me).

The polsplaining apprentices: Danny Alexander, Rachel Reeves and Jo Morgan. Next time you watch them being interviewed just watch how they seem to be reading from some kind of internal party-line autocue, rendering their eyes and expression blank. They have yet to actually convincingly give the impression that they believe a word they say. The masters: Harriet Harman, David Cameron, The Clegg. Just watch how they turn a reasonable question, a reasonable voter-concern and turn it into: “Actually, you are wrong, you have no idea what you are talking about. You are wrong about your own lived, direct experience of X matter, I think you will find that we know better than yauw”.

We seem to live in an age of absolute distrust of politicians – funksters such as Russell Brand have fashioned themselves into the anti-politicos, encouraging disengagement from legitimate democratic participation. Who knows what Joey Barton makes of it all – I am inclined not to investigate that one. You can forgive me that, right?

For women, there has been a high profile campaign not just to seek equal representation in Parliament but also for women to actually register to exercise their hard-won right to vote in democratic elections. The ReigstHERtoVote campaign’s very existence is shockingly indicative of a voter apathy or alienation which simultaneously undermines legitimacy of political campaigning and any ensuing Government.

In a political system which regards the right to vote as a privilege, rather than a civic duty, political parties can alienate huge swathes of the public by its actions and policies and then capitalise on the voter apathy which results: if people feel no party represents them, they will not vote and their views do not count.

Political parties can then feel free to tread all over them. As I have said before, any family who yearns for the mother or father to remain home to care for their children faces a political consensus blockade which addresses only dual income families and deems only those families as worthy of respect and support. It is a valid question to ask: why are 9 million women missing from the democratic process? Are they not heard? Respected? Valued? Do they feel unable to speak up out of fear of not being heard or respected? A pink bus ain’t going to make a dent in the low political self-esteem of the female half of the population.

Curiously, and as a former lawyer, I found the debate in 2011 about prisoners seeking the vote to be entirely predicated on a false premise and one which had massive implications for the wider democratic process, if only any policymaker had stopped to think. If the vote is a privilege, David Cameron can speak all he likes about denying them that privilege out of some idea of punishment. Let’s not discuss the dire conditions, suicides and drugs problems in Britain’s prisons. It’s a non-issue, electorally speaking, if those resident in Her Majesty’s institutions have no say in the system which imprisons them.

If the vote is a civil obligation, the debate shifts. Prisoners are compelled to regard themselves as a citizen. To have responsibilities, embodied in a ballot paper, to the society which houses them.

So, applying that logic to the wider population, if the vote were to be regarded instead as a civil duty, imposed on all adults of society, the political class would no longer be able to electioneer by bribing the entire silver vote with universal winter fuel allowances – whilst justifying reductions in public spending in fields such as disability and children’s welfare. It would no longer be able to court 100 business leaders into promoting their own interests as though there is no alternative valid way of regarding the setup of society and economics. It would be compelled to encourage and engage with every section of society, rather than those who are already converted to the political process and with existing leanings towards a given political party.

Don’t believe me? Let’s see what the turnout is this General Election. Let’s count those missing men and women who do not believe that the ballot paper is relevant to their lives and the lives of their families.

Election season. An exciting time for people like me, who sit up all night just to watch a loathed politician lose his seat, but rather like a carousel of irrelevant, alien, jargon-spouting, aloof, suits for too many. And don’t the political parties rather rely on that.

This piece originally appeared in Platform 505 and Huffington Post in April 2015.

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photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/76276210@N00/1433817953″>Ballot Box</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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