Poll to poll

The turnout out for last year's referendum broke all records and is now the subject of extensive research. Dr Malcolm Harvey considers the experience and what implications it may, or may not, have for May's general election. This article originally appeared in The Herald.
 
The staggering democratic success of September's independence referendum, in which 85 per cent of the Scottish electorate cast a ballot, bucked the trend of falling participation in politics.
 
The last Scottish Parliament election in 2011 saw a turnout of just 50 per cent. What explains the increased engagement, and what can we learn from it?
 
There tend to be two broad explanations for a lack of formal political engagement. The first group are supply-side arguments, which emphasise the structural deficiencies in the system; the second are demand-side arguments, which emphasise the gap between citizens' expectations and the reality of what can be delivered.
 
 
Both explanations suggest different solutions. Those on the supply side tend to emphasise the need for fundamental changes in the political system. Those on the demand side often argue that citizens need to have more realistic expectations about what democratic representative politics can deliver.
 
With regards to the Scottish independence referendum, it is clear that both of these explanation types played a role in increasing turnout. The referendum was a unique political event and, as such, there was a temporary shift away from the normal processes by which politics operates.
 
As a result, the electorate were more likely to engage in the process. At the same time, demand-side explanations were also evident: people temporarily changed their expectations about what politics could achieve. The high salience of the question was a major factor in the turnout.
 
In the aftermath of the referendum, parties across the political spectrum saw an upturn in membership. The SNP's membership rocketed to make it the third largest party in the UK, evidence that the electorate involved in September remained engaged in the political process and are eager to have their voice heard.
 
However, just last month, a TNS Scotland poll suggested that just 64 per cent were "certain to vote" in the General Election, a figure roughly the same as the last election five years ago, and a considerable fall from the referendum turnout. So why, when political interest appears higher than it has been for decades, are people still reluctant to vote?
 
Academics have long considered the Scottish electorate to be rather sophisticated, clearly distinguishing between different levels of election and electoral systems, and voting accordingly. It is clear, too, that the Scottish electorate is also distinguishing between the potential outcome of a stand-alone example of direct democracy and the run of the mill, business-as-usual politics of a general election.
 
The former sees expectations raised; the immediacy of a decision made and delivered. The latter delegates decision-making to representatives in a parliament far removed from the individual. Whilst people could clearly connect their vote to the referendum outcome, the link between voting in a Scottish Parliament election and, say, public policy outcomes is much more blurred.
 
What can we learn from the referendum? The electorate are engaged, and they want to be involved in political decisions. They expect much from their political representatives. However, those expectations seem to be tempered by a general apathy with the system of representative politics that exists at Westminster (and, based on turnout figures, Holyrood, Brussels and local government as well).
 
To that end, there are both supply and demand explanations for engagement in the referendum process, and that engagement being significantly reduced for elections. This suggests that both require changes: the system itself needs altered, in part to account for the increased plurality of options at the ballot box, while the expectation of what can be achieved through political engagement also requires modification to consider the challenges inherent in representative democracy.
 
Is the answer therefore simply to have more referendums? Although some find this attractive as a solution, it is not clear that it would solve problems with formal participation in the political system. Referendums between elections could help citizens to feel more engaged in decision-making, but they also run the risk of creating a bigger expectations gap.
 
Voting Yes or No to the fundamental constitutional question of independence produces a clear outcome; voting on more complicated public policy issues involving implementation is messier. Even more clear-cut referendum questions invite difficult discussions: should majorities be deciding on minorities' rights on issues such as gay marriage, for instance?
 
It is important for democracy that both supply and demand challenges are considered and acted upon. Because whatever else happens, decisions are made by those who show up.

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