Student apathy

This post began as a response to Jeff in the comments to a post below. But it was getting long and waaay off topic. So I have decided to post it as a separate post.

To save you from trawling all the way through the discussion, we were basically wondering whether the SNP can afford to throw away student votes. I think we agreed that they probably can, because student votes don’t exist to a great extent anyway.

And you raise a good point about the students too. I do wonder how many of them really vote despite their protests and the like. Am I right in thinking that you were even considering not voting? If that’s the case then not much more proof is needed that student participation rates are low.

Jeff is right that I am considering not voting in the next election. It all depends on how annoyed I am at all the parties. Last time round I voted for everyone but Labour (even giving Solidarity my fourth choice!) in the local elections. Possibly in the general election I will throw my weight behind an anti-Gordon Brown tactical voting campaign since I live in his constituency. How funny would it be if he lost his seat? I can’t miss out on that opportunity!

But in general I am pretty disappointed in all of the parties. And given that I have almost zero chance of affecting the outcome anyway, I see little point in casting my vote. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m apathetic about politics, as you are surely aware.

I can’t speak for other students of course, but I think they are much like all young people, and to an extent people in general. Some are really interested in politics and will vote in any election no matter how inconsequential. But many, many others are entirely disenchanted with politics.

There is a stereotype that students are generally heavily interested in politics. Of course there is that element of loud-mouthed self-styled radicals. But they are in a pretty small minority. Most students, I bet, could not give two hoots about party politics. Even some politics students I’ve come across can be surprisingly poorly informed.

This has something to do with blogging as well. It used to perplex me — perhaps it still does — that you do not get more students blogging about politics. After all, students are supposed to be opinionated and earnest. And they often have plenty of spare time to dedicate to this sort of thing. Plus, all of this blogging and new technology — you might expect it to be a young person’s game.

But you don’t get many student political bloggers. From the top of my head, I can count them on one hand. Maybe I can count them on two fingers — including me. I remember once a survey revealed that the average age of readers of political blogs is 40.

Even among my mostly politically aware circle of friends, I probably know almost as many non-voters as voters. I am somewhere in the middle. For the time being I vote, but I don’t blame anyone for not voting.

Funnily enough, despite the general trend that people get more interested in politics (or at least are more likely to vote) as they get older, I have moved in the opposite direction. When I was as young as possibly 12 or 13 I was more earnest and couldn’t see why anyone wouldn’t vote. Now at 22 I am jaded and cynical and am more and more likely to abstain every day.

What does it say about me that I’m jaded and cynical at the age of 22? Imagine what I’ll be like when I’m actually an old codger…

Anyone disagree with me on students and politics? I know a few students (or graduands!) will be reading this, so what do you think?


  1. I think your experiences of becoming more apathetic with age – essentially more apathetic as you became better informed – are pretty similar for a lot of people. I’ve just finished a degree in International Relations, and as a consequence of learning what a horrible bleak mess the world is, I think we all became cynical about almost anything political.

    I guess to be motivated to vote for someone you have to be pretty enthusiastic for them – for example, however annoyed I am with Labour about illegal wars, civil liberties and that sort of thing, I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the Tories in protest for ideological and historical reasons, and my cynicism towards party politics (and, er, democracy) in general.

    There is always the option of voting for the lesser evil, but then I don’t think that’s as big a motivation if the parties are more or less the same anyway.

    I guess politics being less polarised than it was doesn’t help combat apathy. I wasn’t around when Thatcher got in and when Labour were actually left-wing, but I find the great ideological battles that were fought infinitely more interesting than the “issues” these days of whether we should fiddle with this or that tax band or whatever.

    I think the most politically active groups on my (soon to be former) university’s campus have always been the most polarised groups- the various socialist groups have always got their stalls out or are banging on about one thing or the other. (Hilariously, following lefty tradition, they’ve all fragmented – one lot are Marxists, the others are more into Trotsky, etc).

    Basically, centre-ground politics is boring, so nobody cares. Maybe.

    I think also the fact that we’re living in a post-globalisation consumer society where everything is “alright” and we have all of the comforts that globalisation has afforded us has cushioned us and given us no reason to be politically active – things are “alright” for us, why bother kicking up a fuss?

    RE: Political blogging.
    I can only think of a handful of student political bloggers too, and I don’t think I can get away with counting myself, considering I don’t tend to write much of substance. I can’t think of any reason why there’s so few – I guess it could be because people feel intimidated by “grown up” political blogs? The reason I write drivel is because I know that I’ll never be Nick Robinson or whoever.

  2. Doctor Vee,

    I think the idea of active students has always been a bit of a myth. Perhaps if you go back to the 1960s for a brief period there may have been some truth in this but then there was also far fewer students than there are now.

