In the lead-up to the UK general election 2001, almost the entire UK mainstream media establishment, together with our politicians, have been routinely, dismissively, equating a lack of intention to vote with apathy. A lower-than-ever turnout is widely expected, with non-voting especially high amongst the young, so the question has come up a great deal.
In reality, a large percentage of those not voting will refuse to vote not through apathy but because they are simply disillusioned with all of the main parties: Since Tony Blair enforced New Labour's massive lurch to the Right of the political spectrum, a huge political vacuum has opened up on the Left which has only partly been filled by the Liberal Democrats, leaving millions of people on the Left alienated and feeling like there is nobody worth voting for*. Most of those not voting would probably never even have considered voting for the Tories; those who would have largely been put off by the likes of William Hague and Ann Widdecombe.
Having decided that none of the three main parties deserve their votes, most people will stop there because they know that Britain's First Past The Post system makes it incredibly unlikely that any party besides those three (and perhaps the occasional nationalist) will actually win any seats in Westminster. I disagree with this line of reasoning - voting for the smaller parties at least registers dissatisfaction in a way which it is hard to mistake for apathy, and may help them to keep their deposits - but the argument is there, and it's not entirely unreasonable.
Needless to say, it's perfectly true that apathy is appallingly widespread in Britain, as in so many places; but from where I stand it looks to be at least as likely to be manifested in an ill-thought-out vote as it is to be reflected in no vote at all. The equating of non-voting with apathy is facile, misleading and rather offensive; its parrotting by so much of the media establishment demonstrates - dare I say it? - remarkable apathy on their part.
Post-election note: The turnout was indeed much lower than any in recent history, around 59%; the last time it was this low was in 1918, when many of our troops still hadn't made it back from the war. In addition to the low turnout, smaller parties did much better than they usually do, although predictably none succeeded in actually winning any seats (however, a doctor from Kidderminster did win as an independent, and by a big margin - his main electoral platform was opposition to New Labour's so-called Public-Private Partnership policies in the National Health Service). The mainstream media has almost completely ignored this aspect of the election result. I maintain that there is every reason to believe that the incredibly low turnout had at least as much to do with antipathy as it had to do with apathy.
UK general election 2005 note: Please bother to vote, or if you've actually found out about their policies and concluded that none of the parties represent your views, turn up, spoil your ballot paper, and campaign for a None of the Above box on ballots. As I've argued here, disengagement from the political process is understandable in a country with as little claim as this to the title 'democracy', but the only way anything is going to get changed is if people refuse to let themselves be disenfranchised, and engage in spite of the inadequacies of the system.
Most of the issues I talked about back in 2001 are still just as big; add to that Blair's enthusiasm for the military promotion of US power, and there is a stronger case than there has been for a long time for British citizens to get involved with the way our country is run.
*Such people may be ignoring the existence of the Green Party and other smaller left-wing parties, or else dismissing them because our political systems allow them little opportunity for real power; or they may possibly have better reasons than that.