Having spent half a lifetime in political journalism, David Seymour has a thing or two to say to those that can’t be bothered with the ballot box. As we take a seat in a South Kensington cafe he tells it to me straight: ‘The thing is, I’m all in favour of cynicism in politics as long as it doesn’t extend to the BNP or not voting’.
His point is not to be taken lightly. Election turn-out since the end of the Second World War has plunged from 80% to 60% and is expected to fall even lower in the wake of the MP’s expenses scandal. This is especially the case with young people; the Electoral Commission has recently warned that over half of 17-25s eligible to vote are not registered to do so.
‘But just because many young people don’t seem interested in the election, that doesn’t mean they’re not political’. I’m with David on this, and point out that many under 25s are heavily involved with climate camps, Twitter storms, and ethical consumerism. ‘Yes. Really it’s the politicians that say you’re apathetic about politics’, he adds.
‘The problem is that there’s a disconnect between being passionate about certain issues and actually channelling this passion into support for political parties’. Co-authering a new book Why Vote? he wants to remedy this. But he doesn’t want to do it by painting a picture of how marvellous politicians are. No, before telling me why I should vote, he wants to make it clear that politics is blighted by a serious malaise.
Personality is first on the list of problems and Gordon Brown is certainly in David’s firing range. ‘Sure, people that do see a lot of him think he’s fantastic. But if you stick him in front of a television crew, he really doesn’t come across like that. I’ve found this with so many politicians.’
In October Brown was asked about his favourite biscuit during a live web chat with the parents’ website Mumsnet: he failed to answer. ‘You know, that’s a classic! If he does say ‘I like chocolate digestives’, does he think he’s going to be attacked by the BMA or suffer criticism by McVitties rivals?’ Leaning forward and tapping on the table to drive home his point, he says: ‘I mean what is the bloody issue? Biscuits will be sprinkled on his political grave, really’.
‘Young people have an idea that a lot of it is all bollocks’
Another problem is cowardice. ‘When they’re ministers they say they’ve got to criminalise more drugs, and do more CRB checks. But when they come out of the spotlight and sit down with a cup of tea, they have completely different ideas’.
There’s unpublished Home Office research, he assures me, that shows that the reason the number of burglaries has dropped suddenly isn’t because of intervention of the state with a tough law and order policy, but because the price of drugs collapsed with the invasion of Afghanistan. A side effect was to flood the market with drugs.
‘Tough policy isn’t what works in containing drugs, but they don’t want to be seen to acknowledge that. When will we ever hear a politician stand up and say “I know how to cut crime by 50% over night. The way to do it is to decriminalise drugs.” I’m not saying we should just do this. But if you’re arguing about crime, why has no politician got the balls to admit this?’
Seymour also thinks Parliament is a shambles. ‘MPs are used as lobby fodder to put through the next policy gimmick. The BBC’s The Thick of It is really it. That’s what’s actually happening inside. The House of Lords is actually far better than the House of Commons because most don’t give a toss about the whips or gimmicks.’
He hasn’t come to a conclusion about whether the character of politicians can change. But he does think that part of it is a reaction to the way the media operates now. ‘Politicians weren’t confronted with these things 40 years ago. There was no real direct challenging on TV. Now they are all the time and they just have to run the party line.’
There is a glimmer of hope, however. Seymour eagerly tells me that in this sea of political inanity, there are some that still keep politics afloat. His favourite is Ed Milliband. ‘Most politicians listen but respond with a stock politician answer. But Ed: you can challenge him on anything and he will have a debate about it; he really does it! That’s also why Cameron and Clegg are where they are. People realised they were actually good at having an open debate.’
‘To say you’re not going to vote is to let them get away with it’
But what about the rest? Can we intervene? ‘Yes! To say politicians aren’t doing anything for us, so we’re not going to vote, is to let them get away with it’. What’s more, and students should take note of to this, Seymour believes that ‘young people are in a better informed, more educated position to vote than ever before.’ This is partly because of the development of the internet and new media technologies. Sites such as Youth Net and Left Foot Forward provide a platform for young people to communicate about politics in a way they could never have done previously. He also suspects that young people are far less inclined to vote on the basis of celebrity or empty policy. ‘They have an idea that a lot of it is all bollocks’.
That’s all very well. But if you’ve got one vote, there’s not a lot you can do. ‘But the point is’, Seymour rebuts, ‘that you’re part of a bigger mass. Go out and get active!’
Hearing this, I feel a sense of urgency. Maybe, as a ‘young person’, I really am in a better position to avoid either naïve enthusiasm for voting as an end in itself, or cynical rejection of democracy as a meaningless charade. Sadly – and I’m sure most students (apathetic or not) can sympathise with this – buying a round in the pub that evening rather than purchasing a copy of Seymour’s new book Why Vote? got the better of me. Perhaps they stock it in the Bodleian.
Why Vote? A guide for those who can’t be bothered is by David Seymour and Jo Phillips. Published by Biteback.