    At a time where we are approaching 50% participation in higher education (although not necessarily university) you simply are not going to get high percentage political participation; that doesn’t mean that the popular myth of student activism doesn’t live on though.

    When I was at uni, a few years ago now admittedly, political interest – whether student politics or party politics – was minimal and confined to a very small minority, although I think that is also true of politics in ‘general society’.

    I think there is a belief in all parts of society that because all the parties’ views are so similar (especially in Holyrood) that there is less of a reason to get out and vote, as opposed to the days of yore when ideological divisions abounded and so people had something to fight and get excited about.

    There is no doubt that people are more likely to vote when they have a reason (usually a grievance) to do so; perhaps in general the divergence of party views is reflective of the fact that our political views and lifestyles are generally settled. It may only be that if a major problem arises causing people’s anger to rise that we’ll see an increase in political interest, from students and everyone else.

  3. In my day….(graduated 3 years ago), everyone seemed to vote Lib Dem and Green.

    My student vote was pretty heavily courted by the Liberals, they used to send me fakey handwritten letters, actually mass produced and photocopied, but reasonably impressive nontheless.

  4. I get really frustrated by people who take no interest in politics – whether they’re students or not. The actions politicians take affect everyone, and voters ought to take an interest. Related to that, I also believe in compulsory voting, albeit with a “none of the above” option on the ballot.

    When I was at uni, a few people on my course would get together regularly and put the world to rights. There were huge arguments, the kinds you just had to agree to disagree on. Even on the same Politics and IR course though, there were people who never, ever, even ventured a political opinion. That’s just odd.

    I have opinions on an endless number of things; everyone does. One of the things I can’t get is why this doesn’t seem to translate into any kind of political interest?

  5. I’m afraid I have to entirely agree with Bellgrove Belle.

    Further to each of her points, I find it incredible that someone can maintain such a thoughtful and intelligent political blog with all these numerous opinions and then, when an election comes around, he may not take part.

    I also have to say I think there is something quite ‘toys out the pram’ about not wanting to vote because (1) you don’t have the casting vote and/or (2) one is disappointed equally in all of the parties.

  6. Bellgrove Belle,

    The actions politicians take affect everyone, and voters ought to take an interest.

    Do you think perhaps that people are fed up with this view of politicians that they should be so powerful? I think one of the reasons people are so apathetic is because politicians meddle with our lives so much that everyone just gets fed up with it. For that reason, the compulsory voting idea would backfire as it would just cause even more resentment. The only people who ever win in elections are politicians — not the voters.

    Jeff, I don’t think I would throwing my toys out of the pram to abstain. I think the two reasons are pretty sensible. After all, what is the point in voting if 1) your vote has no effect anyway and 2) you don’t like any of the candidates anyway? What should people in this situation do? Toss a coin? I’d rather hope that people vote because they’ve been attracted to a particular political platform, not because society tells them they should (for some vague reason).

    These comments are great. There are new tangents all the time. This is a perfect opportunity to write that post about democracy I’ve been meaning to do for a while! 🙂

  7. Cheers for a good opportunity to have this discussion!

    The way I see it, voters lose out if they don’t take action to remove lousy politicians from office. When everyone is cynical and believe they have no ability to bring about change, then stagnation and apathy will continue indefinitely. Politicians go unchecked and unchallenged. That just can’t be good for democracy.

    I personally don’t go out to meddle – but I’m only an opposition Councillor 😉 I certainly don’t feel particularly powerful (and don’t think I’d like myself much if I was some power tripping megalomaniac!).

    The Council is a lot closer to people than the Parliament, in terms of providing services; the decisions the Council makes can therefore have an instant impact. Unfortunately, there are rarely any great number of people coming in to watch proceedings in the Council committees. It takes something pretty controversial for people to actually say in numbers that they disapprove of what GCC does.

  8. With respect Dr Vee, I just don’t understand your logic.

    What sort of structure to society would you have us live in if there is no voting? Some sort of chaotic state with no policing, no formal education, no high-level decisions taken on health policy? And foreign relations would be out the window as we’re too busy scrabbling to get by in the absence of a government with any sort of a mandate.

    The whole make-up of the UK, or any reasonable state for that matter, rests entirely on the democratic process of the people putting MPs in place to create a Government to be in charge of the decisions at the top.

    If the general public are denied or do not contribute to that process then the whole system falls to pieces.

    There is always sufficient choice between the parties that anyone, and I mean anyone, should be able to pick their best (or in your case ‘least worst’) candidate.

    And the beauty of it is, if things are really so bad then we are all free to stand for parliament ourselves if we think we can do a better job of it and are suitably motivated.

