Monday, 10 September 2012

Unthinkable? Voting reform

Reader beware: this one is much longer than my usual offerings.

I've been pondering for a while on issues raised by a short opinion piece in the Guardian that was entitled 'Unthinkable? Voting on a Sunday'. The piece was, I believe, prompted by the lamentable 32% turnout chalked up in the local elections held in early Summer. A figure following on from the 65% at our last general election and that, political nerds will remember, was up a mighty four points on the 2005 election. Compare these figures with the 80% turnout seen in this year's French elections. So, what to do about our elections?

Low electoral turnout is a problem: it's a problem for elective democracy generally and it's a problem for those in our society who are so disenchanted that they see no point in voting. I'm thinking particularly about the young here. This crisis stems from a variety of causes. Politics is an elite world. It has its own language and rhythms which are impenetrable to outsiders. Parliament is arcane and appears, from the outside, to have more of a sense of pomp and pageantry (consider the State Opening) than an understanding of the vitality of civic duty. Our politicians are narrowly trained and chosen. They are then forced to speak to each other in ways that ordinary people don’t. No wonder so many of the electorate look at Parliament and see absolutely no connection to their lives and the battles they fight on a daily basis.

We have a political media who do not see their job as to illuminate and inform, but rather to expose and trivialise. While exposure of wrong doing is essential to a functioning democracy, so is an understanding of the balance of scandal. Even in the expenses furore, politicians weren’t “all at it”. They really aren’t all the same. The majority of politicians (but don’t press me on an exact figure) from all parties go into politics out of a sense of public service. But they have very different ideas of what that means in reality, and those ideas, when implemented, mean very different things to people’s lives. The media seemingly have no interest in informing voters of what these differences are and, all too often, fuel the lazy “all the same” stereotype. As electoral turnout continues to drop, and as all parties adjust to this by increasingly trying to dampen the votes of other candidates, we are stuck in a race to the bottom that damages us all. This is not a new concern. We’ve been handwringing about this for far too long now and I think it’s timely to consider something radical.

Sometimes two cherished values are in direct opposition to each other: our liberalism has been allowed to trump our democracy time and time again. For me, now is the time to change the whole system in a way that will have huge charges of illiberalism, but equally, could have the enormous payoff of cracking open our democracy. I believe we should move to compulsory attendance at the polling station (or if we move to online voting – which is inevitable – compulsory registration of a vote or non-vote). In Australia, where voting is compulsory, the turnout at their last election was over 93%. Imagine that here.

Imagine the difference to our politics if our politicians were not always chasing the richer centre ground of likely voters, but forced to appeal to people of all circumstances. It’s a fact that in the UK the poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote. Imagine the difference to your daily life if politicians had to address their cuts in a way that didn’t alienate young people with their whole voting lives ahead of them. It’s a fact that In the UK, the younger you are, the less likely you are to vote. Imagine if elections were no longer about turning out your vote and depressing that of your opponents, but were about giving the people – all the people –something to vote for. Imagine if our media knew that all the people needed to be informed, and competed to be the best source of that information. Imagine a body politic forced to represent all the people – a true representative democratic system. Imagine if everyone voted at every election (local and national) and the political classes could not ignore a low turnout.

Of course, making voting compulsory doesn't automatically take us to a higher plane of democracy but it would be a step in the right direction. In the interests of fairness and to temper the accusation of being illiberal, I would give those who genuinely want to opt out a chance to do so without the “none of the above” option appearing on the ballot paper as I think that a too easy opt-out would hinder the cultural change I’m seeking. A simple registration of non-voting would allow those who don’t wish to vote for religious or cultural reasons as well as those who genuinely don’t wish to vote, the option not to do so. But they would be forced to make that a positive, not a negative, choice: the default position is to vote. Jury service is compulsory in this country because we consider it an important part of our democracy that we are tried by a jury of our peers. We may grumble when called (as is our right) but we recognise it as our civic duty. Isn’t it time we considered choosing a government in a similar way?

Two elements of my ideal electoral position are compulsory voting (as above) and an elected second chamber (as expounded in many previous posts) but I'm not daft enough to think that either of these are achievable in the short term. If not the ideal then what? And this takes me to, at long last, the subject of the original Guardian feature - making voting more convenient by holding polls on a Sunday.  Making voting more convenient could also include electronic voting, voting by phone/text/internet. All of these are being used successfully elsewhere. Surely not making changes such as these makes no sense in a twenty-first-century multi-cultural society?

Of course, none of these technological fixes to boost turnout do anything to boost voter engagement. The very best way forward is not to accommodate voter apathy but to end it. If people were really engaged in the political process and felt that voting made a real difference then they would be queuing up to vote any day of the week and by any means available. Voters need to think that their votes will count for something, and that those elected will at least make an apparent effort to keep their promises, as advertised in their respective manifestos!

Again, I'm not daft enough to think that politicians will change their habits so that leaves me with the canker of electoral change gnawing at me. It's all very well having a moan but what am I going to do about it? I'll write about this in a short while.

No comments: