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From sanjoy@mrao.cam.ac.uk Mon Dec 18 12:48:13 2000
Date: Sun, 17 Dec 2000 06:11:46 -0600 (CST)
From: Sanjoy Mahajan <sanjoy@mrao.cam.ac.uk>
Subject: Voter cynicism: Nick Cohen discusses why we don't give a damn
Article: 111191
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Frankly, I don't give a damn

By Nick Cohen, New Statesman (London), 18 December 2000

Voter turnout is at an all-time low, but don't blame it on apathy. The electorate has turned cynical, and that is quite a different matter.

The great conflict of the 19th century was between those who could vote and those who could not. All adults had won the right to vote by the early 20th century, and they used it to fight among themselves. Today, a new division is gaping, which the Chartists, suffragettes and Labour class warriors - and their opponents - would have found impossible to comprehend. The great split of the 21st century is between those who can and do vote and those who can but, well, can't be bothered.

Getting to grips with the Won't Vote Movement (or non-movement) is necessarily a difficult task. It has no manifesto. It employs no spin-doctors to brief journalists on its tactics and ambitions. The BBC never feels that the duty to provide impartial coverage requires that Tory, new Labour and Liberal Democrat suits on Question Time and Today should be balanced with a casually dressed Won't Vote leader. There is no leader. They have no representatives. Won't Voters are disenfranchised in every respect.

And yet the apparently powerless are sucking legitimacy from public life with extraordinary speed. The historic 1997 general election, when the electorate was presented with the chance to - at last! - remove a corrupt and loathed Tory regime, produced the lowest turnout in the history of British democracy. When the Scots were able to relish an opportunity of equal historic importance and bring what was supposed to be the national project of generations to a conclusion, a mere 60 per cent of citizens participated in the first Scottish Parliament election. The London mayoral contest had much going for it: charismatic candidates who offered a genuine choice to the public and whose words were reported at exhaustive length by the metrocentric national media. Only 34 per cent of citizens voted. Both Charles Kennedy and David Blunkett have noted, with understandable shock, that more people voted for extroverts to be expelled from the Big Brother house than turned out to vote in England in last year's European elections.

The swiftness of the rise of political indolence can be measured with a glance back at the mid-1990s. The 1997 general election was prefaced by two by-elections, in Wirral South and South East Staffordshire. The turnouts were 69 and 73 per cent respectively. Last month, during what every pundit assured us was the prelude to the May 2001 general election, there were by-elections in West Bromwich West and Preston. The turnouts were 27 and 29 per cent.

Not voting, in short, is all the rage, and yet few know how to pin down the phenomenon. Backing away from politics is usually described as apathy. Voters are bored but contented, soothing voices assure us. The hollowing-out of democracy is nothing to fret about. Indeed, to those who bought Francis Fukuyama's theory that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the success of western markets and democracy marked the end of history, no less, nothing could be more welcome or more natural than an outbreak of apathy. The contagion of indifference is spreading at a healthy pace, wrote George Walden, an ex-Conservative MP, in the London Evening Standard. For 200 years politics mattered, added Barry Cox, a television executive who bankrolled Tony Blair's Labour leadership campaign, in the Observer. Now many people think it doesn't matter. And surely they are right.

Both believe that there really is no point in voting. New Labour and the Conservatives agree that capitalism is the best and only way. Their disputes are noisy but trivial arguments about the detail. Healthy and prosperous people have turned away and are now far too busy discussing the merits of the latest iMac, gawking at the Zeta-Joneses or trying to master Nigella's latest tasty recipe to care about anything else. Politics is little more than the leisure option of cranks - train-spotting without the travel.

It is easy to mock these gentlemen. The triumph of western democracy brings the collapse of democratic participation! Things are so bad because they're so damn good! It is easier still to point out that, when the gulf in wage inequality between rich and poor has never been greater since records began in the 1880s, and the deunionised and downsized British work the longest hours in Europe, it is a tad tactless to proclaim that all have reached a bourgeois utopia. The followers of Fukuyama have not so much slipped into smugness as dived in head first.

For all that, millions from the classes that Walden and Cox are most likely to meet are enjoying a sweet life, and no conceivable change of government will add a dash of bitters. Their apathy is more than justified. Why should they trudge to the polling booth when they face no threats?

The contentedly apathetic do not, however, make up all of the Can Vote/Won't Voters. When Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell rant against indifference, they do not attack the apathetic, but the cynical, and they do so with real vehemence.

Their use of cynic is a smear. But you should always take your enemies' insults as badges of honour and, before donning the decoration, it is worth asking: just who is a cynic?