    I totally agree with Bellgrove Belle; the real enemy is apathy and cynicism. By taking part in the system and being engaged we greatly increase the chances that any political corruption or incompetence is rooted out.

  9. Jeff, I think you have misunderstood me. I never said that there would be no voting. Of course there would be voting. I just said that if you are disenchanted, and you dislike all of the candidates, then abstaining is the perfectly reasonable choice.

    As for the old one that if you don’t like any of the candidates then you can always stand yourself, that is the biggest load of nonsense. If a relatively small cost such as voting leaves you worse off, then standing in an election — which would probably entail giving up your job and other huge personal financial costs — in a system which is rigged in favour of the large parties will certainly disadvantage you. That ‘option’ is only available to the rich and those living in a fantasy world.

  10. So join a party and change from within.

    Decisions are made by those who show up. And if you don’t show up, or even vote, then I’m not so sure you get to criticise is all i’m saying…

    For my “nobody voting” approach, that was merely a gross-up of your own views onto the rest of the population. If everyone felt as disenchanted as you do then there would be no elected representatives and the fabric of the UK would fall to pieces.

    Realistically though, that’s not going to happen as there is a sufficient number of people who understand how important it is to get out and vote every 4 or 5 years.

  11. Jeff, if I joined a political party then I would have the same problem as I would have when voting, except with the added costs of the membership fee and having to attend party meetings and suchlike. My power within the party would be almost zero. And given especially that I don’t like any of the parties, what would be the point?

    As for the “if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to criticise”, it’s a well-rehearsed line, but it’s interesting that no-one ever says why this should be so. The point about voting is that it is a right. And that means that you can choose to use it or not. If people are forced to vote then that is no longer a right — it is an oppression. This is not an anti-democratic position. The vote is just a tiny part of what democracy is, as we all know. Democracy is as much about freedom of speech as it is about voting. Why I should be denied my freedom of speech because I recognise that I have nothing to gain from voting, I have no idea — and it seems to be an intensely anti-democratic viewpoint to hold if you ask me. It is the fact that these kinds of views are prevalent that turn people off from the political process. Just because you don’t vote it doesn’t make you apathetic — quite the opposite, in fact.

    It is because I believe that I can have more influence and use more of my democratic rights by not voting (and therefore spending that extra time I gain by, for instance, writing here to hopefully persuade some people) that I choose not to vote.

    As for your “nobody voting” scenario, you have got it wrong. If you were to impose my views and behaviour onto the rest of the population, I would be sharing my bed with 6 and a half billion people every night. It would be a bit egotistical of me to believe that if I don’t vote then no-one else will vote either. It is precisely because other people still vote that I do not vote. If no-one else voted then of course I would vote because I would have the opportunity to cast the deciding vote. But since that is not the case then it seems a bit pointless, especially as I can spend the time doing more useful things.

  12. Dr Vee,

    I have to agree with Jeff and Bellegrove Belle.

    Churchill’s famous quote sums it up: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all of the rest.’

    There’s no doubts that people are more cynical about politics now as compared to the past (as seen in party membership and voting turnout) and there are a plethora of possible reasons for that, including decline of community activities, general economic and social prosperity, and so on.

    I do wonder as well if it’s linked to the fact that views across Scotland as a whole (when considering Holyrood) are generally centrist and so there’s little space for any party to strike out a definitive agenda without alienating some people and possibly losing. You could argue that the first party to do it will reap the benefits, if they get it right.

    More people will still turn out to vote and take an interest when they see an obvious stake, so if there is a very unpopular government or an Opposition with bright, radical ideas that people support then you will probably get increased turnout.

    Perhaps it is due to the amount of control we otherwise have in our lives now; a society which wants to pick and choose every little thing it does and personalize it (as shown through internet purchasing for example) may be less inclined to accept the blanket solutions that politics often has to come up with.

    But for all of this that’s still no reason not to vote. When you look at what is happening in places like Zimbabwe it’s a reminder of the freedoms, and responsibilities, we have here. And it’s still the best way to get rid of people you don’t agree with, hopefully replacing them with politicians you can more easily support.

    The only problem is that if most people disagree with you then you just have to live with it. But that’s democracy!

  13. Will people please read what I’m saying? I did not say democracy is bad — nothing of the sort. My point is that abstention is a valid option. It simply has to be. And abstention is very different to apathy. Of course politicians will tell you otherwise, because that’s how they like to explain why they get so few votes. The idea that it is because they are doing a bad job does not seem to cross their minds.

    My point is that persuading everyone to vote by making it compulsory is the lazy solution. It won’t get rid of apathy, but it will increase the number of votes politicians get. Funny that. The real way to combat apathy (and, separately, reduce the amount of abstentions) is for politicians to up their game. But seemingly that idea is just too difficult for them to understand, and if they do understand it is too difficult for them to do.

