Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | May 20, 2012

Fighting the dark forces…. Extremism? Populism? No. Meh-ism

MYPLACE Project Manager, Martin Price, University of Warwick, on questions raised by voter turn-out in the recent UK local elections, and what they might mean for the work of MYPLACE.

For more information on the MYPLACE project visit the project’s website: HERE

On 3rd May 2012, voters in many regions of the UK went to the polls to vote in local elections – primarily for local councils (as well as some referendums on elected mayors in major cities). Campaigning among the leading parties, Conservatives, Liberal Democrat and Labour, was as fierce as ever, with the elections . Full analysis of the turn-out for the elections is unlikely to be available until July but early estimates suggest that it may be as low as 32%. or to put it another way, around 2 out of every 3 eligible voters declined to exercise their democratic right.

Voters: (Not) coming soon to a polling station near you?

There was some celebration for Labour Party supporters, as the party gained the greatest share of the vote (39% of those who voted). However, this is less impressive when the overall turn-out is taken into account. In fact, Labour attracted the votes of only 12.5% of all those who could have voted.

More starkly, the parties currently forming the governing coalition, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, were voted for by 9.9% and 5.1% respectively of the eligible electorate. As Brendan O’Neill (editor of “Spiked Online“) observed in an artice for “Big Issue” magazine “In these elections, 90% of the electorate did not vote Tory (Conservative) and 95% did note vote liberal democrat. And yet these two parties govern Britain. Has there ever before been a government that has enjoyed such a paltry, insignificant mandate from The People?”

It should be kept in mind that the recent elections were for seats on local councils, not parliamentary seats. Nevertheless, there is a feeling that the results reflect the mood of the nation. Turn-out suggests that two thirds of Britons prefer “none of the above.”

O’Neill suggests that “By far the largest force in British politics today is not conservatism or socialism or liberalism, but meh-ism – the public’s refusal to take modern politicians seriously.”

1. (n.) A multi-purpose response, primarily used to imply a degree of indifference. Tone of voice and circumstance often implies a meaning. Can be used when you don’t want to answer an awkward or embarrassing question, or if you just plain have nothing else to say, and you want the other person to interpret the “meh” however he/she chooses. As in: Q: “What do you think of my new dress?” A: “Meh.” or Q: “What do you want to do tonight?” A: “Meh.”

Perhaps the most obvious conclusion to draw from this is that, as a nation, we simply don’t care who represents us, that we are politically apathetic and disinterested. However, anyone who buys a newspaper or watches news broadcasts will have noticed a large amount of “political” activity oner the last 12-18 months, with mass demonstrations against public spending cuts, changes to the National Health Service and management of the major banks, to name but a few.

So, is Britain really apathetic? Perhaps not. Another explanation might lie in the publics unwillingness to engage with politicians, rather than with politics. Perhaps a feeling that the lack of ideological differences between the parties, and even the closure of the left/right divide mean it doesnt matter which of them is in power. Perhaps the “cult of personality” in UK politics currently offers no leaders of sufficient personality to capture the public imagination. It may also be plausible that the “political class” is seen as too far distant from the general public.

Speculation aside, the reasons for this apparent apathy are things which MYPLACE might well explore, specifically in younger voters. Equally, if it is not representative of a total withdrawal from political and civic activity, we can also provide valuable insight into what young people are doing instead of engaging with electoral politics.

Whether we see rioting in London or Athens, student occupations in Croatia, or any number of social and civic movements, MYPLACE clearly remains relevant in a changeable political climate. But perhaps “meh-ism” is as pertinent as extremism or populism in some parts of Europe?

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