Responses - the new report on improving voter engagement

A new report out has a host of recommendations for improving voter engagement and the committee wants to know what the public thinks. Here's some quick responses OurKingdom editors and writers.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay Jeremy Gilbert Oliver Huitson
14 November 2014

Adam Ramsay: There are three main ways that candidates communicate with us in the run up to elections: the 'ground war', the 'air war', and, increasingly, what I like to think of as the choppy seas of social media.

The failures of the press have been well documented. But I always think it's interesting to consider what the 'ground war' actually consists of. Often, political pundits will talk about messages which 'go down well on the doorstep'. This shows, largely, an ignorance of what goes on on the doorstep in modern politics.

Because, for most parties, canvassing isn't really about persuading people to vote for you. And it's rarely about the sorts of deep, philosophical conversations you'd hope it was possible to have when democratic debate takes place unmediated by journalists. In practice, most ground campaigning in British elections consists of three things: 1) find the people who are likely to vote for you, 2) make sure they are registered to vote 3) make sure they do actually vote.

Each year, thousands of activists from every political party will spend days of their life going through exactly this process. And as well as taking up a huge amount of their time, it causes another problem – it means they barely ever discuss politics. Even when a party activist goes to a front door and talks to a voter, a huge portion of their time will be spent, in effect, on admin.

If we can't really trust the media to ensure we have a vibrant political discussion in this country, then this simple fact – the way in which political activists are turned into electoral registration officers – ensures it's much harder to debate things as a community.

It doesn't have to be this way. In Australia, people are automatically registered to vote, and voting is compulsory. This means that, when an activist knocks on your door, they are able to actually talk about their party's policies.

A new report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons looks into the electoral process in Britain. It has various recommendation for ensuring that many more people are registered, and raises the prospects of automatic or compulsory registration, and compulsory voting. While we'd need to think carefully about the civil liberties implications of the former, and we'd need to have (as they say) a 'none of the above' or 'abstain' option if we introduced the latter, I'd certainly be tempted by both of these things – it would mean that political canvassing could actually be used to discuss politics, rather than which forms people have or haven't filled out.

The report also has a long list of practical suggestions for ways in which to ensure many more people are registered without making it compulsory. These include working with groups like Operation Black Vote and Mencap, making it clear that Electoral Registration Officers are required to canvass every house in their area to get them registered, and so on. It points out that these will be particularly important in the light of the shift to individual voter registration, which is likely to ensure huge numbers – particularly of young people in shared houses – aren't registered to vote

These are all good ideas, and within the scope of the report, they are welcome. But I can't help but feel that they fail to get to the core of the issue, which is twofold.

First, a Tory government is unlikely to do too many of the things suggested, for the simple reason that people who aren't registered now are pretty unlikely to vote Conservative if they do vote: the list of those under-registered in the report (black people, young people, disabled people) is almost exactly the same as any list you might draw up of those demographics this government has gone out of their way to alienate. It seems unlikely that the coalition will put significant resource into ensuring they are able to exercise their democratic rights.

Specifically, the report seems to imply that a disenfranchisement which is of huge advantage to the ruling party(ies) is merely a the result of bad luck. Individual voter registration in particular – which will mean thousands of students and young house-sharers being wiped off the electoral register - was rolled out in September 2010 by this government, right in the middle of the student protests. Many pointed out that it would likely lead to a significant drop in turnout among particularly young people. It seemed absolutely clear at the time that, at least in part, this was the intention.

Secondly, the report doesn't – and perhaps couldn't – get to the core of why people aren't interested in politics in the modern age. It complains a little about how the media is cynical about Westminster, and it (quite rightly) proposes decentralisation of power – which is good. People are more likely to take part in the democratic process if it takes place nearer to them. But it doesn't address the core problem – people don't feel politics can change things anymore.

With power now lying firmly in the market rather than democracy, it's no wonder people don't vote. Democratic reformers spend a lot of time talking about the processes of democracy – which are important. But as we discuss the process, it's becoming less and less relevant. Fewer and fewer decisions about our lives are made by those we elect. More and more are made by vast global corporations to whom our economies have been privatised. Until democrats are willing to demand that democracy be not just improved, but also be expanded, engagement in elections will continue to fall.

