This survey by the BBC suggests politicians’ explanations for the collapse in voter turn-out are wrong.
Turn-out isn’t falling because voters no longer trust politicians; they never trusted them in the first place. Nor is it falling because of apathy; roughly as many people say they are interested in politics now as said so in 1973.
Instead, says David Cowling, the BBC’s head of political research, turn-out has fallen because party loyalty has fallen and because voters no longer see significant differences between the two main parties.
I fear this will be misinterpreted. Politicians might say it reflects an end of ideology. The parties look similar, and affiliation with them has fallen, because neither party now stands for a distinctive ideology, as they did in the 70s and 80s.
I disagree. For me, what’s going on here isn’t the decline of ideology, but the rise of one particular form of it – managerialism.
Neither main party is offering us a trade-off among political or social ideals – there’s no big choice of “state versus market” or “equality versus liberty.” Instead, both parties claim they can manage society and the public services for the better. Good management, they seem to believe, can overcome trade-offs; New Labour is explicit about this and it is to the Conservatives’ discredit that they are not challenging it properly.
This, of course, is pure ideology – it reflects a boundless faith in the ability of government to improve our lives. Paradoxically, politicians’ faith on this point has strengthened at a time when the academic evidence for bounded rationality has grown stronger and stronger.
For me, the justification of falling turn-out is that voters are recognizing the folly of this ideology. All we need is someone to articulate their discontent.