Friday 29 November 2019 6:45 am

Safe as houses? Our electoral map is fuelling voter apathy

With less than two weeks to go until the country heads to the polls, I have personally encountered precisely one attempt to garner my vote, in the form of a leaflet from my local Green candidate. 

While somewhat ironic given the party’s mission to protect the environment, this was immensely welcome. The other parties, it seems, don’t think I’m worth their time. 

And why should they? The Labour MP in my constituency has a majority of over 33,000 so clearly doesn’t need to bother with my vote, while the others aren’t wasting resources on a battle they can’t win.

It’s bad news for me, because I would quite like to get rid of my MP. Not only do I find his party’s pledges to nationalise vast swathes of the economy somewhat suspect, but his personal refusal to tackle the antisemitism crisis within Labour and his reluctance to even acknowledge that this is a major problem makes him, in my mind, unfit to be an MP, let alone a party leader.

I am a resident of Islington North, represented by the career politician Jeremy Corbyn for the past 36 years. It is therefore no wonder that my vote is not particularly sought after. It is, in essence, meaningless. 

This is to be expected in the seat of a party leader, but when I mentioned on Twitter how little I had been canvassed, the response was a flurry of messages from people in seats across the country held by MPs of all political stripes, who are simply being ignored in this election.

It is hard to define exactly how many “safe seats” there are out of the UK’s 650 constituencies, but the simple answer is “lots”. 

For a start, 101 have not changed party hands since 1945. More recently, research by the Electoral Reform Society predicted the outcome in 368 seats before the 2015 election and estimated that 25.7m voters lived in constituencies where there was really no contest. That’s over half the electorate. 

And if you look at the best and worst results for the major parties, factoring in the regional players in Northern Ireland and Scotland, around 400 seats suddenly don’t seem worth fighting over.

I am far from alone in being deemed irrelevant by the various campaigns. I’m not even in a minority. While the parties may talk a lofty nationwide game as they feud over Brexit, the NHS, and the future of the economy, the dirty little secret is that they’re really not that interested in most of us.

Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that disengagement and apathy have become hallmarks of our political system? If you don’t even have a chance of firing your local MP, you’d be forgiven for wondering what the point of it all is. 

This is not necessarily an argument in favour of reconsidering our first past the post electoral system. Every form of democracy has its benefits and its pitfalls. 

Proportional representation may seem fairer, but tends to give disproportionate influence to fringe or single-issue parties that can skew the government in radical directions (just look at Israel). Alternative vote or list systems add an extra layer of complexity, and can result in some people’s votes being counted more than others’. 

The UK’s system, for all its flaws, has historically resulted in majority governments that can act swiftly and effectively, without the need for laborious coalitions as in some European countries. Obviously this has not worked too well in recent elections, but a few bumpy years is not a good argument for wholesale electoral reform.

However, that does not mean that our major parties can afford to ignore the tide of apathy. 

From a self-interested perspective, they may find that safe seats do not remain safe forever. Labour’s panicky change of strategy this week to refocus attention on its Northern and Midland heartlands shows the danger of assuming you can take your traditional bases for granted.

More generally, democracies work best when a large proportion of the electorate feel that they have a stake in the country’s future. High engagement helps legitimise the government, whoever it is led by. 

With so much talk over the past three years about whether parliament or Downing Street is acting “undemocratically”, the confidence that we can hold our representatives to account is not a trivial concern.

Regardless of whether electoral reform is back on the agenda in the near future, something needs to be done to re-engage the majority of voters who do not live in closely-fought marginal seats. 

Perhaps that means greater regional devolution, with more powers — and more money — at a local level, to councils or city mayors, where party politics is less important than actual results. 

Perhaps it means stricter rules, so that there are more ways to remove an MP who is clearly unfit for the job. (One might think of Jared 

O’Mara, whose decision to take “time out” after a string of jaw-dropping complaints against him left his Sheffield Hallam constituents effectively without an MP for months.) 

Perhaps it means a greater range of opportunities for individuals to get their concerns heard in parliament.

Or maybe it just means more candidates knocking on doors to chat to voters, even in places where they know they will win or think they have no chance. Islington North residents matter too. In an election we keep being told will define the future direction of this country for decades to come, it is in politicians’ best interests to remember that.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.