Cynicism is now the antonym of apathy. While the apathetic don't care, the traduced cynics care greatly. When Blair goes for cynics, he means a democratic socialist or libertarian or anyone who clings on to a principle. Norman Mailer once wrote that what disturbed him most about Bill Clinton was that he was a man without a last ditch, a man who would do or say anything. Clinton's British child, Blairism, has gone further than its parent ever dared. It requires its adherents not only to flee from any and every ditch on demand, but to do so with an evangelical faith in the justness of their flight. You really will not get on in the political class if you give up what you hold dear with resignation, as a sad but necessary act in an inevitably compromised world. You must retreat with joy, eyes shining with the fire of belief. In these psychological circumstances, your former comrades who stick in the ditch are cynics, perverse heretics who reject the true religion.

Tellingly, this novel definition of cynicism comes from advertising. In One Market Under God, his forthcoming study of how corporate values have seeped into every crevice of public life, Thomas Frank describes a speech that Phil Teer of St Luke's, the grooviest and most influential ad agency in London, gave to his American colleagues. Like Charles Handy, Charles Leadbeater and so many others in business and politics, Teer sounded like the most radical of democrats. Business is revolution. Hierarchies must be destroyed and boundaries transgressed. All must unite in the task of killing cynicism. His cynics, I scarcely need add, are not those who persuade the public to buy goods they don't need at prices they can't afford, but pernicious know-nothings who refuse to believe in brands, who ignore media messages and refuse to consume.

Frank echoes Eric Hobsbawm and many others of the left when he points out that the populism of the market has undermined popular sovereignty and the readiness to vote. Free-market theory effectively claims that there is no need for politics, wrote Hobsbawm recently. If consumers are able to achieve their aims by exercising their power of choice every day through the purchase of goods or the indication of their opinions to the mechanisms of media consultation, what exactly remains of citizenship? Is there still any need to mobilise groups of people for political objectives?

The danger is that such musings lead to a reflection of Fukuyama and Walden from the other side of the looking-glass. The common belief is that, for better or worse, the values of consuming have conquered the virtues of citizenship. I've no doubt that they have in part, but their success is not total.

Both William Hague and Blair, after all, have adopted all the techniques of corporate marketing. They have PR men, pollsters and focus-group organisers at the top of their debased professions who have dedicated their waking hours to finding and accommodating consumers' desires. As Hague proved in the summer and Blair proved in the Queen's Speech, there is no populist bandwagon they won't jump on if the opinion-poll numbers order them to leap. The most basic test of a political marketeer is his ability to get the voters through the door of the polling booths. By this measure, and on their own terms, the Philip Goulds and Amanda Platells are utter failures who have inspired the cynicism they are meant to counter.

For all the difficulties of getting to grips with why people don't vote, there is circumstantial evidence that many are doing so out of political disgust rather than a surfeit of apolitical contentment; that they are propelled by cynicism rather than apathy.

The great mass of absentees aren't the happy haunters of juice bars and gyms of Walden's and Cox's imaginations, but the wretched poor and the working class. It wasn't Fulham or Solihull that recorded a turnout of 1.5 per cent in the 1999 European elections, but the slums of Sunderland. In every contest since 1997, the sharpest falls in voting have been in the poorest areas. Labour governments are meant to redistribute wealth. When they don't deliver the money, they don't get the votes.

For new Labour's middle-class supporters - the bleeding heartlands, if you will - the urge to join the cynics comes from the abuses of civil liberties and persecutions of asylum-seekers, which would have been quite unthinkable even in 1997. I frequently hear that they and many from the sullen working class will stay true when the general election comes, and prefer to ignore their churning stomachs and vote new Labour to prevent a Conservative revival. The lesser-of-two-evils argument is a powerful rejoinder to cynicism, which we will hear daily as the election approaches.

Yet to support an evil party because it is not quite as evil as its rivals is not, I think, a resolution that can be taken indefinitely. Labour leftwingers or Tory Europhiles are, in effect, being asked to give their leaders a free pass; to grant their support to policies and to politicians they find repellent and to forget about their democratic right to have their opinions represented.

The alternative to this unappealing bargain is to refuse to be complicit. In a country without proportional representation, joining the huge numbers who refuse to vote is one honourable option. You may not do much good - and you won't do any good - but you will not lend your name to those you often despise (and who often despise you).

In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great went to meet Diogenes of Sinope, the original cynic. He asked if there was anything he could do for the philosopher. Yes, replied Diogenes, get out of my space.

Charles Clarke on cynicism, see Interview