Why voting is the new obesity

Living in London, I probably hadn’t paid the Police Commissioner Elections the attention they deserved. Until this week, where in passing my Mum announced that her and my Dad wouldn’t be voting.

Now most of you won’t be familiar with the Gozzard parents, so this won’t mean a lot to you, but trust me, they vote for everything. European elections, AV referendums, local consultations, the lot. They attend open meetings and write letters to the local paper. They’re retired, so have the time to go out and vote (and indeed, write letters to the paper). But, in the case of local Police Commissioners, they’d finally been rendered apathetic.

As I write this, only one result has been called, but turnout was 15.8%, which suggests my parents aren’t the only one. To quote Professor John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, it could be “the worst turnout for any nationwide set of elections ever.” Which is a pretty big statement.

Cue, once the recriminations about whether we should have done it are over, the usual wider debate about why people don’t bother to vote any more. People are still fighting and dying for democracy all over the world!! How come people will vote for Nadine Dorries to eat ostrich anus, but not for her equivalents to go to the House of Commons?!! Youth of today are alienated by politics!! Etc, etc.

The problem is, other than complaining about it, no-one actually does much.  Shifting people from not voting to voting is a clearly a behavioural change challenge. But it’s being treated as if it’s one of lack of awareness. If you tell people they need to vote, they’ll suddenly realize that they need to. But people have been telling us that we need to stop smoking, drink less and eat less chips for many years now, and we all know how successful that’s been.

If you look at behavioral change campaigns that have genuinely worked, communications has only ever been part of the picture. Improvements in road safety have been a combination of smart comms, increased legislation and developments in car technology and road planning. Smoking has gone down – but again, comms has been supported by direct medical interventions, taxation and, unfortunately, a lot of people dying. And the communications budgets spent on these types of issues dwarf those available to encourage people to vote.

If politicians really are serious about getting more people to vote, they need to treat it as the same type of issue as the obesity crisis. Why, really, aren’t people voting (as opposed to why do the media think)? What interventions would actually make a difference – both carrot and stick? How can communications form part of this mix, rather than just being a cheap and easy sticking plaster?

Or, they could just go with my current personal favourite solution, of giving the vote to anyone who wants it. Prisoners, 16 year olds, asylum seekers, people who just happen to be here on holiday – anyone who’s keen, really. Not only would you then get a bunch of new registered voters who would actually bother, but everyone who had the vote already would be so terrified by having their decisions made by children and criminals, they might actually head out too. If anyone wants that for their manifesto, you’re welcome.

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