Voter apathy is dangerous. Especially in the current social and political climate, choosing not to vote can lead at best to a politics which does not serve you, and at worst to a politics which will cause direct harm. Voter apathy also smacks of inherent privilege – the privilege not to care. However the results swing, your life won’t be affected much, for better or worse. But let’s say that the results of some election may matter hugely to someone else – a certain outcome may influence whether or not they can stay in education, work or even the country. Even if this is not a lived experience for you personally, with some level of empathy and the knowledge that your vote may influence someone else’s future, it is surely hard to remain apathetic. After all, your vote does not take place in a social vacuum.
It’s easy to say you won’t vote because ‘they’re all the same’ or ‘politics doesn’t concern me’ or ‘my vote won’t change anything’, but these are misguided ideas. ‘They’ aren’t actually all the same – not when you have extreme organisations on both ends of the political spectrum gaining increasing support in recent years, to the point that there is a real risk of parties like UKIP winning a lot more influence in parliament in the next election. Moreover, not voting because you believe your vote doesn’t count perpetuates the vicious cycle where not enough people vote to make it really count in the first place.
The dangers of widespread voter apathy don’t just exist in some far-off, uncaring future either: they are here now. The 2014 European Parliament elections stand as an example. The turnout was a mere 33.5 per cent in Scotland, with 34 per cent across the UK and 43 per cent across the EU. Scotland is entitled to six representatives in the European Parliament, which is roughly 883,000 Scots per MEP. And one of these MEPs ended up being the repulsive UKIP candidate, David Coburn.
David Coburn is considered a distasteful figure even in UKIP circles. Widespread calls for him to resign erupted last week when he compared Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Minister for External Affairs and International Development, to convicted terrorist Abu Hamza. Despite describing himself as “spectacularly homosexual” and a “big screaming poofter”, he considers same-sex marriage campaigners to be “equality Nazis”. He sees Scotland’s future as one of coal-powered re-industrialisation and the abandonment of renewable energy. He has lived much of his life in London, moving back north simply to stand in the election. He doesn’t understand Scotland, he doesn’t understand politics, and he doesn’t understand people. And yet, this disturbing figure represents one sixth of the Scottish population in the Strasbourg Parliament. 140,534 Scots voted for David Coburn. Now, he speaks for 883,000 of them.
Coburn’s success was a symptom of voter apathy at a critical level. Those who could have kept an unrepresentative figure such as Coburn out of parliament, those vast numbers of moderate, sensible, but disillusioned people are not having their voices heard. The scary thing is that these people are choosing not to be heard when they could be, and when they need to be. The independence referendum in September offered a glimmer of hope, lighting up a political fire in the Scottish population and resulting in an unheard-of 85 per cent turnout. This fire needs to be fanned, or society will be dragged into the dark, extreme corners of the political spectrum. To be apathetic towards this possibility is to be an accomplice.
Image: Man Vyi