General Election 2019: Democracy in the UK has a problem, and it’s not the weather – Kenny MacAskill

Amid complaints about a winter election and growing contempt for politicians, society must change to ensure more people are engaged in democracy, writes Kenny MacAskill.

There were arguments against holding a winter election. The strongest, perhaps, that the Tories could get an outright majority. However, I’m not sure that’ll be the case. Folk are fickle and elections have a habit of developing a dynamic of their own as 2017 showed.

More issues than Brexit will come to the fore, especially how the Tories have imposed austerity and the future of the NHS. In any event, if it does come to pass as seems certain, it’s called democracy and though I regret that the people of England will have embraced Brexit, that’s their right and entitlement.

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And an election there had to be. Parliament’s deadlocked and governance has collapsed, never mind people losing the will to live. The biggest loser so far in all this charade has been democracy itself.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon joins Alyn Smith, the SNP's candidate for Stirling, on the general election campaign trail in the city. (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon joins Alyn Smith, the SNP's candidate for Stirling, on the general election campaign trail in the city. (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

The spectacle that has unfolded has been unedifying and is proving corrosive. Contempt for politics and politicians is real, growing and concerning. Irrespective of who caused it, all are being blamed for it.

Respect has to be earned and trust, once lost, is hard to restore – MPs are badly tarnished on both counts in the public’s eye. It’s not going to be quick and it’s certainly not going to be easy but restored they must be, by whoever is elected.

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Boris Johnson addresses the Commons from the despatch box. Who will be standing there after 12 December? (Picture: PRU/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s the danger, of course, that the outcome leaves us still in limbo and facing another “hung parliament”, but that’s a risk that had to be taken. An attempt to break the impasse was required.

There was no possibility of a referendum being agreed to try and resolve Brexit. Postponing an election to next year or whenever was even more absurd. The weakest of all arguments is that of opposing an election because it’s winter.

Civic Literacy

For sure, if we face another “Beast from the East”, there’ll be a problem. But remember that was in February with a lesser version in March. There’s therefore no perfect time for an election. Weather can be problematic in every season and whilst campaigning in short sleeves and going to the polls in sunshine might be preferable, it’s not a critical factor.

Complaints by politicians about the difficulty of campaigning deserve similar derision. The election is about the voter, not political activists. Short days and bad weather make it problematic but not impossible to get out and about. Besides, given the headlong rush to the polls, more than ever before this is going to be a war fought in the media in all its facets, from press and TV through to new social platforms.

What matters in elections isn’t the timing or conditions they’re held in, but the understanding and information on what it’s about? Many years ago, I read a fascinating book by an academic from Quebec, Henry Milner, called Civic Literacy. I lent it to a ministerial colleague who shamefully never returned it. I’ll spare their blushes and won’t expose them but it means I’m relying on my memory rather than exact reference.

However, Milner compared and contrasted why people vote or don’t as the case may be. The book included case studies of Scandinavia with its normal high turnout and other countries with lower participation rates.

It found that even attempts at compulsion, as in Australia where it’s a legal requirement to vote, won’t make some cast their ballot. Other fanciful suggestions, from being about to vote at Tesco through to being paid to do so, were also not key.

Politicians not all the same

Instead what mattered was motivation and understanding. The former’s easy to appreciate. We’ve all seen footage of voters queuing for hours in the blazing sun to cast their votes in post-apartheid South Africa and even in contemporary USA.

It’s actually quite inspiring and why, for political activists from all parties, there’s nothing more depressing than those who just can’t be bothered voting. An active abstention is one thing, no interest quite another.

But as Milner explained what really mattered was civic literacy or more prosaically an understanding of and engagement with civic society. That went from membership of groups, trade unions and parties through to a quality press, and appreciation of civic issues from the economy to our society. That latter aspect helps explain why turnout is higher in a referendum than an election, as the issue is usually clearer. Those factors are also stronger in Scandinavia than other lands.

So, it’s not the weather that’s the challenge for politicians but explaining the issues. Parties are not all the same or politicians just in it for themselves. It’s incumbent on all participating to try and explain the issues but it’s a societal not just political challenge. It won’t be easy but our democracy requires it.