Engagement?: Make It So…

I recently read Lesley Riddoch expressing frustration at the lack of a spark regarding this general election, and that it did not seem to have captured the electorate’s imagination. She quoted a poll in early February for TNS, suggesting that only 64% of Scots were likely to vote, which was not only close to the 2010 figures, but also meant that three quarters of a million people that voted in the Referendum (where there was an 84.5% turnout) were simply not going to vote. She rightly mourned what seemed to be a loss of engagement – even in terms of electoral communications, Ashcroft’s poll in the first week of February showed that only 13% of voters had heard from the SNP, and only 9% from Labour. To be fair, Labour have a small problem with declining membership and active supporters…so it was perhaps no surprise that by the start of March they had to resort to sending out their big glossy leaflets and paying the Royal Mail to deliver them for them. Its probably more expensive now it has been privatized – perhaps Labour are regretting proposing that privatization, just before they left government in 2010, as they did not anticipate their supply of ‘boots on the ground’ drying up so fast…

However, her fears may have been premature, as subsequent polls have indicated a gear shift in the electorate, and clear water opening up between Scots’ intention to use their franchise, as against the rest of the UK.

The Hansard Society’s annual Audit of Political Engagement found Scots by far the most politically active in the UK: 62% (13% above the UK average) describe themselves as at least fairly interested in politics, 39% describe themselves as a strong supporter of a political party, 44% (32% UK average) believe they can make a difference to the way the country is run…and Scots are also more likely to say that the current political system needs “a great deal of improvement” than anywhere else in the UK. So ‘we’re no’ happy’ – nothing new there, some might say – but the headline figure is that 72% are likely to vote in the General Election in May…compared with the 49% UK average.

A ‘rogue poll’, as former Scottish Labour leader Ian Gray might say? Well, a new study of 7,000 voters by the University of Edinburgh showed an ongoing sense of political engagement in Scotland, with 76% of Scots likely to vote in the General Election – more than 10% greater than any other territory in the UK. So apparently we are coming to the party after all…although still almost 10% down on the Referendum turnout – so far.

This higher likelihood to vote was shown across the demographics, most strikingly with 65% of 18-19 year olds likely to vote (compared to only 34% in England), and more 18-24 year olds planning to vote in Scotland compared to England – and that has to be a result of the way the Referendum engaged younger adults for the first time, with 16 and 17 year olds (some of the latter will of course now be turning 18 in time for this vote) voting in higher proportions than any other under 35 group last September. And this is not some idle dabbling – there are current issues that directly concern their immediate future: youth unemployment is a pan-European problem standing at 22.9% of under 25s (17.6% for the UK, 15.9% for Scotland). Tellingly, another University of Edinburgh survey asked young people which political party they felt closest to, and the results were: SNP 28%, Greens 14%, Conservatives 8%, Labour 8%…and LibDems 0%. This last figure may seem shocking – the LibDems were always the student progressive party…and yet, as Patrick Harvie suggested, this emphatic vote of no confidence from what used to be one of their electoral strongholds, is probably a direct result of their volte face on tuition fees. Reap the whirlwind…

In the context of youth engagement, it is worth noting that – without a whiff of self-awareness or irony – the second largest unelected legislative body in the world, the House of Lords, recently criticised the legal amendment from the House of Commons in the wake of the Smith Commission to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in next year’s Holyrood elections. Their concerns (as they wailed and gnashed their teeth that it was not a new bill that they could block and send back repeatedly until the Commons just gave up) were that it might cause 16 and 17 year olds in the rest of the UK to get ideas. Yup – that’s kind of the idea – and has been the idea behind everything the Scottish Government has tried to do since 2007, in acting as a beacon of showing that There Is Another Way in the UK.

Let’s rerun some of the arguments one more time for extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds: they can get married; they can be taxed – but cannot vote for the tax policies that they want; can live independently – but have no say over housing policy; many are in Full Time Education – but have no control over the education system; can join the armed forces – though the UK is criticised for this internationally – but have no voice on defence or foreign affairs. The double standards of then denying them the vote, when so much is being taken from them (and that is not talking about the welfare cuts that are removing their independence) – and by unelected out-of-touch peers of the realm – is a stunningly gross hypocrisy.

Perhaps one of the factors that was giving ‘Their Esteemed Ermined Majesties’ pause for thought, was the large scale support for both the SNP and independence amongst those emergent voters – ‘Generation Yes’ is perhaps growing up a little too fast into the franchise for them.
“Could you tell me how you think the strategy of piecemeal devolution in Scotland in order to kill nationalism stone dead is going?” (Michael Forsyth in House of Lords, 10/3/2015)

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