On not voting

February 11, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform | 4 Comments

For reasons I’ll explain further in the future, I refuse to vote in the next election. This isn’t because of apathy, belligerent idealism or the absence of available parties, but because the government seems set to preside over an election in which over 70,000 of its citizens are unlawfully disenfranchised. At this moment, I cannot consider exercising my right to vote when tens of thousands of prisoners are illegally deprived of theirs.

Now let’s consider a fictional scenario. Let’s say that the last Queen’s Speech included a bill to make voting compulsory, that it had sneaked through Parliament and comes into force on the day of the general election. Under such a scenario, my tiny, irrelevant fit of pique over the government’s law-breaking would be elevated from a quiet, inconsequential protest to a criminal act itself. Oh, the irony.

One of the basic errors made in advocating for compulsory voting is diagnosing the refusal to vote as something apolitical. It isn’t. Leaving aside my fictional scenario, the British public isn’t stupid. The vast majority of us know there’s an election coming up and will know when it’s taking place, but what we choose to do with that information is our business.

If large swathes of us decide not to vote – either out of disgust, ignorance, lack of cultural capacity or, yes, apathy – then that’s actually far more reflective of the social and political condition of this nation than any scenario in which we’re forced into the ballot box.

But more worrying than that, the arguments for compulsory voting are unnerving because they rest on the underlying assumption that if people aren’t turning out to vote, then that’s the fault of the people. Therefore, to preserve the legitimacy of the political system, we must make the people turn up to vote. The only onus on the political class is to pass the legislation to make it so.

Even if this were to happen, it would be about as reflective of the public’s faith in politics as having 1,000 Facebook friends is a reflection on your character. It provides the happy illusion of an engaged citizenry & a vibrant democracy but reveals nothing of their engagement with political life. You can have 1,000 Facebook friends and still be a tosser. You can have a 95% turnout rate and still have a broken politics.

Finally, it’s not even necessary. There are still countless different ways you can re-engage an understandably jaded electorate without forcing them to the ballot box. Make voting day a bank holiday. See what effect AV has. Engage with your constituents. If compulsory voting is the first solution you reach for, then you’re demonstrating an absence of imagination.

Voting is an important and gratifying civic duty – I really would recommend to anyone. But the moment you tell people that voting is compulsory is the moment an important part of freedom – and democracy – is lost.


We shouldn’t be forced to vote

July 25, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform | 2 Comments
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If only he hadn’t mentioned the C word.

There’s much in Kevin Penton’s Compass article which is totally agreeable. For a start, he’s right that there are measures Parliament can enact to try and increase the public’s participation in democracy, and he’s right to dismiss weekend voting as a stupid solution which would infringe upon our free time and send us to the ballot box in a foul mood. Of the alternatives he discusses, I’m happy to support fixed-term parliaments, making Election Day a public holiday, ditching first past the post and introducing individual voter registration. In fact, had he only mentioned these measures, he might have sent me skipping through a meadow with delight (well, figuratively speaking – I’m lacking access to a meadow at the moment).

But, as the song goes, then he went and spoiled it all by saying somethin’ stupid like… compulsory voting. Sure, if you want to guarantee high turnout in an election, the easiest way is to make it illegal not to vote, but let’s not pretend that it’s anything other than democracy by force. The main problem I have with advocates of compulsory voting is this: within their arguments is an implication that the problem lies with the voters, and therefore all we need do is introduce a law to shock them from their stupors and do their democratic duty. But this argument completely ignores the possibility that it’s our politicians who are the problem. For nearly over a decade the major parties have squabbled over the same centre ground, spoken to the country in the same stilted managerial speak and bickered over issues which don’t relate to ordinary people. Over the same period of time, we’ve seen turnout plummet. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

As contemptuous as I am of first past the post, the current system at least shows that for large swathes of people, politics is broken. Compulsory voting would achieve little more than papering-over the cracks, masking the discontent felt among the electorate and allowing the political status quo to remain unchallenged and unchanged. As libertarian blogger Ian_QT notes:

Compulsory voting provides a smoke-screen for the real reasons for antipathy towards the electoral process, reasons I have gone over many times before – specifically, that the political class is rightfully seen by so many as self-serving, corrupt and contemptuous of the people who elected them.

When there are other, more liberal reforms available to us, couldn’t we try those first, rather than trying to bring people to the ballot box by using a lasso?

Slender majorities, greater democracy

April 23, 2008 at 8:30 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform, New Labour | 2 Comments
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Photo by Flickr user Adam Tinworth (Creative Commons)

For those of us who believe that the current economic climate is exactly the worst time to consider raising the taxes of those on meagre incomes, today’s u-turn compromise by the Chancellor is a victory of sorts. There were no certainties or specifics, and suspicion surely remains that this ‘compensation package’ will be aimed at the more politically-appealing pensioners and families rather than any single people and under-25s who’ll lose out. Nonetheless, the Government finally heeded the howls of its own backbenchers, showed some contrition and came up with something that allows everyone to retreat from this fortnight-long fight, no matter how bruising the encounter has been.

But as Gordon Brown retreats to his residence to lick his wounds, add Frank Field to his shit list and suffer the Tory taunts about his leadership repeated endlessly on the nightly news, you could hardly blame him for wistfully reminiscing of those days in ’97 and ’01 when Labour boasted such a battering-ram of a majority that it could force almost any policy, no matter how unpopular and disastrous, through Parliament with votes to spare. The rest of us, however, may be tempted to draw the exact opposite conclusion.

