In the last election, turnout was the highest it’s been since 1997. After a decade of lower numbers, 68.8% of the 46.8 million registered electorate went out and cast their vote on who should lead the country.
However, that did leave around 15.2 million people who refrained from going out and exercising their right to democracy, and that’s only the people we know about. It isn’t clear how many eligible voters hadn’t registered as those statistics are hard to come by, but this site puts the eligible number at around 52 million people which would suggest there were 6 million unregistered. This then gives us a total of around 21 million people in the UK who didn’t vote.
To put that into perspective, that’s almost a third of our entire population who decided not to take part in who should rule us.
Around the time of the 2017 general election, I started thinking about the reasons as to why people don’t vote and I’ve got a theory. Granted, I could be wrong and people may just not vote because they’ve weighed up the options and decided they’re either fucked or fine either way, but I’m going to use my own experience of politics as the example.
I grew up in a household where politics wasn’t generally discussed. I don’t remember either of my parents being particularly politically engaged, and I do have one specific memory of going with my mum to cast her vote during the 1997 general election when I was eight years old. As we approached, I asked my mum who she was voting for and she bent down and whispered “Labour, but don’t tell anyone because you’re not meant to tell people who you vote for”. I may have questioned it, but for the duration of my youth I don’t recall ever being inquisitive about politics. Equally, I don’t recall being involved in any political discussions at school or at university, so maybe I’d just become someone who had always believed political opinions weren’t meant to be shared.
This, I think, created a problem. Not sharing political opinions resulted in never actually forming any political opinions of my own. I knew what my core values were on how people and the world should be treated, but I didn’t extend that thinking into politics. I didn’t associate myself with a particular party, nor did I vote in 2010 when I first became eligible to do so.
At 21 years old, in late 2010, I started a job in a place where people were different. A lot of my peers seemed to have all of this knowledge about politics in the current and historical sense, and all knew which party they aligned with. I kept out of the discussions, not letting anyone know that my knowledge of politics was minimal because not knowing anything about politics, and this is where my theory comes in, makes you vulnerable.
We live in an age now where it seems like everyone is an expert on politics as many people share their opinions and beliefs all over social media. Intimidating for someone who doesn’t know a lot about politics or how to engage in it, and a far cry from the ‘you’re not meant to tell people who you vote for’ era in which I grew up. If you don’t know a lot about politics, trying to have a valid voice against everyone else is terrifying. If you try to educate yourself on policies and parties or make a statement about what you believe in without knowing more about it or the source for your point, you’re attacked from either end of the spectrum. Those who are more knowledgeable can quickly tell you you’re wrong, or those who see you as a weak voter can come in with the agenda to persuade you to vote for the party they’re supporting.
Politics is a topic where it’s easy to make yourself look stupid. That’s how it makes you vulnerable, and that’s why I think a large proportion of the country don’t engage in it. It wasn’t until two years ago when I finally summoned up the courage to admit to people around me that I knew nothing about politics that an interest grew. Luckily, I had a friend who sat down with me and explained the way elections work, gave me an overview of the parties, then sent me links to all of the manifestos so I could make up my own mind. He answered all of my questions which I daren’t ask anyone previously, and had the patience to recognise that my lack of political engagement wasn’t down to an overall low level of intelligence, but a low level of understanding in a topic which I’d never been exposed to.
The policies and parties which you believe in are linked to your core values, and opening yourself up to being told you’re wrong or stupid about the way you see the world is the most vulnerable thing you can do. I was lucky in that I had people around me to point me in the right direction without berating or persuading me. From my experience, I would propose that there are a lot of people in the country who don’t have that opportunity, and so don’t vote as a result.
If I’m right, and you want to know more about politics but don’t have anyone you can ask about it, I’ve found these websites particularly useful when it comes to real sources of information rather than tabloid propaganda. Vote for Policies shows you the policies from all parties in an anonymous way, so you can pick which ones you agree with and find out which manifestos they came from at the end, and Full Fact is an independent and unbiased factchecking charity which deciphers through research what’s true in politics.
Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where politics is taught as a form of education from a young age by impartial academics and economists rather than a form of rallying or belittling. But for now, be nice to those who don’t know as much about politics as you do and share facts rather than biased sources. We don’t all have to agree, but we all have the privilege to vote and that’s what needs to be recognised. We do live in a democratic society, after all.