Though exit polls are notoriously unreliable, it seems the big winner in today’s historic referendum on the Alternative Vote was apathy.
Early estimates suggest that turnout may struggle to reach a paltry 30 per cent. In my own area, reports suggested that some stations in busy central London wards were receiving no more than 20 voters per hour.
Both the yes and no campaigns failed spectacularly to engage the electorate in what could have been an exciting debate about the political future of our country. There were major failures in both camps, from David Cameron’s patronising claim that all but a few Westminster politicos were far too thick to understand AV, to the yes campaign’s inability to rebut claims about the potential cost of implementing a new voting system.
The yes campaign had perhaps relied too heavily on the anticipated support of disgruntled voters angry about the MPs expenses scandal.
My view is that the nationwide apathy witnessed today comes from a deeper disengagement with politics and the political process that starts in our schools. If, as David Cameron obviously believes, joe public feels that the business of Westminster is not only dull and potentially irrelevant but other something ‘other’, something beyond their understanding, then politicians have failed society more broadly.
Small steps have already been taken to address the lack of education about how politics works and its wider importance, with the introduction of citizenship classes and a series of (in my view) very successful television adverts tackling the “I don’t do politics” attitude that proliferates across the UK.
However the real responsibility lies with politicians to engage voters, not simply with their own agenda, but also with the purpose and possibilities of politics.
The childish mudslinging that characterised the campaign around AV is exactly the kind of politicking that turns off the wider public. Arguments over the dispatch box about Ed Miliband’s geekyness or ‘George’ Gideon Osborne’s poshness only serve to reinforce the unhelpful message that politics is irrelevant for the many, and the business of the few.
When votes cast for and against the Alternative Vote are counted tomorrow afternoon we will learn less about the real appetite for electoral change in the UK than we will about the kind of rhetoric that disappoints and disengages, inciting only a collective eye rolling. That, I hope, will be the real lesson for the progressive politics of tomorrow.