Monday, 24 March 2008

Unwillingly to poll

An item in today's Guardian suggests that as part of a package of reforms the government is considering making voting compulsory. They hope thereby to "increase turnout and improve the legitimacy of the Commons." Measures will be "consulted on" (a phrase which, of course, usually means "pushed through") after the May elections have been got safely out of the way. They are also thinking about changing the voting system, possibly to alternative vote. Mind you, if that system delivers victory to Boris Johnson in the London mayoral contest they will drop it very quickly indeed.

As constitutional affairs minister Michael Wills is quoted as saying, "It should not be about parties choosing a system that will most advantage themselves, it's about a voting system that delivers democracy for all of us". Yeah, right.

It's a mistake made far too often by both politicians and political journalists that people don't vote because they're ignorant, apathetic or uninterested in the democratic process. In some cases, that may indeed be the case. Often, though, non-voters know only too much. They see MPs who no longer exercise any meaningful power over the legislation put before them, who are far more interested in their careers than in the details of the policies they are whipped into supporting, and who as a sort of compensation increasingly see themselves untrained social workers. They see that debate and discussion, both inside and outside Parliament, matter for little or nothing. They see that their supposed representatives don't actually represent them at all, yet presume to pass ever more pettyfogging and intrusive laws. And they think, why do these people deserve the legitimacy conferred by a high turnout?

I made a positive choice at the last election not to vote. Living in a safe Tory seat, I knew that my vote wouldn't affect the result (nor would I have wanted it to). In a marginal constituency, if I had the opportunity to help reduce the evil Blair's majority, then I would have taken it. As it was, though I couldn't alter the result in one constituency, I could by abstaining make a small dent in the national turnout. This would go some small way towards reducing the government's legitimacy.

I'd be willing to bet that a great many people made the same choice. Alternatively, they looked at all the candidates, and seeing the choice between a corrupt, incompetent Labour, a still unappealing Conservative party and a frankly flaky bunch of LibDems, decided, quite rationally, that there was no-one worth voting for. Instead of seeking draconian measures to force people to vote for them, the major parties could start by listening instead of preaching.

The only hope, I suppose, is that it could backfire spectacularly. If the plan is put into operation, and forty percent of the electorate is dragooned unwillingly to the polling booth, are they likely to give thanks to the governing party that passed the law by voting them back into office? If I were advising the Conservatives, I'd make sure to include a promise to repeal the measure in the manifesto. It could be worth millions of votes.

5 comments:

silas said...

My girlfriend refuses to vote for anyone on the ballot, but still goes along and registers her dismay by deliberately spoiling her ballot paper.

She simply writes "None of the above" and then draws a box next to that and puts a cross in it.

I think a larger number of people 'voting' for "None of the above" than have voted for the eventual 'winner' would be a) hilarious, and b) a true representation of the population's feelings for politicians.

the Heresiarch said...

The trouble with your girlfriend's approach, I fear, is that spoiled ballots are counted when estimating turnout.

The combination of "none of the above" and compulsory voting would probably result in a number of victories for NOA. Then what? The highest place loser wins? Re-open nominations? A better scheme, could it be organised, would be a NOA candidate who would promise to resign if elected - and stand again. There could then be continuous elections with no-one actually being elected. If nothing else, it would help to reduce the quantity of unnecessary legislation.

silas said...

I'm still advocating revolution, personally. But I am a simple anarchist, so this is to be expected.

On a slight tangent, I wonder what the punishment would be for not voting? A small fine - in which case not voting would remain as likely? A large fine - in which case the less well off would be much more likely to vote, traditionally for Labour? Or prison - in which case a campaign of non-voting would clog the courts and the already over flowing prisons?

The idea of Re-open Nominations is one that I am aware of from my University days. We had something like five elections within a nine week period due to R.O.N winning the first four.

The benefits did, in that particular example, outweigh the costs. No President meant no stupid edicts and the SU staff did their normal work with no interference.

If something similar could work here - whereby the Civil Service continued doing what it's currently doing and the electorate were polled on any proposed changes to statutes (the proposed changes themselves being, one would hope, less along political lines and more for the country's good) - then we could have true governance by the people for the people.

Sadly this is likely to only work in Utopia.

In answer to your question, I'm afraid I cannot offer a reasonable and/or practical method. I would like to suggest, however, that there should be a "National Lottery" type method. With a random person being put in charge for say, six months? Paid a flat wage, no expenses.

I suspect this method would probably benefit the country more than the current system.

The Heresiarch said...

We used to have a perfectly good method of random selection for Parliament. It was called the hereditary peerage.

A method of destroying the party system which might work is the Richard Taylor solution. He got elected on the back of a campaign to save the local hospital. It occurs to me that there must be, in most constituencies, a similar issue, whether it's a threatened school, or a post office, or the local regiment or even some unpopular planning application: something that would galvanise people to come out and vote for an independent.

Repeated throughout the country, it could produce a parliament in which the official party candidates are a minority, or perhaps almost wiped out. The elected MPs would have to start from scratch. They would actually have to debate things properly.

Dream over.

Brian Brown said...

All you do when you vote in Britian is give your approval to our pseudo-democratic dictatorship.

I too didn't and won't vote. They're all pissing in the same pot just different colours.