Apathy: Should We Embrace It?
A further debate concerns whether or not apathy is, in fact, a political act. The distinction between positive and negative abstention is clearly important here. If the focus is purely upon voting behaviour, then positive abstention is, for example, where all the alternatives are examined and the voter does not like what is on offer so he or she makes a conscious decision not to bother to vote. Negative abstention includes the voter simply not being bothered to vote or being deterred by the fact that it rains on polling day. Michael Rush has examined this notion of lack of political involvement. He states that ‘Non-involvement in politics has been variously ascribed to apathy, cynicism, alienation and anomie’. He proceeds to further distinguish between these categories, ‘apathy is a lack of interest, cynicism is an attitude of distaste and disenchantment, while alienation and anomie both involve a feeling of estrangement or divorce from society, but where alienation is characterised by hostility, anomie is characterised by bewilderment’ (Rush 1992: 126-127). It could be suggested that a certain degree of apathy is an essential ingredient of any realistic theory of democracy. The former Tory Cabinet Minister Sir Ian Gilmour was quoted as saying that ‘Political apathy is to some extent rather a good sign. It means that people aren’t all that worried; they are reasonably contented’ (Browne 1986: 4). Apathy may indeed indicate contentment (Eulau 1963, 1966), and when the situation deteriorates, or if people feel they can make a difference, they vote. There were echoes of this approach when Margaret Beckett, a Minister in the Blair Government, talked of the ‘politics of contentment’ to explain voters not turning out to vote. This point is explored in greater depth later in this chapter. There is also debate as to whether or not people are actually apathetic. The Power Inquiry, an independent inquiry into political participation (cf. White 2006), found that ‘Contrary to much of the public debate around political disengagement, the British public are not apathetic. There is now a great deal of research evidence to show that very large numbers of citizens are engaged in community and charity work outside of politics. There is also clear evidence that involvement in pressure politics—such as signing petitions, supporting consumer boycotts, joining campaign groups—has been growing significantly for many years. In addition, research shows that interest in “political issues” is high. The area of decline is in formal politics’ (Power Inquiry 2006: 2). It is evident, therefore, that people may not necessarily be participating in terms of party politics but in a myriad of other ways.
It is pertinent to examine different types of political participation. Again, youth political participation often provides a focal point. Psephological inquiry is relevant at this point. Voting could be described as the minimum form of political participation but, for most people, it is also the maximum. Figures relating to electoral turnout provide interesting, possibly dismal, reading. Paul Whiteley highlights key reasons that have been postulated to explain why voting has declined, the first of these, ‘is derived from sociological theories and argues that changes in society have detached citizens from the political process. The second derives from the cognitive engagement model and suggests that individuals have lost interest in the political process and in elections. The third relates to the general incentives model and argues that citizens face declining incentives to get involved in politics and to vote, and this has reduced their rates of participation’ (Op. Cit: 47). The decline in youth turnout illustrates these differing perspectives. In addition to the debate as to why voting has declined, questions such as why, in the past, has the working class tended to vote Labour and what accounts for working class Conservatism are also relevant to the debate surrounding the concept of political participation. The study of voting behaviour constitutes a fascinating area of political science. Political scientists differ, however, in terms of their explanations as to why people vote the way they do. There are many different theories and models about voting behaviour. Some studies concentrate upon the social backgrounds of individual electors, others concentrate upon party identification (attachment to a specific political party) and the third most oft-cited model stems from rational choice theory (cf. Sanders 1991, for detailed analysis of the main theories underpinning voting behaviour). These models and their intrinsic components change over time, for example, religion is less important nowadays as a determinant than it perhaps was at one stage. Psephology can never be an exact science, especially considering the secret ballot but, nevertheless, we can make a number of assumptions regarding the factors which influence the way that people vote. Despite class dealignment (cf. Butler and Stokes 1974), social class was traditionally held by many political scientists to be a major, if not the major, factor which influenced the way people voted. The impact of class has certainly declined since Peter Pulzer’s now infamous claim that ‘Class is the basis of British party politics: all else is embellishment and detail’ (Pulzer 1975), but the importance of social class as a determining factor should not be totally sidelined (cf. Heath et al. 1985). It is generally held that there are both objective and subjective factors which can be utilised in order to pigeonhole electors into specific social classes. Objective factors include the socioeconomic characteristics such as occupation and wealth, and the subjective aspect is the way that the voter regards himself or herself. There may be contradictions here too, for example, objectively, a voter might be termed working class but, subjectively, he or she may think that he or she is middle class and vote accordingly. This was used, in part, to explain working class Conservatism—although deference has, in the past, also been proposed as a theory to explain why a certain proportion of the working class votes
Conservative, that is, they regard the Conservatives as the ‘natural party of government’, the born leaders. It is worth noting that there is a contradiction only if it is expected that people who are ‘objectively’ working class will behave politically in a certain way, that is, to vote Labour. There is clearly evidence that deference has declined in importance (cf. Butler and Stokes 1974; Denver and Hands 1992: 64-65; Denver et al. 2012) and that ‘secular’ or pragmatic explanations have become more important. Another explanation, therefore, proposes that members of the working class vote Conservative for secular reasons, that is, on the basis of specific policies, they are attracted to the Conservative Party. The sale of council houses, which the Conservatives first offered to the electorate in 1979 and which was enacted under the 1980 Housing Act, is claimed to be a case in point. It is worth emphasising that without substantial working class support, the Conservatives would never have won a general election (Cocker 1986: 65). Middle-class Labourism is partly explained with reference to working class origins, sticking to their ‘roots’ and by the fact that these deviants tend to work in what are deemed to be caring professions, such as health workers or teachers (Coxall and Robins 1989: 269).
