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Why does this election mean so little to me?

Robin McAlpine

Let me be honest with you; objectively this could reasonably be argued to be the General Election at which the most is at stake for decades. It’s the combination of the scale of the social, economic and environmental issues facing us combined with the first moment in a decade where there is a real chance of the fall of dominant parties both in Britain and in Scotland.

So why do I feel so unengaged? There is no political party in this election for which I could vote with any real conviction right now, but that has been the case in previous elections as well and I didn’t feel this unconnected to what was going on.

Plus unless literally everyone I speak to or correspond with is very weird, I’m most certainly not alone in this. How can so much be at stake in so many ways, with so much opportunity for change yet so much voter disillusionment with the processes of democracy in Scotland? And, perhaps more importantly, what can we do about it?

There are easy and obvious ways to answer the first question – that Keir Starmer’s Labour seems actively to want not to be seen as interesting or exciting or planning anything much. That the SNP is badly misfiring and seems complacent. That it’s first past the post so basically that’s your lot and anything else is either reinstating Tories or protesting.

Sure, but is that really the story? When you try to explain phenomenon based on a set of circumstances then the phenomenon better not predate the specific circumstances. Yet it does; disengagement from politics is not a ‘last 24 months’ sort of problem.

There are, in turn, easy and obvious ways to explain the long term decline in politics, from the fragmentation of society through to the impact of new technologies on public debate and onwards past ‘plus the parties increasingly take broadly the same stance on most issues’. But there is usually a single way to sum up a process like this, which is by finding the emotional or psychological way that a citizen frames this to themselves. What is that?

My guess is that it would be something close to ‘they run this place for themselves in any way they want and I don’t matter to them’. It’s the sense that the powerful keep getting caught out in corruption and yet never pay a price.

The reason I wanted to get to that point, to the point of how the public feels, is to explain why I think much of the problem with democracy just now has little to do with democracy or the processes of electoral politics, or even government. My argument is that it is not just, and possibly not mainly, politics which is fuelling our disengagement but economics.

Because with all of the above arguments about the various reasons people don’t feel good about democracy just now keep leaving breadcrumbs which, if you follow them, lead to the door of corporate lobbyists. Keir Starmer’s Labour goes out of its way to be boring and uninteresting because that’s what they think the banking sector wants.

The SNP got away with this for a while because post-indyref the economy question largely drifted off the agenda. The SNP adopted more or less the exact same economic programme as run by the previous Labour administration. I mean foreign investment, being open for business, backing six priority industry sectors, talking about linking the economy and universities – almost line for line the same.

And the UK clings to first past the post as a voting system exactly because it is the voting system of elite oligarchies – realistically you can choose between two parties and they’re largely bought and paid for. The fragmentation of society has been driven by the economy and hypercosumerism, the sense that no-one is working for you is seen again and again as the rich get caught out in corruption but never pay a price for it.

In fact over the last three or four decades everyone in politics has more or less agreed as one that the people who should face the consequences of corruption by the rich and powerful is, well, you – or ideally someone like you but poorer.

There are only really two moments in the last decade around which any group of people across Britain felt any enthusiasm, and it is notable that both were basically anti-corporate. One was the hope of Brexiters that Boris Johnstone would deliver the break with the old economic order they hoped and the other was Corbyn who did promise to reform that economic order.

The outcome was predictable; Boris never meant it and went straight back to running the economy for the corporations which didn’t want Brexit in the first place, and an almighty and concerted smear campaign finished Corbyn.

In a lot of ways those two examples illustrate the problem – that to all intents and purposes Britain is an oligarchy of a hyper-rich financier and corporate leaders who will either bribe, coerce or destroy anyone who isn’t subscribed to their version of acceptable government.

It is the outcome that is the problem. It doesn’t matter whether it is the sense of powerlessness this induces in the public or the material conditions of 30 years of stagnant wages and declining public services which has resulted, the public feel shut out of power and sense the impact of this is their interests being sidelined.

Plus don’t underestimate how much politicians were starting to like low-engagement politics. Term two Blair almost fetishised it, claiming that low turnout was actually a satisfaction rating on the job being done. It wasn’t.