If Brown’s government had enjoyed the same size majority as when Labour first came to power, Brown’s last budget would’ve endured but a fraction of the commotion we’ve seen this past week, and it’s doubtful that the backbenchers’ concerns would’ve been listened-to and addressed. Equally, if we changed our electoral system, Parliament would not be able to function without greater compromise and cross-party consensus and scrapping the 10p rate in the way Brown and Darling proposed might never have gotten this far.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the kinds of benefits that could be brought to our democracy by implementing some form of Proportional Representation. Aside from its biggest attraction as a system of voting that more accurately reflects the number of votes each party receives, I’ve argued that it has the potential to increase voting turn-out by making people in traditionally safe Labour/Conservative seats know that not only will their votes be counted, but their votes will count. Furthermore, I’ve suggested that by wrenching the major parties’ focus away from the fawned-over marginals of middle England, Labour has a chance to reconnect with a working class heartlands it has stopped knowing how to talk to, and in the process perhaps develop a greater knowledge and understanding that would be useful when devising policy.

With the 10p tax revolt we now see a third advantage of PR in the potential it has to reinvigourate our Parliamentary process. Ruling coalitions would only enjoy slender majorities but the rest of us would enjoy greater democracy. Ministers would be forced to consult on legislation, Commons committees would have greater influence as policy scrutinisers and compromise & consensus would be far more prevalent in Parliament than we ever see today. Most appealingly for Gordon, this crisis might never have happened. Surely that reason alone is enough to give it some serious thought…

Related reading:

  • An old Polly Toynbee article during the time of the last election on how insufferably undemocratic our First Past The Post system has become.
  • Johann extols the virtues of PR, slams Jack Straws proposal of an ‘Alternate Vote’ and then proposes a middle way, the sexily-titled ‘AV Plus’
  • Yes, I was lying about the ‘sexily-titled’ part.
  • Make Votes Count – a campaign website for electoral reform

Photo by Flickr user Adam Tinworth (Creative Commons)

Ditching ‘first past the post’

March 7, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform | 1 Comment
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As an interesting counterpart to the current debate about the apparent disenfranchisement of the white working class, The Progressive reports on an event debating whether Labour should ditch its commitment to ‘first past the post’ and introduce some form of proportional representation. Here, Stephen Pound makes nervous noises:

‘To think somehow that proportional representation is Viagra for a flaccid electorate not voting in great numbers, that’s a terrible mistake.’


The MP for Ealing North argued that the reasons behind low voter turnout ran deeper than the technicalities of the voting system. ‘It’s when politics matters less to people that they don’t vote. Our job is to make politics relevant to people.’

He’s correct, at least, in stating part of his job description, but I’d argue that low turnouts are more indicative of a flaccid politics than a flaccid electorate. If, after over 10 years, three Labour governments and two Prime Ministers, you still don’t seem any closer to reinvigorating our elections, if every half-measure and mini-initiative you’ve tried has failed, perhaps it’s time for some bolder ideas. Polly Toynbee talks some sense:

Toynbee said that Labour should have ditched FPTP when it came to power in 1997 but that during those heady days it could not conceive of a time when it might benefit from electoral reform. ‘If it’s a hung parliament next time, it will look very cynical if the parties come round to PR just to hold onto power.’

Toynbee said that under FPTP parties to ‘descend on the centre ground where the shade of difference of what is said is so infinitesimal’ in a bid to capture the tiny number of swing voters. ‘There are big differences at heart but the voting system makes the parties cross-dress.’

It also leads to such an obsessive focus on marginal constituencies that it seems our politicians campaign not to the country but to those constituencies where votes really matter. Why else would Tory partisan Lord Ashcroft be pouring vast amounts of his own money into these constituencies? In the fight to hold/gain marginal seats, the easy seats of traditional, working class Labour heartlands can afford to be ignored.

In theory, proportional representation would mean the methods and messages of the parties would need to become broader and more inclusive. To increase its share of the vote (and thus its share of seats in Parliament), Labour would need to realise the dormant potential of its heartlands, work closer with trade unions to bring working people to the polls and, most importantly, produce policies and rhetoric that would give them something to vote for.

All of which sounds like an incredibly enthusiastic vote in favour, but in truth I don’t think PR would necessarily be a miracle drug for our democracy and I haven’t even resolved some of the issues I have with it, like whether local issues would be marginalised, how it can lead to constituencies electing MPs who only came second or third in the popular vote, whether it makes MPs less accountable to their constituents.

Then there’s the thorny issue of forcing folks to the polls. Compulsory voting – brought to you by the same illiberal, top-down changeniks whose greatest hits include ASBOS, the smoking ban, identity cards and moral panics over obesity and binge drinking – is yet another sign that the government believes it can legislate us all into becoming better citizens. Whether it would encourage people to become more active in the politics or merely foster resentment and result in ‘none of the above’ being the overwhelming winner is not something I’d like to bet on.

If you ask me, the one saving grace about first past the post is that it shows our politics needs fixing. Whilst PR isn’t perfect, compulsory voting would surely just paper over the cracks.

Photo taken by Flickr user Neil Wykes, borrowed under a Creative Commons license.

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