Apart from social class, other factors have been postulated in an attempt to explain voting behaviour. These factors include, for example, age, gender, ethnicity, region, trade union membership and family (Ibid: 264-282). These cleavages are said to have an effect upon the way people vote. It is unnecessary to go into a great deal of detail regarding the various aspects, but it is worthwhile noting that psephologists differ as to how much weight they attach to these criteria. The 1980s and 1990s, in particular, witnessed a great deal of partisan dealignment. That is to say, there was a weakening of voters’ loyalty to specific parties and a subsequent increase in electoral volatility. Nowadays, voters are more willing to change the way that they vote rather than to provide consistent support for a political party irrespective of the particular policies which that party embodies. There is also evidence that secular voting is on the increase. Voters are voting for parties which they feel will best serve their interests. It is generally held that electors ‘shop around’ more. There is also the view that sectoral cleavages are more important than class alignment—the public/private sector cleavage being one. The theory behind this notion of consumption cleavages is that the voters’ choice is influenced by their pattern of consumption. The basic premise is that those who use private health care are more likely to vote Conservative and those who, for example, use state schools are more likely to vote Labour. Dunleavy and Husbands emphasised sectoral cleavages as an influence upon voting behaviour; they noted that the post-war period witnessed ‘the increasing importance of sectoral cleavages’ (1985: 24) and that this had a marked effect upon voting behaviour.
The analysis of voting behaviour may, superficially, appear to be an easy task. One can point to the existence of quantifiable data, statistics and so forth. As evidenced above, however, psephological inquiry constitutes a very contentious area of investigation, and political scientists differ as to the importance they attach to the various explanations. Indeed, the truth may be akin to the insight offered by Sanders that ‘Many activists, on both sides of the party political divide have long been convinced of what they regard as a simple truth of electoral politics: that the incumbent government stands an extremely good chance of getting re-elected if enough people believe that “I’m alright, Jack”’ (1991: 6). The rise in the electoral fortunes of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) also points to changing habits of revoting behaviour. It will be interesting to see whether these changes, evidenced in the 2013 and 2014 local election results, and the 2014 European election results, constitute a protest vote or whether they signify a more significant switch in voting habits. At the 2015 General Election, UKIP did not live up to electoral expectations (attaining 12.6 per cent of the vote and only one MP), but it remains a relatively powerful voice in British politics. Thus, it can be seen that discussion of theories of party choice is relevant to a central debate about political participation. It helps to explain and understand the rationale behind how and why people participate as they do in mainstream politics.
Other forms of political participation include pressure group activity (cf. Wyn Grant’s extensive body of work on pressure groups for further details) and a wide variety of campaigns which involve collective action. The extent of involvement varies, as Dowse and Hughes state, ‘people participate in politics in many different ways, with different degrees of emotional involvement and at different levels of the system’ (1972: 289). Nevertheless, involvement in pressure groups is, relatively speaking, a major way in which people participate in politics. Trade union activity, as an example of protective pressure groups, provides opportunities for involvement but, setting aside sporadic strike action, levels of participation, on a day-to-day basis, are usually low.
There is a growing body of literature which specifically relates this to changes which have occurred in women in terms of levels of political participation. Tolleson-Rinehart, in her text on Gender Consciousness and Politics, recalls that she has ‘spoken not merely of political participation but of political engagement[her italics]to indicate the spectrum of politicization, from internal feelings of confidence and interest, the connection to the political system and the commitment to acquire political information, to the performance of actual participatory acts’ (1992: 128). This continuum is relevant to the discussion in this chapter. Female political participation underwent an increase effectively from 1997 when we saw a doubling of the number of female MPs (up from 60 in 1992 to 120 in 1997, including 101 Labour female MPs). In part, this was due to the strategy of employing all-women shortlists, prior to being subject to a legal challenge in the 1996 case of Jepson and Dyas-Elliott versus the Labour Party. Female political participation, both in terms of standing for election and voting, has been the subject of a great deal of investigation (cf. Bochel and Briggs 2000; Briggs 2008) and is examined in more detail in Chap. 7.
