The two by-elections yesterday have once more generated the usual discussion on the causes of non voting and leading to some to wonder whether democracy is facing extinction. As ever such a debate brings out the usual list of grievances against the political system - complaints about the voting system, complaints about the government's style, about the effectiveness of the opposition parties, calls for separates, attacks on "politicians" and so forth. And yet this ignores the decline in turnout across most western democracies. Is low turnout in the UK caused by local factors or is it a wider problem?
Someone reminded me that voting is a choice between different packages. A voter can be offered so many. In Sedgefield at the general election there were 15 candidates, not far behind the 1993 Newbury by-election that had the record at 19. In the US Presidential election approximately 1000 people contested it (and that's not including unregistered write-in candidates). And maybe that's the problem - nowadays people are used to far, far more choice than that.
As a random example, I have by my computer a leaflet for the Leytonstone Tandoori. It offers me a choice of a four course meal plus drink. Now I haven't done substantial statiscal maths of this kind since I was 17, but I reckon the number of possible meal combinations including a starter, a curry, rice, a nan and a soft drink (and that's an understatement of what I could order) works out as follows:
Curries of all kinds: 100
Rice or equivalent: 8
Soft drinks: 15
If I've got the formula right that works out as 1,440,000 different packages - and that's before we even get onto other side orders, sundries, deserts and the like. Now it's true that a lot of the curries are actually relatively similar, with subtle differences. But as the customer I have the option to decide exactly which one I would like. I do not simply look at a list of twenty different meal combinations made up of the above and decide which overall package I would like.
And it's not just food. Clothes are usually purchased on an individual basis. Many further and higher education courses are now modularised, allowing the student to chose the combination they like. Many may still buy package holidays, but many others now book travel and accommodation separately.
But politics hasn't developed in this way. It still offers packages that contain items that many voters find objectionable. Many claim that people are interested in politics but just don't see how political parties can achieve things. There have been many occasions when Parliament votes for something that opinion polls are against. Many ask how they can have their voice heard on this single issue.
I'm not sure what the solution is. Yet more elections and constant referendums on issues seem unlikely to attract sufficient turnouts to reverse the flow. Primary elections have the danger of allowing one party's candidates and policy to be influenced by extremist pressure groups. Government by opinion poll does not inspire much confidence. Truly political parties across the west need to find new ways to reengage with voters. But does anyone know how?