Rupert Myers is a barrister, writer and Deputy Chairman of the Bermondsey & Old Southwark Conservative Association.
Yesterday I wanted to quote John Patrick McEnroe to the good people of Wythenshawe & Sale East who told me either that they were voting UKIP in protest, or choosing not to vote at all: you cannot be serious.
I wanted to plead down the phone. I struggled to keep my temper during dispiriting conversations with men and women who saw no point in voting, people who had become despondent about politics and the prospects of change.
To the man who proudly told me that he could see no difference between the three main parties on the issues, I am sorry for the tirade.
Whilst I’d like to say that the fashion for being disillusioned was so 2013, the 28.24 per cent turnout suggests that it will be some time before enthusiasm for politics becomes the trend. The man I should have quoted to them was the Frenchman Joseph de Maistre who wrote “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite” – every nation gets the government it deserves. What sort of government do disillusioned, non-voters deserve?
From Russell Brand to Nigel Farage, across the spectrum it has become fashionable to talk about people who have lost faith in Westminster. The dangerous cycle of disillusionment is that it leads to worse, less popular politicians who command less respect from smaller numbers of electors. Too many non-voters in Wythenshawe & Sale East agree with this narrative, despite the flawed results which follow from it.
If we have become disappointed by the conduct of our political classes, dismayed at the failures of people who are elected, the conclusion we draw from this shouldn’t be to devalue the practice of politics, or to promote anti-politics. We have a basic choice: devalue politics, or do the exact opposite.
If you are unhappy with the food you get in a restaurant, you can opt to find a better restaurant, or give up looking for good food. We should be celebrating the importance of politics and encouraging stronger candidates to come forward. When a man who described the manifesto he endorsed and launched as ‘drivel’ and a comedian who proudly doesn’t vote are said by many to articulate a national mood, we’re not responding to disillusionment sensibly.
How do we change this? By agreeing that apathy elects the politicians that it deserves, cynical Frank Underwoods who are even less inspiring, less concerned about what their apathetic voters think of them. As Conservatives we recognise that there is more to life than politics, and that government doesn’t hold the solutions to many of our problems, but we must still argue for faith in politics.
Having just been selected to stand in the local elections in May, I have to believe that elections can select the best candidates, and that it is still possible to inspire hope and optimism in the electorate. We must get the message out there that it just isn’t socially acceptable to give up on politics and to abandon it to the most extreme elements.
We face a paradox in which parties win votes by criticising the quality of the status quo whilst offering no prospect of improvement. Unless we can change minds and inspire the electorate, apathy will result in the election of politicians who make us more apathetic still.
The signal from Wythenshawe isn’t just the 4,301 votes for UKIP, but the 71.76 per cent of the electorate who voted for nobody. What sort of government do they deserve? The government they need is one which inspires them to vote again, but the politicians who benefit from their apathy will never do that. The discussion we all deserve is one which debunks disillusionment for the dangerous trend it has become.