Voters who aren't aware of differences between the main parties just aren't paying attention.
By Daniel Blythe
I wanted to make sure I voted as soon as I was eligible to do so at the 1987 general election. It was a rite of passage, like watching an 18 film or buying your first legal drink. I'd trotted down to my local hall and felt very pleased and proud to be part of this democratic process. I enjoyed the archaic, timeless feel of the wooden booths and the pencils tied down with string, and the decisive permanence of marking my cross in the box. And I was anxious to go at a different time from my parents, to stake my claim for independence.
At Oxford University, I became involved with various aspects of student politics and pressure groups, and came to realise that there was more to it than just marking a cross in a box every five years. You weren't really a student until you'd brandished a placard, marched down the High Street with fire in your heart, ignored the amused smiles of the policemen and the fact that there were only thirty of you on this demo. But later still, I became very disillusioned with politics, starting to feel that it was hollow and full of absurd jockeying for power - so I didn't even bother getting a proxy vote sorted out for the 1992 election while working abroad.
I moved to Sheffield in the 1990s, and in that hotbed of political intrigue I started to feel bad about this apathy. Also I had a stake now, as a homeowner and council tax payer, and I knew I could not legitimately complain about potholes, schools, irregular bus services and so on if I had not voted. So I made a resolution to vote in everything where I was eligible, and it is a resolution I have kept to this day. And since becoming a parent, I take my children along to the polling-station - it's in their school, after all - to see how it all works. I still like the old-fashioned, very British charm of the rickety wooden polling-booth, the pencil and the sealed box. Electronic voting may be the future - who knows? - but it doesn't have the same feeling of active, solid participation.
Lately, I have become irritated with people who moan about 'politics' when their only experience of it is to watch the necessarily theatrical exchanges at PMQs. I also get very frustrated when people write the parties off as 'all the same' and say that they do not know what their policies are. True, many a politician will use weasel words to avoid answering a direct question - for many reasons, which I discuss in my book X Marks The Box. But it's also true to say that politicians devote a lot of newsprint, screen and internet time to telling us just what their policies are. Collar any would-be MP and they will be able to tell you at least half a dozen key areas in which their party differs from the others. If voters are not aware of these, they are not paying attention.
Yes, voters do have a point when they talk about the dislocation they feel from their politicians. It can be annoying if you never see your candidate on the doorstep debating the issues. But MPs' and candidates' offices don't have limitless resources, they are dependent on volunteers, and their time is hugely in demand. What I would like to see is MPs spending more time in their constituencies and being answerable to the people who elected them - it would be nice to know that your MP is available to come to that meeting about the school being closed or the playing field being sold off.
Of course politicians need to do more to get their messages out to the electorate - and in this age of broadband, blogging and twittering, many of them are only a click away. Your MP is no longer a remote person in the House of Commons who you may get to see at their Friday surgery if you are lucky. You can go on their website, you can email them, and you can look at theyworkforyou to see how they have been voting.
This election will be the first at which an estimated four million new voters are eligible to vote. Some of them, like me back in 1987, may genuinely be excited by the prospect. It's going to be a close election, and those first time voters may be the people to swing it - if they get out there and use their votes.
All of these thoughts coalesced into X Marks The Box, my book being published by Icon in March, and which I'm making available first as a free download on my blog here.
It's incredible how many people don't know who their MP is, what they are allowed to do or how they have voted, could not tell you what happened at the last few general elections, which pressure groups they could get involved with, and so on. The book is a humorous, irreverent, light but informative whistle-stop tour through politics. It's not an expert's book or an insider's book. It's a book by and for the informed citizen, which aims to cut through the waffle, the disillusionment and the disappointment. By the end of it, the disenfranchised voter should feel that there is some point to it all, and realise that, if you want to get something out of politics, you may need to put something in.
Daniel Blythe is the author of X Marks the Box: How to Make Politics Work for You (Icon Books) published on March 4th 2010 - and available as a free ebook download from www.xmarksthebox.co.uk up to March 3rd.
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