All of this is a disaster for society, and as is often the case with disasters, its effects break through at the weakest points in our democracy – the angry, conspiratorial parts. It has resulted in the rise of the ‘angry right’ and the proliferation of seemingly crazy conspiracy theories. Our societies are falling apart because of it, all across Europe. The US has basically already fallen apart.

So what do we do about this? You may be expecting me to run round our usual set of democratic enhancements that can bring power closer to people, and I recommend you look at them and get a sense of how much more power citizens in Scotland could wield, and the positive impact that is likely to have on people’s perception of democracy.

Which means yes, create some proper Scottish local democracy (with some urgency about it), yes put in place a second Citizens’ Assembly as a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament, and yes put in place mechanisms to require much more participatory democracy, from citizen’s juries to participatory budgeting.

But if my analysis above is right, it won’t be enough in itself. If the fundamental problem is not just the process but what 40 years of that process has done to people’s experience of life, reforming only the process won’t have the impact it needs to, or not fast enough.

No, if we want serious democratic reform we need serious economic reform. The biggest step would be mandatory industrial democracy – requiring every business with more than ten staff to have a third of its Board elected by the staff (this is the model used in Germany, Austria and the Nordic Countries).

This gives workers an immediate sense that the economy is not just something that is done to them but something they’re part of. But that isn’t enough in itself because the economy is still dominated by overseas corporations which aren’t particularly responsive to any host nation’s democracy.

That is what leaves me a difficult ultimate conclusion. The decline in democracy, the decline in trust in institutions, the decline in social cohesion – all track closely to the arrival of neoliberalism and globalisation. These are fundamentally theories that the only valid way to run the economy is to not run the economy but to stay out of the way (except when corporations ask you to do something).

This ‘corporations as a proxy for the public good’ model of politics is undimmed. For some reason the Scottish Government under John Swinney still thinks the only way to improve public services is for ever-greater economic growth resulting from precisely the practices which have undermined public services.

Making major changes in our economy is not impossible. Make any form of public support for business conditional on increased industrial democracy, perhaps create a consumer agency to fight relentlessly for the interests of the public over corporations, create an industrial strategy to run more of the economy in a ‘foundational economy’ mode (i.e. specifically for the public good).

After all, globalisation is basically over with the US and its new-found love of tariffs on Chinese imports, and neoliberalism is undermining the strength and effectiveness of its strongest advocate nations in Europe and the US. Something else is coming, one way or another.

If it is worse, there is a good chance the century-long democratic experiment in Europe is at risk. If it is better, perhaps an engaged nation of civically-active citizens will fuel a health democracy again. It doesn’t feel like that’s what we have just now.

21 thoughts on “Why does this election mean so little to me?”

  1. Totally agree. I regard my self as extremely political, yet I am dreading this election. I will probably vote SNP as I will never again vote for a Unionist Party, but not with any great enthusiasm. I expect the election to result in Labour replacing the Tories… and then everything will carry on as before with little noticeable difference.

  2. Roland Chaplain

    As, so often, Robin, you get to the heart of the challenge we’re faced with. For what it’s worth, may I make a couple of suggestions: If Lula is still in power in Brazil that (COP30 Nov 2025) could be the first ever COP where the power of corporate lobbyists, particularly fossil fuels sector, will be seriously challenged by Civic Society globally.
    Secondly I have high hopes that the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) letter to the First Minster (embargoed until June 1st), signed by leading academics and reps from civic society in Scotland. will mark the turning point where the SNP leadership of the SNP in order to survive will have to embrace its core message. Concentrated power corrupts and leads to disastrous decisions for climate and nature. Power shared widely protects against those corrupting pressures and improves people’s and planetary wellbeing.

  3. proportional represntation is only way forward.I predict overall UK turnout for all reasons outlined resulting in total voter apathy @ less than 50%,lets go for 42%……

  4. I so enjoy reading Robin’s views l agree with so much of his current political analysis. I too believe the democratic influence we once enjoyed has been totally eroded. Our democratic system has failed to evolve recognising the many major societal changes over the last half century.
    Alex Salmond provided a glimmer of hope that Scot’s failed to grasp. Ten years on much has changed nothing for the good of Scots.Aged 67
    this will be the first time I will not vote. No candidate in my constituency is worthy of receiving it.

