26 Jan 2010

A sorry landscape as Britain emerges from recession

‘Tis the season of mellow fruitlessness – the season in the political orchard that sees last year’s rotten fruit still on the ground and slim evidence of any spring buds to come.

I cannot remember a general election less looked forward to, nor an array of contestants, across the board, that people feel less enthusiasm for. Even the prospect of unprecedented debate between the leaders feels like avoidable television.

Today’s publication of the British Social Attitudes survey reveals that only 56 per cent of the population think it is “everyone’s duty to vote” – down from 68 per cent in 1991. That is some fall.

It is a finding that my own anecdotal observations concur with. Indeed the finding that only 41 per cent of under 35s think they should is something of which I am even more strongly aware.

There is an apathy out there. There is a disconnect out there which represents a very serious challenge to what we understand as democracy. As politicians battle to blame each other for different aspects of the recession, our own Channel 4 News poll suggests that few are ready to credit their leaders for any of the green shoots you may detect in today’s GDP figures.

For years the population has put up with electoral change in which a party with a minority of the potential popular vote grabs absolute power and proceeds to wield it as if it enjoyed more or less absolute popular support.

Listening to the veteran Labour MP Austin Mitchell last night explaining how he mistakenly overcharged the tax payer by £10,000 for his mortgage made me wonder how it is that all these “mistakes” had left MPs of all parties better off.

The fact is that politics and politicians are enjoying the worst odour any of us have known in any of our lifetimes. Couple this with the dwindling of voting duty and a record low turn-out at the next election beckons.

Who would go into politics to stink of such scent? Who would willingly subject themselves to the bullying and bruising? Then there are Chilcott’s daily reminders of the bizarre decision-making process that led up to Iraq War, with little involvement of the Cabinet let alone parliament.

It’s a bleak landscape out there and the public sees few, if any, political heroes staggering about on it. The next election won’t just be a test of our leaders, it’s also going to be a test of faith in our system of governance.

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