At the 2010 House of Commons election, turnout was 65.1%.
In the National Assembly for Wales election in 2011, the combined turnout for the constituency seats and the regional seats was 41.4%.
At the 2009 European Parliament election, the turnout in the UK was almost ten percentage points lower than the European average, at 34.7%.
Clearly, these figures raise important questions about what we think of as giving a mandate to govern. If only 65.1% of those eligible to vote did so in 2010, does David Cameron have even less of a mandate to be Prime Minister? If the majority of Welsh voters didn't, in fact, vote, does Carwyn Jones, remembering his lack of absolute majority of seats, have the right to be First Minister? In our system, we know that David Cameron and Carwyn Jones are legitimate heads of government, even if we disagree with their agendas. But the appalling turnout figures should make both Mr Cameron and Mr Jones very weary of what they do in the execution of their respective roles.
The 'political class' talks forever and a day of how we might improve public engagement and participation. I too have done this. To ask 'how can we get more people to be a part of the process?' is a natural response to those shocking figures. It would seem, though, that despite all the talking we do of engagement and participation, a lot of people, frankly, still don't give a stuff.
Might we be missing the point? Some people in politics like to think of the public as being a collection of individuals, responsible for their own future. Paradoxically, those same people like to tell us, despite what the vast majority of us are feeling, that we're 'all in this together'.
The norm we follow is that we call ourselves 'citizens'. Our passports say that we are British citizens. The law tells us that we are European citizens. Many of us think of ourselves as being citizens of whichever nation of the United Kingdom we belong to; I, for example, have no hesitation in referring to myself as a Welsh citizen.
In Ancient Greece, whence democracy sprung and where the concept of citizenship developed, the act of being a citizen was not considered to be separate from one's private life; there was no distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere of citizens' lives. Clearly, I would not for a moment suggest we go back to those times, but might we benefit from consciously thinking of our citizenship and our individual private lives as being intrinsically linked? I suppose many people do think that way, but I would suggest that as a people, we should all think this way.
It is possible, I think, that the concept of citizenship has become too associated with nothing more than our passports and the fact that we reside in a particular territory.
I would suggest that it would be worth our while forgetting about being citizens for a moment. Why don't we think of ourselves as being members? 'Membership' of, for example, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Wales, or, indeed, the World could enable us to think of our being a part of something rather than that something being there and us not really having anything much to do with it.
If we thought of ourselves as 'members' rather than as citizens, might we be more inclined to think of both the duties as well as the privileges? Might the state be more inclined to take its role in administering those privileges, and getting its 'members' involved more seriously?
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it ought to be clear to us all that we need a major shift in the way that we treat the relationship between state and citizen or 'member'. Yes, we as people need to take our responsibilities more seriously, we need to use our right to vote and be a part of public life, but those in power also need to take their responsibilities more seriously. They are there because of us. For us. Public life isn't their plaything to do with as they please; they need to get people involved.
Barriers need to be broken down so that those who don't access public life as easily can be a part of it. Politicians need to stop insulting the intelligence of the electorate who put them, for better or worse, in power. Make headlines though they may, I'm tired of politicians spouting out meaningless rhetoric and sound-bites. They need to stop playing games.
I don't know if changing the way we think of our being a part of a community, a nation, a state, or a collection of states would help. What I do know, though, is that as a 'member', I for one would be more inclined to be a part of public life. I would feel a sense of ownership. But thinking of myself as a 'member' rather than a 'citizen' isn't all on me; the state and the establishment must enable me to become a 'member'.