    1. You’re welcome to your protest non-vote. Just don’t be delusional enough to think that it has no impact. Perhaps it gives you a sense of satisfaction, but staying at home is what the powers that be are hoping from the electorate. Apathy only works in an echo chamber of one. Please step back and see the bigger picture.

  5. Thanks Robin … I arrived in Scotland just before the referendum and loved the community reaction to the vote: discussions in the street with people I had never met before: “We are going to be free … but, …” was the standard reaction. After the ” but” always came the comment “… they will just do the same again, the same politicians,etc.etc.”
    The dream of converting the natural instinct of Scottish people (to trust and help others over and above their own interests) into political action has failed. The Scottish political elite has failed to make this nation more democratic and less centralised: they are the politicians of always, power hungry and greedy helping the wealthy corps. and not the people who elected them.
    Your ideas about reforming the system et al are perfect as a solution. What is needed is a charismatic leadership and political will to revolt against the existing order before they eliminate voting for ever. People need leadership and idealism and are prepared to follow if it is honest and transparent and not just another ploy for power!
    I wish your ideas and writings became more accessible to the Scottish people but I know how hard it is to overcome the power of the media …

  6. Alasdair Macdonald

    It is not economics and it is not politics; it is both. They are inextricably intertwined. Change in one of these effects change in the other. So, both have to be considered together.

    Economics is not science with ‘laws’. Science acknowledges that its laws are just approximations of what the truth might actually be and are continually subject to review and adjustment. It is not Groucho Marx’s ‘these are my principles and if you don’t like them then I have others’. By and large, these laws can ‘explain’ and predict to a fair degree of comprehensiveness, but, they do not explain and predict completely and, to accommodate these things the laws are refined, while mostly remaining the same.

    Economics asserts ‘laws’ without any great empirical evidence and these ‘laws’ are based on the interests of groups which have power within society – often brute power: if you push too hard against it you get beaten up or killed. So, a much economic theory is procrustean in that it is twisted to fit in with the social paradigm as to who are the bosses.

    However economists like to present economics as a science with laws expressed as mathematical ‘formulae’, but these formulae always lead to the same kind of societal order. Pace Groucho, there are other formulae which reflect a different kind of society, such as set out by his namesake, Karl.

    So politics/society and economics are two sides of the same coin.

    1. I understand why you have those views but you misunderstand the purpose of economics. In summary, economic analysis is seeking to understand and explain economic relationships in our current society where market forces determine the allocation of most resources though the state does account for a large proportion of the ‘economic cake’. The mathematical formula used do not ‘result’ in any particular societal order but explain the forces and factors that result in that societal order.
      I would suggest that blaming economics for the type of society we have is like blaming chemistry for global warming.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald

        Thank you for the reply. I do not agree with your analogy regarding chemistry and global warming. Global warming is the laws of chemistry operating as they do in the conditions humans are creating as a consequence of ‘economic’ choices being made by profit-seekers. They make these choices on the basis of their selfish interests and the economic paradigm which they have adopted. There other economic paradigms which could have been adopted to guide decision making. But, there is only one chemistry. There are small areas where the chemical theories do not explain clearly, but as in the past, eventually formulae will be adjusted which accommodate this.

        1. Thanks for your response. It is often said that Mathematics is the only pure science and after that all other sciences rely on experiment and evidence to establish laws and relationships. I would argue that degrees in Economic Science (such as from Aberdeen University) are appropriately named because scientific approaches are used to test hypotheses and theories are refined or even rewritten as appropriate.
          As Economics has developed as a discipline, from the classical economists of Adam Smith or Karl Marx, who were concerned about how wealth was created and then allocated, to the neo-classical economists who far more delved into the workings of markets, the drive was to understand the way the world was. The models developed could be used to guide decision makers who would, understandably, choose economic modelling that reflected the society and its set up. It is not the fault of economics that politicians who believe in capitalism have used economic models that explain how capitalist economies work to help them make decisions in capitalist societies.

