It's time the UK had compulsory voting

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 8 May 2012 in Diary
Jury duty is an important enough civic duty that we make it compulsory, so why don't we address low turnouts and do the same with voting?

In the French general election last week, turnout was an estimated 82%. At our last general election, it was 65%. In the closest election we’d had for 18 years. And that was up a mighty four points on the 2005 election.

This is a problem. Decisions are made by those who show up, but increasingly decisions are made to favour those who turn up. The very crude and simple reason that young people have been hammered by cuts that have largely left the elderly alone is that young people are significantly less likely to vote.

This crisis stems from a variety of causes. Politics is an elite world. It has its own language and rhythms impenetrable to outsiders. Parliament is arcane and appears, to the untrained eye, to have more of a sense of pomp and pageantry 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 look at Parliament and see no connection to their lives and the battles they fight on a daily basis. I know I’ve never referred to the energy company representative as “the Honourable Lady” when begging for an extension on my gas bill.

We have a political media who do not see their job as to illuminate and inform, but to expose. While exposure of wrong doing is essential to a functioning democracy, so is an understanding of the balance of scandal. Even in the expenses scandal, which was far too widespread, they weren’t “all at it”. Politicians really aren’t all the same. Most politicians, from all parties, have got 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 those differences are, all too often fuelling the lazy “all the same” stereotype.

Charlie Brooker related an analogy in his most recent column comparing politics to golf as a minority interest pursuit. And of course in many ways he’s right. The difference being that the outcome of the Ryder Cup has no direct impact on my life of the life of my family. But that’s not considered an interesting enough story to cover. If it’s not scandal and it’s not horse-trading and gossip, it’s not going to print. 

As turnout continues to drop, and as all parties adjust to this by increasingly trying to dampen the votes of other candidates we get stuck in a race to the bottom that damages us all.

This is not a new concern. We’ve been handwringing about this for too long now. Maybe it’s time to consider something radical.

Sometimes two cherished values are in direct opposition to each other. In this case, our liberalism has been allowed to trump our democracy time and time again. For me, I think 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.

In the UK the poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote. Imagine the difference to our politics if we weren’t chasing the richer centre ground of likely voters, but forced to appeal to people of all circumstances.

In the UK, the younger 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.

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.

But I want to give those who genuinely want to opt out a chance to do so without the “none of the above” option appearing on the ballot (because I think that easy opt-out would hinder the cultural change I seek) so 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.

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 the same way?

Tags: Compulsory voting, Francois Hollande, Local Elections 2012

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