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What’s behind the missing million voters?

This opinion piece is over 9 years old

Willie Sullivan says people chose not to vote not because they think life is fine but because they lack faith in the power of the ballot box

Willie Sullivan, Electoral Reform Society
Willie Sullivan, Electoral Reform Society

Our football team might not qualify for the World Cup, but look at our mountains and glens.

It rains a lot but our folk are mostly warm and funny.

Our politicians are annoying but at least we live in a democracy.

Or do we?

Democracy is best summed up as “government of the people by the people for the people”. But across Scotland, mainly in the traditional working-class areas and inner cities, a majority of people don’t vote in elections to the Scottish Parliament and barely a fifth vote in council elections.

Hundreds of thousands are not even registered to vote. This is government, but is it for us and by us?

Life for the non-voting group has worsened. That feeling that your pay does not stretch nearly as far as it used to is borne about by statistics. We have the second lowest-paid workforce in the developed world. We pay more of our wages in housing costs than we ever did in the past.

People are worried about paying bills or losing jobs – low level anxiety is part of normal modern life. So, if working-class communities are not voting, it can’t be because they think everything is all right.

Democracy in Scotland is not that old.

People are worried about paying bills or losing jobs – low level anxiety is part of normal modern life. So, if working-class communities are not voting, it can’t be because they think everything is all right.

Just over 100 years ago, only property owners were allowed to vote. The “vote for all” was strongly fought for by the Labour movement.

The ruling classes only gave it up as they knew those returning from the bloody sacrifices of World War 1 trenches would not tolerate have defended a country in which they would continue to have no say.

If the working people wanted democracy, why do so many now not vote? Surely these are the people that should be most eager to flex their democratic muscle?

In research for my book, Missing Scotland, I tried to find out why more than a million Scots choose not to vote. What I found is worrying.

Most important of all, people don’t think voting will make anything better. They have tried voting, and they have tried not voting, and there is no difference. They think politicians are all the same, don’t understand their lives and they make promises they never keep.

This is not a question of not caring. The people I spoke to care a lot about their families and communities. They are worried about losing their homes or their jobs. They even like the idea of democracy, they just don’t think we have it. Not voting is often a deliberate act.

These people are probably right when they say politicians don’t understand their lives. The political elites in Scotland are drawn mainly from the managerial and political classes. Only 10% of MSPS come from blue and white-collar jobs, compared with more than 60% of Scots.

Westminster is even less representative of the working population, with only 4% of MPs coming from blue or white-collar backgrounds. A third of MPs went to a private school, and most of the cabinet went to Oxford or Cambridge University.

It is also true that politicians generally talk with only a small group of swing voters who live in marginal seats. These are not the solid Labour seats where winning votes can be weighted, like Motherwell or Wishaw, but areas where lots of people vote and switch their vote, such as Edinburgh South.

In the general election campaign of 2010, the parties spent £1.81 per head reaching the voters of Edinburgh South (turnout 73.8%) and only 25p a voter in Motherwell (turnout 58.5%).

This is a vicious circle: if working people don’t vote in high enough numbers, then politicians make policy for the people in Edinburgh South and not for the people in Motherwell because their votes are either in the bag or not being used.

So things don’t improve for working-class communities and therefore people don’t see the point in voting.

The referendum is a different story. Unlike the safe seats of our Westminster system, every vote will count.

Perhaps because it’s less about politicians and parties and instead about having a direct influence on the future, people who don’t vote say they just might turn out on 18 September.

For the first time in a generation, working people in Scotland have real political power. Here’s hoping we get a taste for it.

Willie Sullivan is director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland. His book, Missing Scotland, will be out in the second week of August.

This is part of a series of TFN articles that focus on the #Missingmillion people who are not intending to vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September.