    2. Laws need to be based on good, sound principles that serve the wellbeing of society. Fairness, equality honesty and transparency would be a good start.

  7. Norman Cunningham

    This election highlights the fact we have no choice of political/economic ideologies. Forget FPTP, what we have is STP … Single Transferable Party. I will be spoiling my vote by inscribing it with “#EndTheUnion” Spoiled votes are counted and published. https://votingcounts.org.uk/spoilt-ballot.

  8. colin tainsh

    Cards on the table I am an SNP member and will always vote SNP until we become independent. My hopes for this election are depressingly low and the fact that possibly only 50% of the population will turnout at this GE is a shocking indictment on the state of politics in UK. The lack of trust and hope that politics can change peoples lives for the better is so depressing. Back in 2014 the independence movement did give some hope that things could be better – people turned out to vote and we nearly made that change. Now we need SNP to put forward radical policies such as some of Common Weals proposals, land tax etc that show people voting SNP can make a difference. This GE is lost for SNP but the 2026 SE will be a watershed moment – an independence convention promoting independence and hopefully John Swinney and SNP providing a some radical ideas on policy could provide a big win. And maybe we can then start negotiations or at least force UK into granting a referendum. Lose in 2026 and independence is done for at least 10 years.

  9. Ian Davidson

    Agree with most of above, however: I spent much time and focus at the start of this decade on more intangible issues such as personal/group consciousness, psychology, spirituality as well as dealing with many family health crises. I was not involved in 2014 ref campaign but voted yes in line with my life long indy support. Perspective changes, perhaps I just “grew up”?
    So, whilst I am now again fully engaged in current politics, I don’t try to understand and explain everything in terms of econ/pol orthodoxy (remember when politics was simple: left wing/right wing?!). Some things going on in the world/europe/uk/scotland right now are just weird. Social media is weird, like a public manifestation of what used to be hidden, private internal, contemporaneous thoughts? I don’t have any answers, it is a strange time.
    As I have the free time, I will, for the first occasion in this millennium, be taking some role in this GE (ISP/Abstentionism). Will it make any difference? Probably no in measurable terms but what the hell.
    Nil Desperate Dan Dum?

  10. Bill Johnston

    A good commentary Robin setting down a solid marker at the start of the General Election campaign.

    Over the coming weeks I suspect we will all be doused in cliches and soundbites from the parties and their candidates. As in the past I reckon they will be mostly binned as soon as the results are known and a new Westminster parliament and government are formed. However for a short period all parties and their ideologies will be highly exposed through their statements and can be challenged on what those statements mean for wealth ownership and the influence it has over government.

    Perhaps this time round we could try to break the cycle of electoral politics serving the interests of a neoliberal political economy? A system that leaves the majority really no better off than they were before the election, whilst the tiny minority of wealth owners continue to prosper.

    What to do?

    1. Conduct a forensic analysis of the 2024 general election organised to expose exactly how democracy has been appropriated to create a format of elections/party political propaganda/media and information manipulations to protect and advance the interests of corporations and the wealthy few over the rest of us.
    2. Focus on exposing exactly how this system works to ensure that Scotland is exploited for profit at the expense of the majority of people who live here.
    3. Identify a manageable number of communicable examples – say five plus or minus two – to reflect a mix of economic sectors, public services and human interests as examples of 1/2.
    4. Produce and disseminate the knowledge gathered by 1/2/3 with a view to informing reasoned civic debate.
    5. Draw up a plan of civic debate and politicisation of the next Holyrood election to break the cycle of unionist control of Scottish life and offer a better alternative.

    Who should do this? I reckon Common Weal and its supporters could be a core group given the expertise available and the solid body of policy papers setting out an alternative political economy for Scotland. Others might come on board, including from the ranks of folk who are likely to be very dissatisfied with the 2024 General Election.
    How would we do it? If we can organise rallies, demonstrations, meetings, newsletters, policy papers, and ongoing YES groups, perhaps we can use those networks.
    When should we do all of this? By the end of 2024 or sooner.

