Whose is the apathy?

Tommy Sheppard asks educated, interested twenty-somethings why they won’t vote in the Euro elections. The answers suggest it’s not lack of interest…

You’ve got to wonder sometimes whether anyone would really bother that much if the European Union disappeared overnight. Sure, some would, but enough to make a political ruction – or even a ripple?

Just over 30 per cent or those entitled to vote in the elections for the European Parliament did so in 2004. It has been worse. In 1999 just a pitiful quarter of the electorate could be bothered. And it’s got to be the case that a big slice of those that voted did so out of party loyalty or animation about the state of domestic politics – rather than any inspiration of a pan-European nature.

How many will bother this time – on 4th June. Never one to take anyone else’s word for it, I eschewed the pessimistic predictions or the political augurs and set off to find the truth by way of a straw poll of my work colleagues here at the Stand Comedy Club.

Not your usual workplace this. With its roots in what was once called ‘alternative’ comedy, the Stand prides itself in being a little unconventional and iconoclastic. Not surprising then that it attracts a workforce whose character is somewhat green, liberal and lefty – all with small letters, of course. And given the number of students paying their way through college with casual shifts in our bars, it’s a pretty well educated bunch of workers too.

Here if anywhere, thought I, would be the fledgling consciousness of the new European citizenry, dismayed by the small-mindedness of their 20th century forebears and alive to the possibility of international action in the 21st. Mmm… think again!

I interviewed five people I work with. Young, aged 22 to 34, and smart – all bar one degree educated. Of the five, none were aware that there were elections next month, and only one said they would vote in them (having been reminded).

Asked why, most said they knew little about Europe or the elections, although in a tone which was contrite as well as confessional. “Won’t have heard enough to form an opinion of which way to vote” says one. “Do not feel I know enough regarding the candidates” says another and “I know little about the Parliament, its powers and functions and even less on the MEPs currently making up the Parliament”.

This feeling that voting needs to be related to knowledge of the institution is, I think, more apparent in the case of the European Parliamanet. Perhaps because much of what the parliament does or gets reported as doing is to do with regulations and procedures it is perceived as more technocratic than ideological. I can’t think anything like the same reluctance would be apparent amongst the same people if it came to general election – there, the process would be seen more about expressing an opinion.

In all the people I spoke with there was a weird sort of awareness that their abstinence was not quite right. I wouldn’t say they felt guilty about their disinclination to vote but certainly none of them took pride in it.

There was also some reasoned analysis of why the situation was so bad, with blame being apportioned variously to the media, the education system and the political parties for nurturing the ignorance and apathy of the electorate. One 22-year-old put it this way “Electoral turnout overall is generally poor but I feel the reason European elections have an even worse turnout is that the issues they deal with are generally not covered in any great depth by our national press. Also generally when they are covered it is usually in a derogatory fashion by right-wing Europhobic newspapers i.e. The Daily Mail.” Another said there’s a “feeling that your vote doesn’t make a difference, there’s not much difference between the parties”.

So how has it come to this? Well, I can think of several inter-related reasons. To begin with there’s not so much a lack of awareness as a general presence of confusion about what the European Parliament is and does. This is inherent in the structure of the EU, with its tri-lateral structure of the Commission, Council and Parliament. To some extent, this is understandable in a body which aims to legislatively straddle national governments, and yet at the same time represent deals between them. But it was meant to get better.

We’ve had European elections for 30 years now, and although successive treaties have given the parliament greater powers, these have been small increments. It’s still the least powerful of the three institutions when it comes to getting things done – indeed, the power of European bodies seems to be in inverse relationship to the level of direct democracy in directing them. Without the ability still to initiate legislation the European Parliament is in a poor condition to respond to pressure groups, much less to public opinion across Europe. And as a consequence, public opinion will for the most part pass it by.

Surely the time has come to at least give the European Parliament a defined set of responsibilities on which it and it alone can reign supreme. Even if the horse-trading involved creating such a menu led to a poor and limited list, even this much diluted federalism would at least have the benefit of being clear. The more power and responsibility the parliament has the more it will be able to act on behalf of real people, and the less likely it is that the EU will operate as a bosses’ club.

Whilst the Parliament’s role has to be explained and qualified with constant reference to other bodies and legal frameworks – whilst you can’t ever say vote for x and y will happen – the understanding of it will remain confused. Anti-europeans will harness the confusion and turn it into obfuscation. The rest of us will just find it boring. In fairness, it’s boring just writing about it.

