Is Britain a banana republic?

Dominic Hilton
6 April 2005

“The Mother of Parliaments” is hailed as a model for the world, an inspiration for wannabe democracies.

Rigged elections, for example, are what happen to them. Think Ukraine. Think Kyrgyzstan. Think Zimbabwe. When the people are cheated, civil society camps in squares, political culture zips up its cagoule and stands in the cold, rioters carve thick wedges into clubs, the gap between a state and its citizens tightens. Britain has no need for exercises in people power. Mothers don’t do protests.

At least, that’s the way it’s meant to be.

This week, Britain’s election officially kicked off. Tony Blair, a visibly anxious prime minister, stood outside 10 Downing Street and spoke of a “magical moment” as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II “graciously consented” to dissolve parliament and permit her subjects to choose her government on 5 May.

Meanwhile, over in Britain’s second city, six Labour councillors were found guilty of running the most corrupt electoral campaign in Britain for well over one hundred years. In the verdict of the judge, the scandal of Birmingham’s local election involved “electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”.

Centred on Birmingham’s prominent south Asian community, the juicy facts read straight from the Robert Mugabe Handbook for Victory:

  • The Labour Party organised “massive, corrupt and illegal fraud” in which nearly 3,000 votes were “stolen”
  • One Birmingham postman was offered £500 and threatened with death unless he handed over a sack of blank ballots (he took the money)
  • Voters who failed to vote Labour had their choices removed by correction fluid and corrected
  • Small boys were recruited to nick ballots sticking out of letter boxes
  • “Short of writing ‘steal me’ on the envelopes,” said high court judge Richard Mawrey QC, “it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands”
  • Applications for postal votes continue to be handled by political parties after the government blocked efforts by the Electoral Commission to prevent further fraud at the general election
  • Thanks to postal-voting fraud, 50,000 people are likely to lose their right to vote at the general election and the British press is openly questioning the integrity of the whole election.

The enthusiasm for postal voting began as a desire to boost turnout at the polls. Once, voters were expected to walk to polling stations and postal votes were limited to the disabled and the infirm. But as turnout plummeted, Britain’s political class sought to make voting “easier”. Just fill in a form, they said, and your behind needn’t even leave the couch.

Guess what? Lots of people – particularly women who struggle with English – had their forms filled in for them.

This penchant for the postal is emblematic of the malfunctioning heart of British democracy. An election is an event, a process. Part of it is about striding into the polling station, hiding behind a curtain and giggling as you “kick the bastards out” and then pretend to your friends you voted another way.

Voting is not about convenience. It should involve some thinking. It does not need to be made more user-friendly, treated as just another thing to tick off during our busy day.

Democracy is difficult. Government is not a TV show, more’s the pity. Is the fraud-friendly postal vote the best idea the British government can come up with to engage the electorate in the political process – “Don’t worry, it’s as easy as ABC”?

Either this is desperation, or it’s deliberately hollow, designed to keep us pesky voters at arms-length from those who rule in our name.

As he announced the end of the phoney general election, and the beginning of the real one (spot the difference), Tony Blair attempted to look humble, as he declared: “The British people are the boss”.

If only this were true. For starters, if the people ruled, Tony Blair would not be in power.

“You’re the boss” is a favoured politicism in the United States, where it carries some weight. But things work differently in Britain. Unlike a US president, Blair is not directly elected. As prime minister, he gets to call the election whenever it best suits him. At the 2001 election, his Labour party won only 40.7% of the vote on a 59.4% turnout, but formed a government with a whacking great 179-seat majority in parliament; there, it makes law virtually unchecked.

In 2005, thanks to what the London Evening Standard calls “quirks in the electoral system”, pollsters predict Blair could win a House of Commons majority of 70-90 seats with only a “wafer thin” 2-3% lead over the Conservatives (with only 53% of voters saying they “intend to vote”). Conservative leader Michael Howard reportedly thinks the “people who matter” make up only 2% of the electorate.

Whatever one’s view on the Iraq war, if the British people were the boss, British troops would not be wearing desert boots. In fact, if the British people were really in charge, it would say so in a British constitution that begins “We the people of the United Kingdom…”.

The UK election in May is billed as all about turnout. If voters show in large numbers, it should favour Labour. Conservatives stand accused of deliberately campaigning to keep people away from the polls.

As if!

I went to corruption-ridden Birmingham to hear Michael Howard talk about the decline in popular participation and he insisted he was all for boosting voter turnout. True, when I chatted to him afterwards, he made little effort to seduce me to the polls. There was no “Can I rely on your vote, young man?” Just a blank stare and an expression that read “Why am I wasting my time with this jerk?” Perhaps he was clocking my name for a postal ballot.

Postal voting is no answer not only because it is “wide open to fraud”, but because it is a stunt, designed to increase turnout but failing to address the basic relationship between the state and its citizens.

There’s a hollow centre in British politics, and it’s in danger of being stuffed with forged ballot-papers.

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