LONDON — One question perplexing politicians in the United Kingdom has been the question of voter turnout, which once again hovered around the sixty percent mark at last year’s general election and dipped even lower in a by-election a few months later.
A range of remedies have been considered — from extending the use of postal ballots to lowering the voting age to 16. Yet though it is undoubtedly true that there is still much to be done to make politics more transparent and accessible, voters need to remember that it works both ways.
It has become almost fashionable for many voters simply to say “they’re all the same” while barely considering whether this is really the case, and the stigma that once seemed to be attached to such nonchalance maybe 30 years ago appears to be gone.
But in their efforts to better engage with the electorate, policy makers must avoid the temptation to pretend that politics will always be revolutionary and exciting. Perhaps the fairest criticism of Tony Blair is that he led the public to expect too much too quickly and the Labour Party was punished at the polls last year partly as a consequence of the resulting disillusionment.
More importantly, politicians must not pretend that there are easy answers to every problem and that it is just a matter of having the will to solve them. This simplistic attitude manifests itself most clearly in “single issue” or protest candidates who act as if governing can be boiled down to one cause and that every other issue will somehow solve itself. Politics is a complicated business and boiling down the worth of a candidate to a single idea demeans other important issues and lowers the level of intelligent political debate.
The dangers of such voting patterns are encapsulated in the Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow, George Galloway, and his decision to spend time as an elected official holed up in a house so he could appear on “Big Brother.”
Mr. Galloway already had a reputation amongst many of his colleagues and the media as arrogant and self-aggrandizing, but his decision to appear on the British reality TV program still surprised many, especially in his constituency.
It shouldn’t have. Throughout his career he has thrived on controversy, from the time he famously told Saddam Hussein “I salute your courage” to inciting Arabs to fight against British troops in Iraq. He has also been caught up in storms about taking cash from the Iraqi government. Though none of these allegations have yet been proven — the Daily Telegraph lost a libel case last year over the issue — many still feel there is an awful lot of smoke for there not to be fire.
So how did such a controversial figure manage to find his way back into Parliament after his old constituency was redrawn out of existence? By running on an antiwar platform in a London borough with a large Muslim population. Of course doing so meant running against Oona King — one of only two black females in the 646-seat House of Commons.
Mr. Galloway therefore claimed that his effort to unseat Ms. King was motivated by her support of the war in Iraq and her close identification with the Prime Minister. Yet she was neither a member of the cabinet nor involved in the planning of the war. If Mr. Galloway was simply interested in making an anti-war statement he could have run against the Foreign or Defence Secretary. Instead he was involved in a nasty election campaign that exacerbated racial tension in the constituency and decided to run against a woman who by most accounts was a hard working constituency MP.
And how did Gorgeous George, as he is sometimes known, repay this leap of faith by the people of Bethnal Green? By grandstanding at a Senate hearing in the U.S., apparently relishing his moment in the media spotlight there, and then taking part in an ongoing TV show while Parliament was in session. It is difficult to imagine that 24-hour coverage in an East London house is what the electorate had in mind when they chose to send Mr. Galloway to Westminster. And it has surely been a setback for efforts to improve the image of politicians when someone places egotism ahead of serving those voters who put him there.
Bethnal Green has serious problems. It is one of the poorest constituencies in the country and some wards have serious housing and drug issues to address. For the thousands of Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democratic voters, I therefore feel sorry — they have missed out on the opportunity to have an effective and dedicated advocate in Parliament. But for those that chose Mr. Galloway or who didn’t bother to vote at all? They have got what they deserved.