    Voting for the ‘least worst’ option is no way to make such an important decision. Given that you are (if the vote goes your way) imposing your decision on to everyone else, I should hope that when people vote they do so wholeheartedly. It amazes me when people say that even if you don’t like any of the candidates you should still vote. I certainly do not think the voting decision should be taken so lightly.

  14. I bet there are plenty of politically active students at Edinburgh uni – you just have to look for a bit harder for them than you would do in, say, Bradford where I studied (and spent many a Thursday travelling down to London to take part in protests!) Mind you, the student demographics are different between the two cities, and there was a hell of a lot more going on politically in 1992 (abolition of student grants, coalmines closing, Criminal Justice Bill, endless human rights issues)

    Re abstention as protest; I don’t admit to knowing much about its effectiveness but the problem with abstention is that – in the event of a majority vote for ‘None of the above’ (unlikely, but it would have to be considered a risk) then what – endless follow up elections and/or by-elections until a candidate actually wins a majority?

    Anyway, as someone else mentioned upthread the best way to effect change is within. Run for local council – god knows Fife could do with some fresh thinking 🙂

  15. Vicky, I think you’re right about the single-issue thing. If I was at university in 2003 no doubt it would have been a much more political place, what with the Iraq War starting. (It’s amazing to think that we’ve been in Iraq for so long that I was still in school when the war started.) I think for most students, politics is about this kind of single issue campaigning rather than anything party political.

    As for abstention meaning ‘none of the above’ as you suggest, in that case none of the above has in fact had a majority vote several times before. Notably in local elections of course, where ‘none of the above’ almost always wins, but also in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2003. No power vacuums or re-elections result, but hopefully it is enough to give politicians food for thought.

  16. If you’re talking about the drop in turnout then it’s a big leap of faith to see a fall in voter numbers as ‘abstention’ and not just laziness.

  17. Completely agree with you there Vicky, that’s why I wondered about your ‘none of the above’ point. I just got the wrong end of the stick there. 🙂

  18. Yes, “none of the above,” does “win” a lot of elections but the next best candidate always gets in under “first past the post” (actually nearest the post) – and also in transferable vote systems too no doubt.
    If there were a “none of the above” option on a ballot paper I’m sure a lot of people would vote for it.
    It won’t happen, though, because politicians are in charge of the ballot papers and “none of the above” would show them up.

  19. Because of my life choices I have lived and worked in countries that I did not have the right to vote. I had most other rights except the right to join the US Military or work for the US Government. I am currently a permenant resident in Australia and may be in a non voting status for quite some time.

    Australias model is good I think. You have to vote and they have some kind of transferable system, so your vote goes to somebody you have indicated a preference for. Of course you can still abstain by spoiling your ballot or not voting and paying a small fine.

  20. Wow, an interesting debate!

    I think you’ve all made some interesting conclusions. I think it’s great to talk about these things because they really control our lives.
    First of all, politicians are representatives of our will. Or at least they should be. It’s hard not to notice how their pre voting promises always end up in smoke. Oh, where’s the big improvement you’ve been promising for years? It’s still not there. You see, we shouldn’t expect a lot from politicians. Even though they are representatives, the whole world is led by just a few persons. It always was, really.
    So, we shouldn’t get too cynical about voting. It’s still our right and not our duty. Of course a lot of people will still vote because they seem to identify with some ideology, not with the person representing it. And that’s a huge problem really. A lot of people vote just because others tell them to. It’s obvious in large families, it’s like a peer pressure of some sort. And that’s the sole reason why political parties get so many votes. People vote just ’cause they like the shirt that guy is wearing or because of the big smile and promises on print ads. Hope as such is always a good manipulator when it comes to politics. People are always in some sort of sh*t. So they long for hope, and there’s nothing wrong with that really. You always need hope to get through life.
    So, if you wanted to take Doctor Vee’s view, there’s nothing wrong with that I think. If you can’t identify with some sort of ideology that you feel isn’t proper, you shouldn’t. It’s against your own will. And you should always stick by your own principles.

    However, I’m not totally sure if a person can have a lot of influence on others if he/she doesn’t vote. If you don’t vote you’re no different from others who didn’t vote also. Of course, there’s the power of internet and blogging, which is ok, but – I think – is of little influence. Of course a person reading this blog will maybe see voting process and politics’ disilussion in a different light, but that’s about it. You can’t change the world alone…I think a web society of some sort or maybe just a website (similar to myspace or facebook) could have a lot of followers, because we all seem disillusioned sometimes.
    But who knows what the future holds. If anything, we should still feel quite lucky to be living in a democracy (with all its faults) ’cause it’s still a hundred times better than living in totalitarianism!