It is fascinating to ascertain why some people participate in politics and others do not. They have to see the benefits of participation, that is, to see they can make a difference or a difference will be made to them through having participated. It is the case that those who hold strong or extremist views are said to have a greater propensity to participate politically. Those holding more moderate views tend to be less likely to participate. In addition, there is a school of thought that regards a certain amount of apathy or lack of participation as a positive factor, indicating that people are perhaps relatively happy with their ‘lot’ in life. Both John Prescott and, as mentioned previously, Margaret Beckett, the former Labour Deputy Prime Minister and the former Labour Minister/Labour’s Campaign Coordinator, respectively, for example, referred to the ‘politics of contentment’ when describing previous Labour supporters not turning up at the polls (1999 local elections). Labour feared that an ‘armchair revolt’ would impact their chances of electoral success and the argument was that people were generally happy and, therefore, were not galvanised enough to actually go out and vote! Cynics dismissed this theory as blinkered and failing to recognise that Labour’s core supporters were turning away from them. On the contrary, in addition to recognising the benefits accrued through political participation, there is a case to be made that some people participate from a sense of civic duty. Many women, for example, voted and were mindful of the actions of the suffragettes in helping to secure the vote for women. The vote, therefore, in this situation is regarded as having been won after a lengthy and bitter struggle. The central issue here is to remember those who fought for the vote. It seems to be the case that this sense of civic duty is in decline. It is rare these days to see people walking to vote and sporting a rosette in their party colours, proudly going to exercise their civic duty, voting for ‘their’ party no matter what. Almond and Verba, in their study of five political systems (1963), found that the UK was highly participatory. As they say, the ‘participant role is highly developed. Exposure to politics, interest, involvement and a sense of competence are relatively high’ (1963: 455). It does appear, however, that the extent of this participatory culture has changed over the past 50 years. Levels of trust with regards to politicians and government have declined significantly, not least due to the MPs’ expenses scandal that erupted in 2009. Partisan dealignment has taken place and people’s loyalty to one particular political party or another is no longer as strong as it used to be. Voters are more willing to switch and move their support from one particular political party to another. As Denver states, ‘The dominance of the two major parties has been much reduced and the bases on which voters support them have altered. The clear class and partisan alignments that existed in the 1950s have given way to a dealigned electorate: electoral stability has been replaced by volatility, national uniformity by variability and habitual voting by a more judgemental approach’ (Denver 1997: 142; also cf. Denver 2007: 72-93). The introduction of compulsory voting, as occurs, for example, in Belgium and in Australia, has also been mooted (see Chap. 5 for more detail) as a way of forcing people to fulfil their civic duty. At the moment, however, participation via voting is voluntary.
There are many ways and varying degrees of participating politically. Political participation is an activity that a majority of the population undertake but, for most, their level of participation remains minimal, usually at the level of voting. For a significant sector of society too, they do not even do that. Turnout levels at local, European and general elections have proved a cause for concern. Although turnout at the UK general election in 2015 increased slightly (see Table 2.1) to 66.1 per cent (up slightly on the 2010 General Election’s figure of 65.1 per cent), it is still a
Table 2.1 Electoral turnout in UK general elections
- • 1992-77.7 per cent
- • 1997-71.5 per cent, lowest since 1935
- • 2001-59.4 per cent, lowest since 1918
- • 2005-61.3 per cent
- • 2010-65.1 per cent
- • 2015-66.1 per cent cause for concern to political scientists, psephologists and politicians alike. Essentially, this means that 33.9 per cent of the electorate, for whatever reason, did not vote in 2015. As well as those voting, there is a small minority of people who are labelled the activists. These are people who are committed to participating politically. These may or may not vote; indeed, some may feel that activism is a more productive way of achieving one’s aims and may feel that voting does not necessarily help in the quest to bring about change. Such activities may include demonstrations and marches, boycotts and, more recently, ‘buycotts’ whereby ethical goods and services are encouraged (cf. Young 2010: 1081), writing to one’s MP or local councillor, gaining publicity for their ‘cause’ via the media and, in the more extreme cases, resorting to direct action, and possibly, even violence.
Studies of political participation have often focused upon voting behaviour but, as well as conventional means of political participation, it does also include more unconventional means, such as, direct action, protest and even violence. One of the questions to address when examining political participation is at what point does real participation occur and when is it merely lip-service that is being paid as opposed to genuinely taking on board what someone is saying or doing? Can we make a case for the lifeenhancing value of participation per se? This is to say, is there an intrinsic value in political participation even if one’s aims are not achieved? Does this equate with what the Greeks labelled the ‘good life’? To reiterate John Stuart Mill’s famous observation, ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’ (Mill 1863, cited in Acton 1972: 9). Are participation and representation necessarily incompatible? Do direct action and participation lead to the speedy formulation and alteration of policy, that is, do people make a difference? How important is it for our representative bodies and legislatures to be a microcosm of society at large, to be a mirror image of the social composition of the nation as a whole? Is there more direct action nowadays than perhaps there was previously? Is it possible, practicable or feasible to create a system of direct, as opposed to indirect or representative, democracy? Currently, the system that operates is one of indirect or representative democracy whereby we vote for parties and candidates to act on our behalf. In mass industrialised countries, indirect democracy appears to be the more feasible option. Having said this, technological advancements may mean that the population at large is able to vote on a wide range of issues and we witness a shift to a more direct form of democracy.