Turnout in elections continues to fall: below 50 per cent for the
Scottish Parliament; below 40 per cent for the Welsh Assembly; and
plunging well below 30 per cent in some local council elections.
For all the political rhetoric about re-engagement with the public,
reconnecting voters and the political process, it seems the
electorate are just not that bothered any more by politics.
Some observers deplore the failure of voters to participate: a
common refrain is that if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right
to complain about services. The reality is that the public will
engage and reconnect on their own terms, normally when roused by
what they see as “enemy action” by the authorities – planning
applications, hospital closures or traffic management schemes.
However, rather than hectoring people, it is, perhaps, more
interesting to understand what they are choosing to do with their
time away from formal civic engagement.
As voting has declined, so has the mass membership of political
parties. Some of that energy has gone into single-issue campaigns,
with environmental organisations, in particular, dwarfing our
traditional parties. An even more intriguing comparison is that one
million people in Britain – more than the combined membership of
all the political parties in the UK – belong to health clubs.
What does it mean that we have turned from trying to change the
world to settling for changing our body shape? Swedish author Sven
Lindqvist tries to get to grips with this question in his book
Bench Press,1 a meditation on what the cult of exercise
has to tell us about self and society. “I belong”, he writes, “to a
generation that took democracy seriously. We sat on committees, we
battled away in residents’ associations, we were opinion formers
and petition organisersÉ But gradually people discovered that
they had been cheated, and life changed direction. We met at the
gym. Our desire for change is the same: reformism. The difference
here is that change is a real possibility at last, because there is
a genuine link between the action and the result.”
How true that is, for so many of us – the retreat, or switch of
focus, to the personally controllable sphere, whether it be the
gym, the garden or the family. But there is a melancholy fall as
Lindqvist reflects: “The dream of a new society came to be replaced
by the dream of a new bodyÉ it’s all that’s left for the
powerless individual.” Personal fulfilment – but at what cost? We
may never recover the simple, inspiring certainties of the old
collective movements – “an injury to one is an injury to all” – but
is atomised individualism all we have to look forward to?
John McTernan is a political analyst
1 S Lindqvist, Bench Press, Granta,