Jeremy Gilbert: Sadly, while it contains some nice suggestions, this report remains mired in the delusions of the political class - apparently people don’t vote because they falsely ‘perceive’ that it makes no difference to anything. What the political class seemingly cannot get its head around is the fact that, for the most part, people are right to believe that their voting makes no difference to anything. Making it easier to vote online won’t change that one jot.

The primary reason that people don’t vote today is this: it’s a demonstrable fact that since the 1980s, the correspondence between what voters thought they were voting for and what governments actually did has almost completely broken down. In the 1980s, Thatcher never enjoyed a popular mandate for her programme, and the majority of voters voted for parties that would have halted and reversed it; those parties were unable to develop a common vision of an alternative, and so unable effectively to represent their supporters. So by the end of the 80s most voters had already had the experience of voting en masse against Thatcherism and yet getting more Thatcherism in return, for the entire decade. In the 1990s and subsequently, New Labour was elected by an electorate which, as countless surveys showed, overwhelmingly hoped for some kind of restoration of the historic social democratic project to reduce social inequality, and an end to the Thatcherite programme of public-sector privatisation. They got neither. Today we have a government enacting a programme which is not the one that anybody voted for.

There are many causes of this situation, which could not really be remedied without a wholesale revival of the social forces which made mass democracy possible in the first place (the unions, the political Left, etc). But there is one obvious and much-discussed reform which could address some of the key historic problems to which I refer. Unfortunately, all that the report has to say on the issue of electoral reform for the House of Commons is that ‘Westminster has a settled view’ in favour of first-past-the-post. Can a report on constitutional reform and improving voter engagement, which dismisses out of hand the possibility of proportional representation for the Commons, which would at least make every vote mean something, really be worth the paper it’s written on? The evident fact is that the current electoral system necessarily hands disproportionate power to swing voters in marginal constituencies, and effectively disenfranchises every other voter in the country. Until at the very least this is addressed, then the judgement made by many voters, that voting is a waste of their time, will continue to be a correct judgement, and not the result of a misperception.

Oliver Huitson: The report concentrates on the process of voting itself, the means, the mechanisms, the obligations. Jeremy Gilbert rightly points out the futility of voting in FPTP system, which is about as undemocratic a voting system as could be imagined. Westminster may have a settled view but it would be nice if they checked whether the British people agreed - by giving a clear referendum as New Zealand did: "should the voting system be changed, and if so, to what?" Cameron deciding to choose only one minor alternative to offer the public was disgraceful but entirely typical of Westminster; their contempt for the public is boundless.

But a proportional system cannot be the only answer. Across Europe turnouts have decreased since the 70s despite far more democratic electoral systems. And this brings us back to Adam's point: if the sphere of the "political" is ever decreasing, and more and more decisions are being taken by bond traders, management consultants, accountants and the transnational business elite, voting of course becomes less important; this is a certainty, not a misconception. Right now, the TTIP trade deal is being thrashed out behind closed doors, away from the public, yet it will have a profound impact on the nation. In short, the turbo-finance-capitalism we now endure has shown itself actively hostile to basic democratic norms. At general elections we get warned by "the market" how to vote. The Scots were warned by "the market" how to vote. The Scots certainly didn't show any "apathy" when it came to independence and there's a lesson there: give people a real choice and they'll make one. All of this, understandably, is beyond the scope of the report but is critical to the report's goals. A temporary freeze on extortionate energy bills and 'slightly slower cuts' is not a choice in any meaningful sense of the word.

Mandatory voting is not something I favour, but I would hope the Committee would only consider such a move if there was a 'none of the above' option on the ballot; the two must be a package. To be forced to vote is one thing, to be forced to give your explicit support to a political party you may not find remotely attractive is quite another and there is no place for it in a democratic state.

On votes for 16 year olds it is a common argument to suggest that if they can get married, if they can join the army, if they can pay taxes, they must be able to vote. I don't find this convincing. Joining the army, getting married and paying tax doesn't have the potential to influence fundamental reform of the nation, and nor do they require as much life experience, knowledge, or maturity. If I picture my 16 year old self and my friends, the idea that we should have been allowed to influence how the country was run is astonishing to me. If you are not responsible enough to drink alcohol or mature enough to watch certain films then you are clearly not ready to elect a government. Getting more young people engaged in politics is essential and there's a lot to be discussed there, but I don't think votes at 16 is the answer.  


For more articles on reform and constitutional change, see our new series, the Great Charter Convention, examining the case for a people's constitutional convention and with an eye on next year's 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

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