Democracy: let's take a leaf out of Scotland's book

By Bernadette Meaden
September 23, 2014

It’s a fact that the people who suffer most harm from government policies are the people least likely to vote. A common reason for not voting is that ‘it doesn’t make any difference’. This may feel true, but a striking piece of research into the 2010 Spending Review showed that voting makes a very real difference to how people are treated.

Comparing voter turnout and planned spending cuts, the report concluded: "non-voters will be almost twice as badly affected by…the Spending Review as those who went to the polls in 2010."

The authors pointed out that this could become a downward spiral, as "over time, and as a consequence of sustained (self) exclusion from electoral politics…parties start to form strategies and policies that are biased in favour of those groups with relatively high turn-out rates, and ignore those who are less likely to participate." Quite simply, if you don’t vote, your needs are ignored.

Since 2010, we have seen this type of politics in action. Austerity is aimed squarely at the most disadvantaged people and areas, with disabled people, young people and those on the lowest incomes bearing the brunt of cuts. Older and more prosperous people have been relatively protected, as they turn out to vote in higher numbers, so no party wants to alienate them.

If disadvantaged people are ever to be treated fairly, they can’t rely on organisations to speak for them. Individuals need to vote. And perhaps the best action charities can take is to run voter registration campaigns. This may not please Brooks Newmark, the government minister who told charities to stay out of politics and stick to their knitting, but who could complain about helping people to exercise their democratic rights? Surely it’s the Big Society in action?

For people with learning disabilities and autism, many badly affected by spending cuts and welfare reform, there are some steps being taken. The Love Your Vote campaign helps people understand politics and register to vote. Love your Vote says, "We can come to you, for free, and run a workshop. Each workshop lasts a couple of hours and can be delivered to around 20 people."

For young people, also at the receiving end of punitive austerity policies, there is the Bite The Ballot campaign. They too will come out to visit a school, college, university or youth club and deliver educational sessions, plus a lunch time Registration Rally.

And inspired by the sight of well-informed and passionate sixteen and seventeen year olds voting in the Scottish referendum, there are now calls to extend this to the whole UK. There is an e-petition http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/64232 here.

It’s to be hoped that before the next General Election, many more campaigns boost the level of public engagement. It may be the most valuable thing that any group working for social justice could do. Not to speak up for people who are disadvantaged, but to ensure that those who are disadvantaged use their own voice.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” Alice Walker.

* It takes five minutes to register to vote online here.

* Paper registration forms can be downloaded here.

* More on the referendum here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/scottishindependence

* More on the upcoming General Election from Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

Views expressed by individual contributors do not necessarily reflect an official Ekklesia view.
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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.