With 7.5 million eligible voters in the UK, why did so few turn out for the last general election? Are we disenchanted with politics – or our politicians? In the run-up to May 7th, we ask what big issues are important to you and, if you vote – who gets your vote?
After five years of coalition, Britain faces an election unlike any other, when the public casts its vote on May 7th. But this time, all eyes will be on Kent, as one constituency, South Thanet, stands to be taken from the Tories by the UK Independence Party (Ukip) leader, Nigel Farage. According to a poll conducted by Survation (February 2015), Farage is on course to win his battle to take Laura Sandys’ seat, to become South Thanet’s MP, showing him with an 11% lead – potentially a turning point for the county. However, a few weeks ago back in March, Farage declared it will be “curtains” for him as UK Independence party leader if he fails to win the seat.
“Kent, for the most part has been bathed in blue for decades”
Also campaigning to win the South Thanet seat is Al Murray (AKA Pub Landlord) for the Ukip-lookalike Free United Kingdom Party (FUKP). “It seems to me that the UK is ready for a bloke waving a pint around, offering common sense solutions,” said Murray. “Let it be known that like many of the parliamentary hopefuls in the forthcoming election, I have no idea where South Thanet is – but did that stop Margaret Thatcher from saving the Falkland Islands? No!”
With the exception of Ukip’s Mark Reckless in Rochester and Strood, who ‘crossed the floor’ joining from the Conservative Party in 2014, Kent, for the most part has been bathed in blue for decades (the 2010 election saw Labour wiped off the political map of Kent completely, with every seat won by the Conservatives).
As Farage effortlessly combines ‘public school pinstripe and tweed’ with ‘man on the street pint and a fag’, what do we know about the UK Independence party?
Founded in 1993 by members of the Anti-Federalist League, the party describes itself as a “democratic, libertarian party” and is widely regarded as Eurosceptic and right-wing populist. It was founded with the primary objective of securing the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The party gained its first elected MP in October 2014 when Clacton-on-Sea Conservative MP Douglas Carswell defected to Ukip, triggering a by-election and winning the seat.
Greg Clark, who will continue to defend his Conservative seat in Tunbridge Wells, home to the infamous correspondence from ‘Disgusted Of’, once commented on the vociferous nature of his constituency: “It is an area of great letter writers. I had one of the biggest postbags of any MP.”
So should we be worried that the tide is beginning to turn, that Kent’s true blue is turning… purple and yellow? Bordering mainland Europe, we live in one of the counties most affected by migration and according to Nigel Farage, more and more immigrants are coming to the UK for three reasons: because they want to work here, because there are lots of jobs for them to do here – and because they can.
Ukip’s recent rise in popularity can be attributed to its sympathy towards the general sense of concern the nation has about immigration causing pressure on public services (£100 million spent on translation services covering the NHS, police, job centres, courts and other services). Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to cut net immigration to below 100,000. However, the total number of people arriving in the UK in the year to September 2014 was 624,000 – even taking into account the 320,000 who left the country, that leaves a net immigration figure of 298,000 – the highest since the record level of 320,000 in 2005 – and higher than when Cameron took power.
Keith Vaz, Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, insists: “EU migrants in the past decade have contributed £20 billion in taxes more than they have claimed in benefits.” Despite popular belief, just over one per cent of Poles in Britain claim unemployment benefit. One Conservative minister was recently quoted (The Times, March 4th, 2015) as saying: “Everyone wants hard-working cheap Polish cleaners, nannies and builders doing jobs we won’t do, but we mind when their children need help learning English at school and their mothers are in the queue at the surgery. It’s the strain on schools, hospitals and the police that worries people.”
So, will the perceived threat of Ukip winning a further seat in Kent prompt more voters to head to the polling station? According to market research agency, Survation, voter apathy and low election turnout are well reported as being serious problems in British politics. “Among those who did not vote in the last general election, the top reasons for not voting were:
1. Not believing that their vote will make any difference
2. That the parties and candidates are all the same
3. A lack of interest in politics
4. Not having enough information or knowledge to choose
It’s your right to vote
In early 19th-century Britain very few people had the right to vote. A survey conducted in 1780 revealed that the electorate in England and Wales consisted of just 214,000 people – less than three per cent of the total population of approximately eight million. Large industrial cities like Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester did not have a single MP between them, whereas ‘rotten boroughs’ such as Dunwich in Suffolk (which had a population of 32 in 1831) were still sending two MPs to Westminster. The British electoral system was unrepresentative and outdated. In 1801 the right to vote in the United Kingdom remained restricted until universal suffrage, on an equal basis for men and women over the age of 21, was established in 1929.
And what of young and first-time voters? Currently more than 1.5 million 16 and 17 year olds are denied the right to vote. At the 1970 general election 65 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old turned out to vote and for those over 65, it was 77 per cent. But Tony Blair’s first election in 1997, saw 78 per cent of pensioners vote, but only 54 per cent of youngsters and by 2005, the numbers were 74 per cent and 38 per cent: the old were almost twice as likely to vote as the young. As young people grapple with extortionate tuition fees, a competitive job market and rocketing property prices – while watching their parents ease into a comfortable debt-free retirement aided by government handouts – it’s no surprise they feel failed by the system. Old enough to pay income tax and National Insurance, to consent to sexual relationships, to drive a car, to join the armed forces, many 16 and 17 year olds also feel they should have a say in electing the MPs who make very decisions which affect their lives.
The British Youth Council (www.byc.org.uk), a youth-led charity, aims to give young people aged 25 and under the power to influence and inform such decisions by encouraging and supporting young people to get involved in their communities and democracy locally, nationally and internationally, to make a difference as volunteers, campaigners, decision-makers and leaders.
Perhaps the ritual of marking a cross in a box with pencil and paper is enough to put off most young people, many of whom spend their lives in front a screen of some sort – and new methods need to be introduced to bring voting into the 21st century. Electronic voting, or “e-voting”, covers a range of different technologies, from button or touchscreen machines in polling stations which connect to a central database, to remote systems which allow people to vote online using a secure ID. Estonia has a national database of all its citizens and its voters can cast their ballots from any computer anywhere in the world, using an identity card with a computer-readable microchip. And while this year’s general election will be run using the traditional system, campaigners for electronic (e-voting) say “digital democracy” is on the way in the UK and predict a different landscape by 2020.
Women, too, continue to demand to have their vote counted. Times have moved considerably on since the days when a housewife would defer to her husband as canvassers came knocking on the door. As more women work than ever before and contribute to the family income (only 10% of women in the UK do no paid work at all), politicians are campaigning for the female vote, targeting parenting websites, fashion magazines, daytime television and posing for the now obligatory family Christmas card. “We know that women do the majority of domestic work and childcare,” says Dr Rosie Campbell, a specialist on voting behaviour from the University of London’s Birkbeck College. “And that when they become mothers, there is an impact upon their work/life balance… It’s saying ‘well actually, if I’m going to be out in the workplace, then I need the state to intervene more to provide things like childcare.”
At the time of going to press, the BBC poll tracker, which measures opinion poll support for the main parties ahead of the 2015 general election showed Labour and Conservative playing each off at 34 per cent and 32 per cent respectively, with Ukip edging up the ranks at 14 per cent and the Liberals hovering at 8 per cent.