Flickr/The Freedom Association
As distasteful as it may be, the emergence of UKIP as a serious political force has brought waves to the calm of British political waters. Sure, the Commons benches have still been covered in the enraged spittle of MPs as they shout insults at each other, but to most on the outside politicians have been transforming into unidentifiable blobs of grey mush since 1997.
One man who shoulders a hefty part of the blame for the blandness in recent political history is Tony Blair. He arrived at Downing Street with the biggest majority since 1935 and many of the electorate seemed happy to see 18 years of Tory rule come to an end. New Labour were here and things were going to be different, or so we thought.
Blair moved Labour to the centre of the political spectrum as he ditched policies such as nationalisation, high tax, and unilateral disarmament and attempted to make the party more palatable to the British people. In other words, socialism was out and with that the political divide between the two major UK parties narrowed significantly.
The race to the centre
As time went on it became harder and harder to discern the difference between New Labour and the Conservatives. The Tories were once the nasty party, but how could that label not be placed on Blair’s party after taking the country to war despite mass protests and curtailing civil liberties? The country’s leaders were now populist rather ideological. The public were not blind to this.
While the trend began long before Tony Blair took control of the Labour Party, it was while he was leader that we saw most-common-perception of the difference between the two parties move from ‘a great deal of difference’ to ‘some difference’. This has continued until ‘not much difference’ had all but moved into second place in 2001. It’s obvious that a political landscape is in trouble when people can’t tell the difference between the two main parties.
And people can be forgiven for struggling to tell the difference. As recently as 2009 Ed Miliband said that there were areas of policy where Labour and the Tories were no different. The background of MPs, as this graph shows, has become more uniform and this gives the appearance of all MPs being part class of people even if their views differ.
It’s worth noting that since the 2001 General Election voter turnout has been rising, although it’s still far off levels seen in 1997 and before. So if it’s rising, is there really a problem with voter apathy at all? Well, turnout is still relatively low, but there’s another issue at hand which is much more serious than many may realise.
The turnout for 18-24s fluctuated for just under 30 years before a dramatic fall in the mid-90s. This is because young people are more likely to be turned off by politicians who all seem the same. When they vote they want to know something drastic happened. This is what the Liberal Democrats tapped into in the 2005 election and then lost it when they joined the grey mass of Parliament.
While voter turnout across the board is lower than it was back in the 90s and before, 18-24s are well below the average. So, why is this such a big deal? Won’t they just start voting as they get older? Apparently not.
According to the studies cited in this University of Sussex paper, voting is a habit that needs to be formed. Non-voting has a ‘generational effect’ which means it will continue into old age. In other words, if you don’t vote when you’re young you’re significantly less likely to vote in the future, meaning low youth voter turnout now means lower general voter turnout in the future.
Two other studies in that paper also claim that when the main parties have fewer differences people are less inclined to vote, so it’s not just conjecture that politicians are to blame for young people being less ideological motivated today. In fact, it suggests that campaigns to get people to vote will do nothing if politicians are all seen as the same.
Are UKIP good for democracy?
And this brings us to UKIP. They have tapped into voter apathy brought on by the distrust of politicians with their rhetoric about operating outside of the Westminster bubble. Nigel Farage, with his pints and straight-talking about immigration and the EU (compared to mainstream politicians), has convinced many people that his party are different. While his background is distinctly a Tory one, it doesn’t matter. The public believe him and the surge in support his party has seen proves it.
If the previously-mentioned studies are to be believed, then UKIP’s offer of seemingly-new policies and non-cookie cutter candidates mean voter apathy should be on the wane. It makes sense that the 2015 General Election should see a stronger turnout than the last two, but is the youth vote being drawn towards the parties offering something different?
Here’s how the 18-24 group voted in the Oct 1974 – 2010 elections.
Source: Ipsos MORI
And here’s how they intend to vote in 2015.
And where those “Other” votes are going.
That’s a massive transformation in voting patterns, and the fluctuations show that young people are paying attention and are open to new political ideologies. The rise of UKIP has shown that smaller parties can influence politics proper and these graphs show it. This is even after the Lib Dems angered students by turning their backs on them. It doesn’t matter that UKIP aren’t aimed at young people, what matters is that Farage has made them realise voting for something more radical – like the Greens – is a viable option.
So, with votes now offering more choice we should see many more young people heading to polling stations. If voting is all about habit forming, it maybe that UKIP has saved a whole generation from voter apathy and influenced Britain’s political future – even if they don’t win.
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