    Why should we do it? It is likely the general election will be very damaging for Scotland if, as predicted, the Labour party takes control of Westminster and continues to nurture the unionist political economy. In that event the SNP will have suffered a serious blow and at least some of its activists and supporters may accept that the case for independence needs to be revitalised before the next Holyrood election.

    In the meantime – we vote!

    All the best,

    Bill.

    1. Some useful ideas Bill. Like you, I am a serial voter. Have voted at EVERY election since 1980. There are indy alternatives to SNP: Alba; ISP (only party promoting Abstentionism from Westminster); Sovereignty and a few others/independent indy candidates.
      I am trying to make it interesting with some gentle political satire and banter on X.

  11. I have voted in every General and Scottish election – over a 40 year+ period. But I’m really struggling with this. For years the SNP have had a guaranteed majority in Scotland – they literally could not lose because of the pro-independence vote which only they could capture. This led to complacency, corruption and catastrophic mismanagement. I will not vote SNP. Their recent record , on ferries, on Covid, on the DRS, on the politicising of the prosecution service, on the Salmond stitch up is shocking. I cannot endorse it by giving them my vote and giving them another term to leap from one expensive failure to another does not seem helpful to the welfare of the Scots or for the cause of Scottish independence. My MP has never responded to a single email and my MSP is a disgrace yet insists on staying on despite lying and being willing to defraud the people of Scotland. I won’t vote unionist . If Alba has a candidate I’ll vote for them but otherwise I’ll stay home.

    1. Hi Barbara, I agree with most of what you say except your conclusion. I was a member of the SNP but left in disgust at how the party has lost vision of its main purpose and has been taken over by those whose priorities are very different and the SNP provides a way of achieving them. Like you, I will vote Alba if they have a candidate. However, I will never choose to not vote and let a Unionist win if there is a pro-independence candidate, so I will vote SNP as the least bad option if they are the only non unionist on the ballot paper. I would urge you to take the same approach. Best wishes.

  12. florian albert

    This article comes close to conspiracy theory. ‘you can choose between two parties and they are largely bought and paid for’; ‘an almighty and concerted smear campaign finished Corbyn’
    There is no acknowledgement that the Left has consistently failed. It has given up on electoral politics in Scotland and then complains because its ideas are ignored.
    Robin McAlpine is correct that neo-liberalism and globalization have contributed much to discontent in Scotland, the UK and many other places. However, globalization has given us quite a lot; cheap electrical goods, food, clothing and travel. It has transformed life and, in many ways, for the better. The problem is that there are losers in a globalized world and many of them are located here.
    The idea of ‘mandatory industrial democracy’ might have worked if started in the 1950s. (Personally, I doubt it would have.) At present, the outstanding failures in the UK are not in the private sector but in the public sector.; the Post Office, the blood contamination scandal. The failures are not those of the ultra-rich but of the professional middle class.

    Once again, there is an unwillingness to accept that – for a huge section of the population – life in Scotland is secure and materially comfortable. This group has expanded hugely in the last forty years and now exerts a veto over any attempt to create a more equal society. This, as much as any ‘oligarchy’ is at the heart of our problems.

  13. I’m SNP and quite keen to vote. I’ve also been out delivering leaflets.

    Why? When it’s clear that the problems Robin points out are true.

    Well all of them are contestable and more, the context in which they exist changes. People have been generally content with globalist neoliberal technocracy for the last 45 years because it has made people in the West prosperous. And with the system basically working people have also become politically apathetic.

    It changes and we have to be in it to win it.

    The SNP is contested and is functioning well as a broad church. Do the status quo-ists dominate government? Sure but it’s contestable and is being challenged. It will push slowly towards independence, at a pace that frustrates many Yessers, but as the democratic choice made by the people of Scotland in 2014 recedes into history it becomes more and more likely that another referendum will happen.

    I do certainly realise that there are some oppressive major issues that make it hard to tolerate gradualism but nothing around voting or campaigning changes what is the basic truth for progressives – that we need to do 100 things and hope that a few of these seeds flower. For me the General Election has made me more keen on the community stuff I do.

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