Just before we dozed off during A-Level Sociology, we half-learned something about 'the value of the non-decision' - the grave significance of enigmatic voter silence. Even at that time, oh so long ago, the government was furrowing its brow over the decline in voter turn-out. They were spending so much time and money trying to figure out why the flock was straying from the polls, the people who had turned out felt neglected, wondered why they'd bloody bothered, and resolved next time to stay in and swell the ranks of the not-arsed. Years on, the issue is even more pressing, with voter numbers at pitiful levels. This week the sexily-named Power Inquiry report, having prodded and poked the comatose voting public, somberly declared that British politics will go into 'meltdown' if nothing changes. Still, at least we can teach the US a thing or two about abstinence.
With all the sweat and grunting and cash going into such a study and all the complex theories emerging, we're unlikely to be much closer to resolving the problem now than we were a week ago. Voter apathy is a very big deal, and is now at least being taken seriously as such. Previously the assumption was that the people who didn't vote were either too fat to fit through the polling station door, were stuck under a dripping vehicle in a filthy overall, or dead. Now it's accepted that there are many interlinking reasons for it, and it affects not only the chronically apathetic who don't care who's in government as long as they can stay in bed until 12 on Sundays, but the smart and motivated and productive.
The report suggests that people lack sufficient information to make an informed decision; but as was suggested on the BBC website, the opposite is liable to be a bigger bugger. A surfeit of info can be a boggling thing - look, for example, at the Internet. It's bloody big though, isn't it? Look for one thing and you get 567,000, all a little bit different from each other but all clamouring to be the one you're looking for. The one special nugget of knowledge that will slot snugly into that question-mark-shaped depression in your mind. Just like that one special person who will love you for who you are. It could be you! Or that one. Or one that you haven't even considered Googling yet. If you read and digest half of what is published even just in the weeks before an election, you may find that it all sludges into a generic mush that wants your vote but you're not even sure why any more. Ultimately, too much information is as bad as not enough. You can't learn anything from nothing, but nor can you learn much from everything. This is what's happening with the endless explosion of political bumf - it leaves people bewildered in a cloud of dust and nonsense when all they want is a few beads of straight, basic data.
Also of course, curse us, we're now finely attuned to spin in all its serpentine forms, and are thoroughly disinclined to chomp the proffered apple of party political poop. Even if you cut through all the crap in the run-up to an election and extrapolate the actual policies, you know that they won't necessarily be delivered on. Even if the will and determination and integrity are there on behalf of policy-makers, it could be compromised by any number of things. A recession. A freak hurricane. A sudden realisation that actually, it'd be much easier and cheaper to build houses on school playing fields instead, using old hockey sticks for scaffolding and detention students to carry the bricks. Anything.
There's also this nasty, nagging thought. For every halfway politically-engaged individual who weighs up professionals and conmen, considers what might be good for not only themselves but society at large, and doesn't absently wax their ears with their ballot box pencil, there may be 73 basketcases who just vote the way their dear old dad did; or for whoever promises to purge the country of all minorities (including Guardian readers); or just for Labour, over and over again, because they really want to believe that *this* time, surely, things can finally only get better. Voting is an emotional process as well as an intellectual one - it's bursting with hope and fear and idealism and worry about interest rates and concern for the underprivileged and awesome regard for the enormity of the responsibility a government must shoulder, and how the hell anyone could ever get it a quarter right. Given this, it's no wonder so many of us are shying away from the finality of crossing the box.
Or it could simply be that the perks of not voting might just be too good to give up for some. People will smugly say that if you didn't vote, then you've got 'no right' to bitch about the present government, as you did nothing to stop them getting in. On the contrary - freed from any trace of responsibility for the whole rotten mire, you can spend your days pointing and laughing and berating the poor sad fools who pencilled so imprudently, and now traipse around lugging their percentage of guilt for inflicting all this on the rest of us. As society fragments so we all become increasingly self-centred bastards, and there's nothing to be done but redouble the efforts to get us all back into church. Religion also absolves you of personal responsibility, but the difference is that... oh, you don't get the lie-in on a Sunday. Damn.
The only obvious solution, given the much healthier voting figures, is to make Preston Prime Minister. It's alliterative and everything - should play really well with the public.