Wednesday, 6 November 2013

A Cold Day In Hell: Motivating the Non-Vote Will Not Be Easy

Politics? ZZZZZZ: New Zealand’s political culture is nothing like as vibrant as it was 25 years ago. Most people have little in the way of contact with either politicians or political parties, and very few remain loyal to the great ideological narratives of the twentieth century. On the contrary, for many electors deciding who to vote for is as simple as asking: “What’s in it for me?”

DUNEDIN NIGHTS are often cold, observed James K Baxter in the opening line of his celebrated “Ode To Mixed Flatting”. He should probably have added that the days can be pretty darn chilly as well. Saturday, 14 July 1984 was one such day. In France it was Bastille Day. In New Zealand it was the day of Sir Robert Muldoon’s final folly – the Snap Election. And in Dunedin it was snowing.
 
I remember the snow because of the old woman who was doggedly making her way through it to the polling-booth. The scene is imprinted on my memory both visually and aurally. That’s because her response to my offer of assistance was not easily forgotten:
 
“No thank you dear, I’m quite capable of getting rid of that bastard Muldoon all by myself!”
 
That indomitable old dame was not alone in her determination to have her say that icy election day. The turnout on 14 July 1984 was a staggering 93.7 percent – the highest in our history.
 
What a contrast we find when we turn from the election of 1984 to the election of 2011. Two years ago there were 3,070,847 New Zealanders registered to join in the precious democratic rituals of electing a government. The number who ended up actually casting a vote, however, was just 2,278,989. At 74.21 percent, the turnout was the lowest since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1893.
 
Cui bono? Who benefited from this extraordinarily low (by New Zealand standards) turnout? That’s easy. Out of the 2,278,989 citizens who did their democratic duty, an astonishing 1,058,636 voted for John Key’s National Party.
 
I say astonishing because Mr Key actually increased his party’s share of the vote. From 44.9 percent in 2008 the Government’s plurality jumped to 47.3 percent in 2011. (Interestingly, only 5,238 more actual votes were cast for National, but with the record low turnout that relatively small number was enough to lift the party’s vote-share by an impressive 2.4 percentage points.)
 
The big question for the 2014 General Election must, therefore, be: Will the number of citizens entering the polling booths return to a figure approximating the average turnout of the past quarter-century (82.6 percent) or will it continue its downward slide towards the much lower participation rates characteristic of the USA and the UK?
 
Putting the question another way: What will it take to rouse the 791,858 abstainers of 2011 from their political slumber and thus prevent the National Party from winning an outright majority of seats with fewer actual votes than it received in either of the past two elections?
 
It’s a question that looms much larger for the leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe, than it does for the Prime Minister, Mr Key. Those on the right of politics are, by and large, much more conscientious and reliable voters than those who, when they can be bothered voting at all, tend to support the parties of the left.
 
To win in 2014, Labour must find some way of rousing its dormant electoral base. By contrast, to remain prime minister, Mr Key has only to hold the voters he already has. If Mr Cunliffe cannot devise a strategy which appreciably inflates the turnout of “traditional” Labour voters he cannot hope to defeat the government.
 
This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. New Zealand’s political culture is nothing like as vibrant as it was 25 years ago. Most people have little in the way of contact with either politicians or political parties, and very few remain loyal to the great ideological narratives of the twentieth century. On the contrary, for many electors deciding who to vote for is as simple as asking: “What’s in it for me?”
 
For the farmer, the business person, the property owner, and the financial investor it’s all pretty straightforward. What’s in it for National’s electoral base is economic growth, low inflation, reduced taxation and a reasonable rate-of-return. What they’re not looking for is more economic regulation, higher taxes, rising prices or inflationary wage demands.
 
Getting the attention of those who feel that their stake in New Zealand society is much too meagre to matter is a considerably more daunting task. Contemporary politics mocks their lack of anything to lose – not even Marx’s chains.
 
It will be a cold day in Hell before they vote again.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 November 2013.

6 comments:

Phil said...

You've left out some key information, Chris.

Firstly, voter turnout has been trending downward since 1945 (the earliest year I could easily find data for) so I think it's incorrect to pin the blame on the 'recent' disconnect between political machines and the unwashed voting masses.

Secondly, there is an indication in the turnout data that the 'horse race' matters. Elections where National and Labour have polled very closely, and where a change of government is imminent, correlate to increases in turnout. For example,1984 had the best turnout in a quarter century. We also had a relatively high turnout in 1996 as everybod got excited about MMP.

2002 and 2011, on the other hand, where the result was more or less inevitable in the minds of most voters, had very low turnouts.

Chris Trotter said...

All well and good, Phil, but the actual turnout numbers remained comfortably in the 80-90% range right up until 2002.

And even after the 2002 election the turnout stayed close to 80%.

The 5 percentage point drop, from 79.4% in 2008 to 74.2% in 2011 makes the latter turnout the lowest since the introduction of universal suffrage.

It's more than a gentle fluctuation that we're witnessing, it's a potentially disastrous collapse in democratic participation.

Anonymous said...

People aren't excited, partly because there's no damn policy differences. My son asked me who I was going to vote for in the local body elections this year – I said "I don't know because none of them actually say anything about their political positions, just vague generalities about working hard for the district. So I'm going to vote for people I know and flag everyone else away." Now I suspect in the case of local body politician that's a deliberate policy. But I want to see some bloody differentiation. But the only differentiation I can see is not between Labour and National.

Davo Stevens said...

It's a problem that besets all of the western democracies not just our own.

Part but not all of the problem is the almost complete disdain of the voting public by our political masters. They believe that they are born to rule.

There will always be voter apathy until the voters feel that their vote really counts.

Nic the NZer said...

Yeah, 1984, it seems that this was the beginning of two things. 1) Both Labour and National political platforms became more and more similar, and 2) voters reduced their turn out. Might be a correlation somewhere there?

It was also the election which introduced Roger Douglas economic policy, now history, but even if we take it that Labour repudiates many of the ideas of neo-liberal politics it will be rather long road to rebuild trust with the voting public. Labour needs to repudiate neo-liberalism in practise, not in words, because we have observed neo-liberal policy has been frequently implemented behind a whole bunch of secrecy and deception and in spite not because of a public mandate.

finbar lochlin said...

All i can say regarding getting our youth off the couch to vote.

Last election i was lucky, the night before was my sons birthday,so arriving home in the morning with 17 bodies male and female,laying all over the place had a choice.I asked them how many were registered to vote,14 including my lad.So i gave them a choice,they could stay behind and help the other three, non registered, to clean up the mess,two decided to clean up.So 12 voted for the first time.

But more importantly, the bean counters or more probable term boffins, who earn a living coming up with facts and figures recon that,"first time voters, who do not vote in most cases will never"

I doubted that, however,come the last Local Body Elections, my lad and two of his mates asked me if they could vote in the local body elections.Amazing.