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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 March 2006, 16:59 GMT
For all we know
An inquiry into voter disengagement says many people lack the information to make an informed choice. But could the opposite, be true?

We may be living in the Information Age, but when it comes to putting a simple cross in a box many potential voters are complaining about being kept in the information Dark Ages.

Voter disengagement - the growing trend for people to stay away from the ballot box - is running at an all time high in the UK.

At the last general election fewer than two in three people eligible to vote did so. To put it another way, more people abstained than voted for Tony Blair's winning Labour Party.

Local and European elections are even worse, with turnout in some areas falling below 20%.

Earlier this week, the Power Inquiry, a far-reaching report into the causes of voter disenchantment, warned the British political system risked "meltdown" if nothing changed.

Many people feel they lack information or knowledge about formal politics
49% were 'very likely' or 'likely' to vote if they had more information about constituency candidates
Recommended 'democracy hubs' where people can access information & advice
Also recommended a new independent information service to give key information free of political spin
While there is no definitive reason why voter numbers have thinned so much, many of the inquiry's findings have a ring of truth.

Widespread apathy is a myth, the report claims, party membership and allegiance has plummeted as voters feel alienated by the big political parties and key institutions.

Yet the claim that voters lack information stands out for being so stubbornly at odds with current trends.

The Power inquiry notes how politics remains rooted in old Industrial Britain, while people have progressed to Post-Industrialisation.

The later term, of course, is all but interchangeable with "Information Society". And there stands the paradox - we live in a society crowded by information, yet, apparently, lack the facts for informed political decisions.

One explanation is that political parties, stuck in their old-fashioned ways, haven't kept pace with this fast-moving information age. But no party worth its salt these days would launch a national campaign without a website as back up. And then there are third-party sources, the BBC being just one of them.

In fact, a totally contrary suggestion could be that instead of a lack of political information, voters may be drowning in too much of the stuff.

As the Times columnist David Aaronovitch noted, "people now have access to more knowledge than they know what to do with".

Pledge card
Making information more accessible, Labour's manifesto pledge card
The volume increased during last year's general election campaign, promoting Sunday Telegraph commentator Jenny McCartney to observe: "We are sodden with political information: it streams from every radio and television set in the land.

"The internet, which young people are so notoriously adept at navigating, offers a plethora of websites that willingly break down all the parties' manifesto policies into the intellectual equivalent of chicken nuggets."

Television and radio news channels beam political debates into living rooms 24 hours a day; party manifestos are boiled down into pocketable pledge cards; free newspapers for commuters have made news even more accessible; even schools are getting in on the act - citizenship lessons are now compulsory in England.

Yet still, according to Power, we lack information?

"There is more information than ever before," says Tom Steinberg, who runs MySociety.org - a charitable project which promotes the internet as a means of improving civic and community life.

"I'm more inclined to think that people lack political knowledge - they are not getting the right parts of the information that's out there," says Mr Steinberg, a contributor to the Power Inquiry.

Wrong sort of information

The "internationalisation" of news and media has shifted attention away from good, old-fashioned local politics and issues.

The view was propounded that if voters know little or nothing about their candidates and what they stand for, then they will not feel adequately resourced to enter a polling station to make a rational choice
The Power Inquiry
"Local issues often don't get reported because they are not as sexy as the big stories. Local papers do the job, but they don't grab the attention like Big Brother does and so they aren't seen as much."

Much of what MySociety does is designed to promote activism and interest at street level. The BBC's Action Network is the same and there are other websites with similar ambitions.

Perhaps a better precis of the situation is that while there's more information than ever, it's the wrong sort of information.

Doug Stewart, of the Electoral Commission, a public body set up in 2001 to promote democracy, agrees.

"If you look at the ability of political parties to deliver one leaflet across a constituency, they probably reach only 70-80% of households."

There is also a shortage of impartial information at local level, says Mr Stewart, who notes that in the US some local ballots are accompanied by an unbiased guide.

TV primary source

Councillors themselves are an obvious port of call for anyone with a local grievance, but while the government has made it a priority for local authorities to provide webspace for elected members, research last year showed that few have done much about it.

Councillors themselves say running a website is not a priority, and only 10% of those with sites update them each week.

Even when it comes to electing a new government, people are not inclined to access the mass of information on the net, or even newspapers - at last year's general election, 90% relied on television as their primary information source.

So while it seems we've never been so potentially well informed about the politics of our time, the cure for voter disengagement has shifted somewhat to making them interested in the information that's out there.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

It wasn't lack of information that stopped me voting it was the fact that it was all the same. Very little distinguishes the current political party manifestos' from each other. I want a choice - a real choice. This is currently not available.
Kirsty, West Lothian

Another problem could be the public's trust in the information provided. Frequently politicians' words and actions are contradictory with other same-party politicians and their own past actions.
James, Belfast, Northern Ireland

I would actually agree that there isn't enough information out there. The media are very good at recycling the same news by reprinting the press release. What voters want is more than a carefully worded press release. They want "someone" to speak to them on a one to one basis and tell them why a vote for "a real person, not the party" will make the world better again.
Oli, Deeside

Oh so much information out there, especially during elections. Now if there only was a way of deciding what was true...
Bas, London

I think the issue is not so much to do with too much or too little information about politics, but more to do with the content of that information. People have enough information to understand the policies of the parties, and simply don't like them. If people don't agree with the main parties, they won't vote for any of them.
Martin Millward, Buckley, UK

Tom Steinberg is right to make the distinction between information and knowledge. We don't necessarily trust the information we get, in this age of political spin and media manipulation. We're told many things by many people, but that doesn't mean we have 'facts' we can use to make a decision.
Bridget Andrews, Slough, UK

Part of the problem is that more people now distrust the information that is provided. The blame for this can be placed firmly with the government, although the other parties have responded to spin doctoring with their own brand of misleading propaganda. The net result is that the people no longer believe politicians, if they ever did in the first place.
Dave, Cambridge UK

Each time an election comes around I would like to read about the policies for each person. I don't like to hear what the other parties have or haven't done. Often when trying to understand what a party is offering all I get is the party "slagging" off the other parties instead!
Michelle, UK

I agree there is a lot of information-overload. So much so, that combined with 'spin' it is hard to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps before elections we could have, say for example a set of 20 relevant questions which all candidates give a direct answer to, and the results tabulated and sent to all voters in the area. It would allow voters to focus on clear answers to important issues.
Dithean, Scotland

I don't vote. I have as much information as I need, and I have concluded that nobody represents my views. It is as simple as that.

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