The half-term general election rehearsal currently underway in Eastleigh might be fascinating those in the politics business but the result won't begin to restore the electorate's trust in politicians.
Whether or not Nick Clegg's broken promises shake the loyalties of Lib Dem voters; whether or not Maria Hutchings's distain for her party's more liberal policies wins over potential Lib Dem defectors; whether or not Diane James's Euro-bashing chimes with the cognitive bias of traditional Tory voters and whether or not John O'Farrell benefits by default from the machinations of his rivals, it won't matter a jot to the majority of Eastleigh citizens who, like most of the British electorate, lost faith in politicians long before Chris Huhne's mealy-mouthed "acceptance of responsibility" outside Southwark Crown Court.
In focus groups, non-voters find it hard to propose attributes that might make politics more appealing but 'honesty' usually tops the list. The lack of morality in politics explains why politicians are almost universally loathed. It's not the 'expenses scandal' specifically, nor the 'cash for questions' scandal nor the 'cash for honours' scandal nor even the 'cash for influence' scandal. It's not the self-interest, the expediency or the hypocrisy. It's that politicians believe they can get away with it. When they parrot the soundbite prepared for them by their press officers they think we'll be mollified. In other words, they think we're stupid.
Perhaps this mindset explains why so many Westminster insiders were willing to defend Huhne in the face of incontrovertible evidence of his guilt. Perhaps it explains why he clung to his story until the final minute of the eleventh hour. Presumably that's why he decided to lie in the first place.
Outside Westminster, things have moved on since the days when representation meant little more than putting a man on a horse and sending him off to London to do as he saw fit. As our society has become more complex, as media coverage has exposed politicians to more detailed scrutiny, as technology has allowed us to share our opinions with all and sundry, so our political aspirations have changed too. The aspirations of the political class, meanwhile, have remained the same: get power and keep power at all costs. The end justifies the means.
As trust in politicians plummeted to an all-time low last year--18% trust politicians to tell the truth according to Ipsos MORI, turnout in by-elections collapsed to an average of 22%. Whilst a few progressive backbenchers expressed alarm at this extraordinary level of political disengagement, party leaders dismissed as apathetic those who refused to play the election game.
Ordinary people are aware of the democratic deficiency inherent in the system and they resent it. This goes some way towards explaining the revolution of sorts that took place last November when nearly everyone (85%) entitled to vote in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections made a point of not doing so. The huge number of spoiled ballot papers left nobody but the politicians in any doubt that voters had consciously boycotted a land grab by the political class.
Eastleigh was no exception. Turnout in Hampshire was 14.8%. Former Conservative government minister Michael Mates - as well as the Lib Dem, Ukip and Labour candidates - were defeated by an independent, Simon Hayes, the only person standing for election who was properly qualified to do the job.
People are not prepared to vote for the empty suits on offer. They've had enough of ineptitude and mediocrity. They've had enough of broken promises. They're sick of the cynicism that pervades every aspect of our society as a result of perpetual political spin. They want the right to participate in decisions about selling off their forests or hospitals or schools and they want the right to say 'no'. They want their priorities represented ahead of those of the businessmen and trades union leaders that bankroll the parties for personal gain. More than anything else, they want to tell politicians where to stick their bombastic self-importance.
The latest opinion polls suggest that, thanks to the chronically undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system, Eastleigh's new MP will get in with less than 35% of the vote. Assuming an above average turnout of 40% as a result of all the hoo-hah, that equates to less than 15% of those on the electoral register. The 85% whose opinions are not represented will feel aggrieved but politicians won't be listening.
It's difficult to see where meaningful political change will come from given that the political class inevitably prioritises its own interests. But it's equally difficult to see how politicians can recover their reputation. When the majority of the electorate no longer vote, politicians no longer have a democratic mandate.
As Democratic Audit concluded in its 2012 report 'How Democratic is The UK?', "representative democracy is in long-term, terminal decline". The Eastleigh result is irrelevant in the big scheme of things. What matters now is how we establish a viable alternative model of democracy where citizens participate in government instead of politicians.
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