“The difference between a politician and a statesperson,” remarked James Freeman Clarke, “Is that a politician thinks of the next election while a statesman thinks of the next generation.”
Today, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap general election to be held on June 8 of this year. From today, that effectively sentences the British public to seven more weeks of droning political debate, hyperbole and misdirection.
Mrs. May is either being very brave or remarkably reckless. Her character to date suggests that she normally wants to be seen as a safe pair of hands and a measured voice in volatile times. However, she is leaving herself open to the charge that in this case she is listening too much to her inner politician and not enough to the potential statesperson.
Media pundits are already rushing to judgement, despite the fact that they were as surprised by the announcement as anyone else. The fact is that it is highly unlikely that anyone will predict the outcome of this election with any degree of accuracy, for two reasons.
The first is that prediction in politics has become a wildcard enterprise. In futurism, we use the term “wildcard events” to describe occurrences which have a low probability but potentially high impact. They’re unlikely to happen but when they do they leave huge and unsettling changes in their wake.
Tsunamis are usually wildcard events, as are plagues of disease. Now more than ever, elections are wildcard events. In the USA as in the UK, even the most celebrated pollsters seem unable to read the runes of modern elections.
Where politics was once a river – with strong currents but a relatively predictable course – today it acts more like a large and very unpredictable wave. We may see some sort of change approaching, but the wave could break in any of fifty different ways.
This high degree of unpredictability produces fatigue in an electorate which is already arguably dealing with more life decisions in a month than its grandparents might have faced in a year.
Most people elect politicians for one purpose only – and it is not to promote party affiliation. Parliamentarians are elected to solve problems, to add value to those areas of community life which the public deems most important at a particular point in time.
Predicting outcomes for this election will also be difficult because of a high degree of voter fatigue among the British public. Fatigue often produces unpredictability. People will respond to polling questions off the tops of their heads, having neither the interest or the energy to fully think through the issues involved.
We had our last general election in 2015, a surprise outright win for the Tories. This was followed by the seemingly never-out-of-earshot Leave and Remain campaigns leading up to the Brexit vote in 2016.
Meanwhile, in addition to this, the UK’s various devolved regions have held their own elections. Pity the good folk of Northern Ireland, for example. They’ve endured five elections for their devolved assembly since its inception in 1998.
The UK as a whole has mercifully only held three referenda since the first in 1975 which, like the one in 2016, focused on membership of Europe. The 2011 referendum dealt with a possible change to the voting system and a move toward (rather unimaginatively named) Alternative Voting, based on preferential ballots.
A pervading sense of political overload almost never favours the incumbent. Only those who strongly oppose something about the status quo are likely to engage in any active way. Whatever other issues feature in this campaign, it will be energised by pro- and anti-Brexit emotions.
Remainers lost the referendum and are much more likely to engage the election in an active way, if only to spite the government – and the Labour party – who are now (rightfully, in my view) working towards Brexit.
Meanwhile, in the world of media, the growth of 24/7 dedicated news channels over the past two decades has added to a sense of political overload. These days, even once quiet Sunday mornings are overrun with competing political interview shows, all featuring the same key players week in and week out, ad nauseam. Thankfully we’re not yet forced to endure the shout-fests that feature on many US political programmes, but there is still too much politics.
There is evidence that while TV coverage may historically have broadened the public’s understanding of some issues, it may also have reduced their actual participation in electoral processes.
In an essay on “Television and Voter Turnout”, Stanford University researcher Matthew Gentzkow writes that: “What took place in the years after television’s introduction was not a broadening of the democratic process [in the US], but rather a sharp decline in political participation. Average presidential turnout in both the 1980s and 1990s was lower than in any decade since the 1920s, and outside the South (where a substantial remobilization of Black voters muted the decline) it was lower than in any decade since the 1820s.”
The problem of data overload is exacerbated by the onslaught of material gushing through the pipeline of social and new media.
Two or three generations ago, politics was something that happened largely at the periphery of peoples’ lives. Yes, governance was important but people assumed that for the most part, having being elected on particular platforms, elected politicos would get on with the job.
In most developed countries, four- to five-year terms were considered long enough to give MPs the chance to get something done, yet short enough to allow a change of government if they weren’t living up to expectations.
Today, however, politics is placed front and centre in almost every area of life throughout the year, which all too often breeds ennui in the electorate. This may be especially true among millennial voters, aged in their twenties and early thirties. If the EU Referendum is anything to go by, this highly educated, news-conscious and digitally engaged cohort may be happier to complain about results of elections than to get too involved in the boring and unsexy process of voting itself.
If this is true – the subject needs more study – who can blame them? While the issues facing governments are of vital importance, they appear at times to be tackled by politicos with only enough imagination to see as far as the next election. MPs, it seems, get more excited about elections than governing.
In the 2017 General Election, voter fatigue will play a huge role where public perception and engagement are concerned.
Only opponents of the status quo will feel any real fire in their bellies. And passion is bankable currency in elections, provided people vote with their feet and not simply with their mouths.