I have a lot of respect for Angela Eagle, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons (and, as it happens, my university contemporary). So I was surprised to see her quoted as supporting a range of measures to encourage more voting, including incentives like prize draws and making election day a bank holiday.
There is buried in all of this a serious point about making voting easier – and of course in recent years it has become much easier to get a postal vote and the number of people using them has risen vastly. There is a serious point too about electronic voting, although I remain far from convinced that this could be made to work at the current state of technology (and of course there is a question of whether those who are least likely to vote would also be least likely to have access to that technology). And she is absolutely right about the diversity of the British political establishment: grey men in grey suits, for the most part, and a political class that is becoming more homogenous over time.
But the real issue here is a failure to ask why all of this should be the case. The clue perhaps lies in Margaret Thatcher’s funeral – an event that clearly galvanised the political class but appears to have been viewed with some indifference outside the Westminster bubble. Ironically enough, Cameron’s claim that “we are all Thatcherites now” provides a telling indication of how Westminster and the rest of the country just think differently. It indicates not just that the main Westminster parties (and the media that serve them) have coalesced around a narrow free-market consensus, but also the way in which the political class itself is narrower, more affluent, drawn from a narrow class range, in which internship increasingly acts as the new property qualification.
For the Left, it seems essential that democratic renewal goes hand-in-hand with the rejection of neoliberal economics. Neoliberalism is, at its heart, an anti-democratic idea – it rejects the idea that questions of economics, and especially questions of distribution, should (or even can) be subject to democratic control. And the people for whom neoliberalism represents economic and personal catastrophe are, by and large, simply not represented in the political class (and consistently misrepresented by the media that serve that class).
So Angela Eagle is right about diversity – but it is about much more than that. Labour as a party (if not in Westminster) remains deeply conflicted over neoliberal economics and this means that it is poorly placed to address issues of democratic renewal; the Coalition parties, enthusiastically engaged in implementing a neoliberal programme for which they have no electoral mandate, have clearly shown where they stand. But the idea of raffle prizes for voting is condescending and insulting, a symptom of a political system that wants the legitimacy of high turnouts at elections while avoiding any hint of real democratic renewal.
The truth is one that Westminster dare not speak: that the political elite in this country no longer represent vast numbers of its citizens. And this sort of thinking does not even begin to address that; it’s a rationale for not doing so. The left should have no part in it.