Wednesday, 6 May 2015 00:00
Whereas the voter turnout in Sri Lanka reaches record levels, anything between 75%-85%, here in the UK there is an apathy that undermines the democratic process
So tomorrow Britain goes to the polls. How many of those who have the right to vote will actually get that far is unpredictable. At the last general election in 2010 a fraction over 65% of eligible voters cast their ballots.
It might well be less this time round seeing that more and more people are getting fed up with the prevarications and failed promises made particularly before an election by political parties and their leaders.
Writing elsewhere this week I said that public indifference and even anger at unfulfilled pledges appears to have infected the election campaign itself producing perhaps the most boring election confrontation in recent years.
Lacking dramatic fizz and effervescence
On Sunday Liberal-Democratic Party leader Nick Clegg confirmed my observation in remarks to a television reporter that this election had been “drained of oxygen”. What is so incredible is that the campaign lacked that dramatic fizz and effervescence that make a campaign come alive.
Perhaps one could say that it lacked the Sri Lanka moment. Those who have followed election campaigns back home over the years would miss the huge mass rallies often characterised by rent-a-crowd participation, of blaring public address systems that belt out raucous music and the ear-splitting, headache-giving verbal onslaughts of candidates and supporters alike, not to mention the abuse hurled at political opponents.
After covering one political campaign rally many, many years ago I remember writing that the party’s arguments were sound-merely sound. It is even worse today as the recent presidential election campaign so amply displayed.
But there is more to the Sri Lanka moment – the physical violence and the burning and destruction of stages and venues of campaign meetings. Thankfully Britain eschews this kind of political conduct and campaigns have a civilised air.
Apathy undermining democratic process
But this has its downside. Whereas the voter turnout in Sri Lanka reaches record levels, anything between 75%-85%, here in the UK there is an apathy that undermines the democratic process. Much of this is the result of the mistrust of politicians that has been built up over the years.
Latest figures show that in the age-group 17-24 years some 56% of those eligible to vote has not registered. Moreover 31% from ethnic minorities have also kept away. Add to that the substantial number of persons who were undecided a week ago, many of whom have apparently still not made up their minds.
Among the imponderables that make fairly accurate forecasting by opinion pollsters difficult is not knowing how many will actually cast their ballots and how many will stay away even though entitled to vote.
Take one other statistic that displays the growing disenchantment with the politics of the three main parties. In the 1950s the Conservative Party had a membership of nearly three million. Today is it a miserable 134,000. Labour support has also moved from an industrial working class to a rather unstable service sector class.
Shift in the political tectonic plate
Meanwhile new parties that better represent today’s political environment and ethos are emerging. These may be strongly nationalist grouping such as the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), UK Independence Party (UKip) and the Green Party besides smaller groups in Northern Ireland and Wales.
The biggest shift in the political tectonic plate has been in Scotland where Labour held 41 seats out of 59 in the last parliament but is expected to lose most of them to SNP tomorrow.
The big question
Now the big question is whether a bruised and battered Labour Party will emerge as the single largest party but without an overall majority that must necessarily make it dependent on other parties to get the necessary votes. If so will it work out some arrangement with the SNP with which Ed Miliband has said clearly he will not form a coalition or do deals, so that a Labour government can survive as a minority government?
Prime Minister David Cameron has tried to frighten the daylights out of the English voters saying this would be the first step to the break-up of the United Kingdom as the SNP will continue to fight for an independent Scotland.
Even if, as the Conservatives argue this will be a case of the tail wagging the dog, in truth it would be difficult for SNP to vote against a Labour minority government and bring it down.
For the other scenario of an alternative Conservative minority administration put together with support of some smaller parties such as UKip and Welsh MPs is even more abhorrent for the Scottish nationalists.
Significance for Britain’s political system
All this is predicated on the general opinion among the media and academics that neither of the major parties will get an overall majority and dependence on the minor parties for a Conservative or Labour government to survive becomes inevitable.
This has quite some significance for Britain’s political system. Voters are moving away from the two major parties as the sharp drops in memberships of the parties indicate. They are looking at alternatives outside the traditional two-party system on which the first-past-the-post election structure was constructed.
What is being witnessed here now is the kind of political stitch-ups and arrangements that have been seen in Germany and other European states. This calls for one or two smaller parties or even a cluster of support, built round a major party.
Time for change
It will not be wrong to say that the next parliament in Westminster will have to seriously consider changes including perhaps introducing some aspects of proportional representation to accommodate the political shifts one is seeing today. In 2011 parliament voted down overall electoral reforms but it might not be able to postpone such consideration during the current parliament.
So while Sri Lanka is envisaging a return to the first-past-the-post electoral system, Britain might have to look at the possibility of moving away from it though it had served well but is now becoming outdated with the passage of time.
In the last week or more opinion poll results have kept changing. One day the Conservatives are leading by a percentage point or so. The next day Labour has picked up and is said to be a point ahead.
No wonder experts say that this election is hard to call. Some even say that Britain is at the cross-roads. A lot would depend on how cross the people are and whether the head or the heart will prevail as they cast their ballots tomorrow.