17:07 Friday 22nd November 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[C]HRIS MANN: This hour we’re asking why do so few people vote or get involved in public life. Why are people apparently turning their backs on the idea of the Big Society? Is it apathy? And does anyone care? Is the answer that we should be able to do more on-line, like vote in referenda and elections? Yesterday there were local elections in the county, and about one in three bothered to vote. In the PCC elections a year ago fewer than 15% voted. And now the idea of neighbourhood panels has been scrapped here in East Cambs, because no-one it appeared was bothering to attend. So much for the Big vaunted Society the Prime Minister had put so much store by. Well earlier I asked Conservative MP for Peterborough Stewart Jackson what was in the theory, and what was it all supposed to be about?
STEWART JACKSON: I think it was about people working together, understanding the bonds of community, just beyond the family to your local area, volunteering, the third sector, those sorts of areas where people could actually make a difference. And not paid, in their own time, but really had what you would call social value, whether it’s helping with the scouts, or doing litter picks, or bigger projects around say the environment. And I think that was what the Big Society was meant to be about.
CHRIS MANN: But under this Coalition Government and over the last few years it appears people have been given more opportunities to vote, to get involved, but they’re not taking them up. The vote for the PCC was pitiful; local elections, dreadful; Europe, awful. And here we see the neighbourhood panels being scrapped because no-one’s got the time. Nobody can be bothered.
STEWART JACKSON: I think there’s a great deal of truth in what you’ve said. I think the thing with the PCC, the Police Commissioners, was that it didn’t really spark the voters’ attention or enthusiasm. I was a great supporter. I made my maiden speech eight years ago on having a Police Commissioner in Cambridgeshire. And I do understand that people just aren’t really that interested. I think that’s a function of the fact that people sometimes feel estranged from the political system. They don’t feel their voice is heard in Westminster. Often they feel that the really big decisions are made not even in Westminster but in Europe, in Brussels and Strasbourg. And I think they think well I don’t want anything to do with that. And I think that’s sad. Equally though people have got greater access than they’ve ever had before, to social media, to information, to databases. So they make rational transactional decisions on what’s good for them and their family and their community. So for me I don’t have a problem. I’m comfortable if people choose not to vote or if they vote.
CHRIS MANN: Are there too many tiers of government? Are there too many questions being asked of people? Shouldn’t we just elect you, the politicians, and get on with it, and have fewer of you?
STEWART JACKSON: Well there has been a trend to where you’ve got a difficult problem set up a commission, or some group of wise men to make the decision, and I think that’s wrong. Because ultimately we pay our politicians in Westminster and in the town halls, up and down the country, to make decisions, and they need to do that. But having said that, this is not a new phenomenon. Turnout in local elections has been low and really gone up and down over the past forty or fifty years. It depends. People aren’t really non-political. They’re perhaps non party political. That’s the issue. And where they’ve got a really pressing big issue, like in Peterborough the solar energy park, development in South Cambridgeshire, people will get exercised and interested, and work together as a community group. So it very much depends on what the issue is locally.
CHRIS MANN: There is a way of doing this, where people wouldn’t have to make much of an effort Stewart, and it’s obvious really, isn’t it? People shop online. They do so many other things online. They stay in touch with people online. Why not vote? Why not have referendums? Why not get involved online? Just a simple tick. Would you be happy with that at the next election? people didn’t go to a polling station. They just clicked for Stewart Jackson or not.
STEWART JACKSON: No I wouldn’t be happy with it, because I do think .. ultimately I’m a Conservative, and in som ways I’m a traditionalist. I think it is a tradition of our politics that you do have hustings. Although of course that declined. You have public meetings, and people make the effort to go and vote. Not everyone wants to do it. Some people vote by post, and that’s perfectly proper if they’ve got issues where they’re away, or they’re ill. And I understand that. But most people I think ought to take part and see it as a civic duty to turn up to a polling station. And that’s how it should be. That’s the British way, and I don’t see any reason why we should change that.