There is a general anti-European subtext to most of our political life in Britain and Scotland which helps shape public indifference towards the EU and its parliament. Practically nothing is reported in a European context, even though almost everything we care about – and all matters economic and environmental – is better seen through that perspective. The good papers either do not have European sections, or have ones relegated to after the home and world sections and focusing on porn stars standing for parliament in Italy or whatever. There’s no serious appraisal or reporting of matters European. This accusation of absence cannot, of course, be levelled at the right-wing press – the good old Sun, Mail and Express have plenty to say about Europe – much of it lies and all of it negative. It’s got to have an effect this: year after year, decade after decade, of constant Europhobia.

Surprisingly amongst my sample of five, there was majority goodwill towards things European. Asked whether it was important that Britain and Scotland should be in Europe, four out of five were positive. “There’s no doubt it would be beneficial for Scotland and Britain to be part of Europe for trade and commerce, laws and bill passing internationally on rules that are unclear between countries” or the slightly more vague but nonetheless passionate “I think it is important for different countries to attempt to work together as harmoniously as possible in an effort to improve quality of life for all, and I am glad that Scotland is a part of this.” And another was pretty coherent – “Very important. I’m particularly a fan of the European Convention on Human Rights, freedom to travel in the EU, stronger economic ties (although I’m not sure about joining the Euro), being able to present a united front on the world stage when faced with America / China / Russia. “

We look to politics to challenge ingrained prejudice, especially when it comes to building international co-operation. Here the record is so very disappointing. As in so many other spheres of policy, the last twelve years of Labour government have been a wasted opportunity. Where they could have engendered a more positive attitude about Europe they instead fell back on Euro-scepticism in a misguided attempt to stifle support for the Tories, UKIP and the BNP. Where they could have embraced, even led, pan European economic policies aimed at controlling capitalism, they instead dragged their feet on, and on occasion sabotaged, the efforts of European social democrats trying to make things fairer.

The British government could have taken the lead in a new European constitution, driving for democratic clarity and removing the confusion I referred to above. Instead it adopted an almost wholly negative response and paraded itself as a defender of the UK against attempts to control British capitalism. That many in the so-called left of the Labour party were gleeful about this is to their shame. Not only have they ceded ground to the little-Englanders (and perhaps little Scotlanders) in the debate about international co-operation, but by resisting regulation of capital in Europe they have stupidly ended up giving the free market free reign at home.

And all of this is overlaid on a political context of party convergence which leaves most of us with a functioning brain stem bored and numbed. As the Blair government embraced Thatcherism and increased public spending to enrich private companies it squandered the chance of a generation to achieve real change – and it silenced the left. Even amidst the wanton and protracted period of self harm in which international capitalism is engaged, the left is silent still. It’s as if left wing ideas have just simply stopped. Everything’s fucked and there’s nothing to be done about it.

This is a depressing situation and one which is bound to lead to a reduced participation at the next few elections. How much of the low turnout at the European elections on 4 June is down to this general political malaise and how much to specifically European factors is anyone’s guess. But it aint looking good.

There’ll be a price to pay: there always is. That will start on June 4. There’ll be an appalling turnout, and much hand wringing about why.

But there’s another side to this too. Perhaps the question is why as many as three out of ten voters will bother with elections which have been almost completely ignored by our press and political class since the last ones. That such a large section of the population will drag themselves out to vote when there’s no popular understanding of the need or benefit of so doing so is in many ways remarkable.

It’s not a bad base on which to build, assuming there were a will to start doing things differently. Thankfully, there’s always hope. Many millions of Scots and Brits live elsewhere in Europe and many millions of other Europeans live and visit here. In culture, food, an ideas, inter-European exchange has always been positive, resulting in a richer and more interesting lives for us all.

The problem is that in this country little effort has been expended taking the individual experiences which people have of each other’s countries and building them into a shared understanding of what we have in common.

At the end of the day most people aren’t stupid, and our politics has much to gain by treating them as if they have half a mind. Instead of the weak and lack lustre campaign just weeks before the deadline for electoral registration, we ought to have a yearlong public education programme about what the European Union does and where the elections fit in. Inspiring well-made cinema and TV ads and continuous online campaigns. I feel I ought to be asked to vote at least once for every hundred times I get asked to buy Viagra.

And maybe our parties could up their game too from the shoddy morass that passes for their Euro election campaign. Is the Labour party ashamed of being the Party of European Socialists? And why for God’s sake are the Greens and SNP campaigning against each other when they are part of the same bloc in the European Parliament?