Non-voters’ missing voices

The sad truth is that nearly 20 years after devolution the majority of people in Wales still don’t vote in Welsh elections, be that local or Assembly elections.

Also available in: Welsh

While turnout for General Election is comparatively high in Wales, there is a huge gap in those that vote in local and UK wide elections.

While turnout isn’t the only indicator of how healthy a democracy is, it’s certainly a good place to start. Yet, this does only offer a small picture of how people really feel about politics.

That’s why we launched Missing Voices, a project which has aimed to have a conversation with people across Wales about how they feel about politics and how it can be improved.

This report outlines the findings of an extensive piece of work that has traveled the length and breadth of Wales trying to find out what you really think about the way Wales works.

Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods we have identified the following three key themes in how people feel about politics in Wales.

  1. Confusion
  2. Frustration
  3. Hope

Illustration by Laura Sorvala / Auralab

Confusion

Confusion

Let’s face it, when it comes to politics and elections we should be experts. In only the past eighteen months we in Wales have been asked to vote in four different elections and a referendum.

While Missing Voices initially set out to find out the views of those who aren’t voting, what became evident is that those that are voting had a story to tell too. In particular a number of voters have a huge amount of confusion around what it is they’re voting for.  With others a perceived lack of knowledge acted as a barrier for them to vote at all.

Repeated phrases that cropped up in our survey included ‘confused’, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand’.

“I’m not really interested in politics- I don’t understand politics very well, mostly because I don’t attempt to understand.”

“Although I enjoy reading the news and trying to understand politics, I will admit I find it all confusing, wish there was an easy guide!”

“I always feel confused with national and local politics.”

“unfulfilled promises, misguided truth, self serving, confusion, uncertainty”

“I’m unsure & confused, therefore uninterested sadly.”

“I’m not as passionate as I should be and I believe that is down to my lack of knowledge”

Frustration

Frustration

“Frustrating”– one respondent to our survey when asked to sum up what politics meant to them.

For many there is a sense of widespread disillusionment with politics at present.
While this part of the report is titled ‘frustration’, it could have easily have been ‘lack of trust’, ‘widespread disillusionment’ or possibly ‘anger’, ‘worry’ or ‘disappointment’.

With so many visits to the ballot box over the recent years coupled with previous cases of the expenses scandal and more recently concerns over allegations of sexual harassment and tax evasion there are many elements of modern politics where frustration and distrust has been able to flourish.

This certainly bears out from some of the comments from people in the project who had no interest whatsoever in politics or saw it as an increasingly negative force in the their lives and in society in general. Two people during a focus group in Criccieth went further.

‘Everything is politics and I don’t like it.’

‘I don’t do politics, I hate it.’

This ‘political malaise’ was echoed in the survey responses.

When asked ‘What does politics mean to you?’ some respondents did not hold back: ‘It’s a mess.’ ‘load of old rubbish.’ ‘not a lot.’ ‘whoever wins the people lose.’ and someone from Blaenau Gwent claiming ‘it’s full of s**t.’

“Money, poverty for the most vulnerable, as the rich get richer”

“Politics to me is essential, although I find myself always on the wrong side and having to fight for my rights. I don’t think we can avoid politics but it is often exhausting and damaging to my well-being to constantly fight for rights, laws and fair treatment.”

“I think it is smoke and mirrors. A select few have all the power and pretend we have a say.”

“Frustration, fighting, regression, some positivity, a lot of double standards”

“Power grabbing, scoring points, self-interest, league tables, statistics, arrogance, depressing”

Hope

Hope

As already intimated, right now politics isn’t winning any popularity contests but the truth of it is, we can’t do without it.

It’s certainly unfair too to say that there are no bright spots of hope in amongst some of the negativity and confusion we’ve already examined in this report.

For those 718 survey responses that completed the question ‘In 10 words or less, what does politics mean to you?’ compared to 141 neutral, 241 negative, the overwhelming response (336) were positive.

Out of all those positive statements 26 people used the words ‘chance’ and ‘opportunity’ while the words ‘change’ and ‘future’ feature 60 times.

“Possibility of change”

“Something we all need to engage with to ensure change”

“The ability to change things for good”

Alongside stories of change and examples of individual AMs and MPs giving hope to people are those that inherently have hope in the political system, including a new type of optimism caused by the divisive changes that for others have caused disillusionment.

“It affects everything. Why wouldn’t you want a say in that?”

“Politics is life, its effects my life and those around me. You can’t turn a blind eye and ignore it, issues need to be addressed, voices need to be heard. There’s a real shift in the way ‘young’ people like me see ‘politics’ and it’s good. There is a revolution coming”

“My future, my money, my services. My children’s future”

“Democracy is heart of our life together as human beings”

“Politics means having a voice”

 

While on the road for the Missing Voices project, ERS Cymru's Mat Matthias created a series of video diaries.

Our Conclusion

When we began this project we were unsure how many people would engage with the work and what they would say. Our findings are the result of hundreds of people across Wales taking the time to participate in a discussion that they perhaps wouldn’t normally, and for the first time we have a clear idea of what people across the country think about politics beyond the polling station.

Our three themes of ‘confusion, frustration and hope’ are not meant to be exhaustive or reductive of the nuances of what people have taken the time to tell us but to try and bring together some narrative and consistency in a huge range of information.

These themes also offer an opportunity for improvement. As we said in our introduction with new powers Wales now has the chance to do things differently and alongside practical efforts to make Welsh elections run more effectively, there is now the opportunity to live up to the hopes and expectations of those who see politics as something positive in their lives and to change the minds of those who don’t.

From these themes it is clear that political education is not delivering at present for all. While political education is generally seen as something for younger people, there is also a gap in knowledge of politics for those outside of the education system. A fundamental challenge is how we can address this information deficit, in a Wales where the means of communicating news are limited.

Communication generally, beyond education, from all layers of government needs to be improved. There is a systemic challenge for all individual politicians to more effectively interact with their constituencies and reach those that are ‘harder to reach’. For some people who are massively turned off from modern politics a leaflet through the door at election time is not enough. This gives us the opportunity to look at other methods through deliberative democracy that can fundamentally change the way people interact with politics, and bring politics closer to the people it is meant to represent.

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