Issue 8: January 2014


By John Downie, Director of Public Affairs, SCVO

This year’s Referendum is arguably the most important Scottish political event for decades. Now is a prime opportunity for people across Scotland to be more politically engaged than ever and to discuss and shape the Scotland they want to live in.

The question, however, is are they engaged ?

The traditional measure of political engagement is voter turnout. In the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections turnout was 50.6%. Given that the Scottish Government’s mandate for hosting this September’s referendum effectively comes from 50% of 50%, this is something that should be cause for greater concern than many have given it. Not only as it indicates a significant lack of engagement with politics but could be used to question the legitimacy of our governments, past, present and future, to govern.

More recently, local by-election voter turnout has been particularly poor. In December Glasgow Shettleston’s local council by-election attracted a turnout of just 17.55%. Council by-elections may not be the ‘sexiest’ but given the role of local councillors, whose decisions affect those services which impact our daily lives from bin collections to planning permission, such low turnout is appalling. It makes one wonder if people true appreciate the relationship between elected officials and the operation of their daily lives. 

Furthermore, work undertaken by the Hansard Society Annual Audit of Political Engagement has revealed that just 41% of the public are certain to vote in the next General Election, although this does rise to 52% in Scotland. It is deeply worrying that a fifth of the UK’s population now say that they are: ‘absolutely certain not to vote.’

We need to urgently ask why 20% of the population are so vehemently against voting which is arguably one of our most important rights and responsibilities as citizens. Political parties in particular need to take stock. It is in their best interests if more people participate in the process, so why are our political parties not doing more to encourage people to vote?

Nevertheless, there are some encouraging signs of political activity beyond the standard measure of voter turnout. People are increasingly contacting their representatives about individual issues that are important to them. This is in part due to the efforts of campaigning organisations which provide template letters or postcards for people to send to their MSPs. For example, recent high profile campaigns include those surrounding college education and equal marriage.

Moreover, people are increasingly using social media to debate and follow politics; the YES campaign has approximately 28,000 Twitter followers and Better Together about 16,000. There’s also the rise of the e-petition with nearly 10% of people either creating or signing a petition last year. The petition calling for Iain Duncan Smith to prove his claim of being able to live on £53 a week currently has over 480,000 signatories –how many of these voted in their most recent election? 

The particular challenge this year is inspire people to participate in the Referendum; however, the results of the SCVO’s Scotland’s Future Survey do not make encouraging reading. Nearly 40% of third sector organisations who responded to the survey remain completely disengaged from the Referendum debate. The debate itself was described by respondents as ‘confusing’ and ‘uninformative’ and a recent poll by the Law Society revealed 67% found it difficult to decide whether the information provided in the debate was true or not.

Trusting politicians is not instinctive, but if near two-thirds of people question the veracity of information provided, we need to ask whether this will deter people from voting, as they do not feel capable of making an informed choice, and if those people who do vote will feel confident in their decision? This is not a choice to make lightly.

The SCVO survey also showed that 54% of people said that the independence debate thus far had not covered the issues that were important to them - this fell to 45% for 16-24 year olds. Why should people vote in this Referendum if they feel that the debate doesn’t reflect them and their priorities? Arguably, if what concerns you does not form part of the discussion you can legitimately feel that voting is futile as whatever the result, it’s unlikely to make a difference to what you consider important.

These results should alarm both the YES and the Better Together campaigns for a number of reasons; the challenge now for both sides, is how do they bring people into the debate and make sure they vote as it is clear that we cannot rely on a boost in voter turnout based upon the significance of the event alone.

We should also give consideration to those groups which are particularly ‘excluded’ from politics. For example, the link between socio-economic status and political participation has long been acknowledged. When you examine voter turnout from the last Scottish Council elections you can see clear links between the two.

Glasgow City had the lowest turnout with just 32.4% and Shetland the highest with 54.7%, (neither result is inspiringly high). The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation shows that Glasgow City Local Authority has the largest local share (42%) of the 15% most deprived data zones in Scotland. In contrast Shetland has 0%.

We need to look closely at why those who are socio-economically excluded do not engage in politics and what we can do to reverse this trend. It also poses an interesting question about the political landscape: if more people from socio-economically deprived areas engage politically, will the dynamics of politics begin more to reflect them and their needs?

Another group which needs urgent attention is young people. Alarmingly, only 12% of 18-24 year olds are certain to vote at the next General Election. UK–wide, 33% are not registered to vote and only 23% of 18-24 year olds claims to be knowledgeable about politics. Why is it that our young people are so disengaged? We desperately need an answer to this question as if young people are not voting now, then they are unlikely to vote in the future. It also asks: if such a large percentage of young people are disengaged, just how much our politicians and parties care actually about young people? Have we given up on motivating the youth vote?

We should also consider why it is that fewer people from black, minority and ethnic communities are likely to vote. Why over half of those with a degree have an interest in politics compared to 24% of those with no qualifications and why disabled people as highlighted in Independent Living in Scotland’s report: Politically (in)correct – representation of disabled people in Politics, don’t see politics as ‘something for them’.


Although there are a large number of people excluded from the political process more widely people are engaging with politics. The challenge, especially in this Referendum year, is how do we capitalise on the enthusiasm for alternative forms of engagement and transform this type of participation into people voting, in particular among our young people.

The two overarching questions are:

1)    What does continually low turnout mean for the nature of our democracy?
2)    And what should governments, political parties and civil society be doing to help reverse this decline in participation?    

John Downie is Director of Public Affairs at SCVO

By John Downie, Director of Public Affairs, SCVO

Issue 8: January 2014

Issue 8: January 2014


Smart Cities: Smart Services: Smart Working Editorial

In focusing on 'Smart Cities' let's start with a few teaser questions (answers at the foot of this column)...


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