Democracy by trust

Adam Lent
23 May 2006

The Power inquiry into the condition of democracy in Britain which reported in February 2006 found that a wide and deep alienation from formal politics stalks the country. This conclusion has tended to prompt one of three reactions: fear, dismissal or pleasure.

The great majority of people outside the establishment have welcomed the inquiry's findings, happy at last that someone has said what they have known all along. One contributor to the inquiry even described its work as "cathartic".

Within the political establishment, some have been genuinely shocked that popular distaste for that establishment has become so prevalent. Others, however, have pulled their comfort-blankets over their heads, protesting that cynicism towards politics has always been rife or that wider engagement is not necessarily a good thing anyway.

Most recently, a number of observers have responded to the evidence of wide citizen disaffection by repeating the call for their favourite "solution" to disengagement – compulsory voting. This has been proposed in a thoughtful but misguided pamphlet by the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) – A Citizen's Duty: Voter inequality and the case for compulsory turnout (May 2006). The suggestion has won the enthusiastic endorsement of Peter Hain and Geoff Hoon, two former leaders of the House of Commons, Britain's lower parliamentary chamber.

Adam Lent is research director of the Power inquiry

Also by Adam Lent on openDemocracy:

"Tomorrow the world? The rocky path of social movements"
(October 2002)

"The need to connect: a response to Roger Scruton"
(October 2002)

"The vision thing: a response to Cancúnblog" (November 2003)

"Talking to power" (March 2006) - with Pam Giddy

"The Power of the concordat"
(16 March 2006)

In the early stages of the Power inquiry, some commissioners looked on compulsory voting (or "compulsory turnout" as the ippr pamphlet calls it) with favour. But once a mountain of evidence had built that the primary cause of the increasing withdrawal from formal democracy was the simple fact that so many now regard it as irrelevant at best or positively repellent at worst, compulsion seemed the wrong answer to the wrong question. If you still believe that the main reason people don't vote or support parties is because they are seduced by the wiles of the shopping-centre or reality TV, then compulsion seems a reasonable response. To put it bluntly – if the fools out there can't see how important politics is and how delicate is the fabric of democracy, then they must be forced to take part whether they like it or not.

Such a view ignores the well-researched fact that 20 million of our feckless citizenry volunteer once a month for charity work, community work or on a public body; and that membership and support for extra-parliamentary campaigns has grown enormously over the last thirty years. People don't need to be compelled to participate if they think it is worthwhile and might actually have some impact. Those who argue for compulsory voting on this basis are as wrong-headed as a CEO who on seeing market-share dissolve in the face of competition argues for customers to be forced to buy the company's products rather than trying to understand how they can be made more appealing.

The authors of the ippr pamphlet are too bright to accept such crude arguments. They come at compulsory voting from a number of angles but their key point is that the decline in turnout has been more rapid amongst those with lower educational attainment and incomes. This, they argue, is the main reason why compulsion should be used: to prevent participation in elections becoming the preserve of the better-off.

But as the report itself acknowledges, one of the main causes of this uneven decline is the fact that poorer and less-educated people tend to regard the political system as less responsive to their concerns. As a result, compulsion seems nothing more than a sticking-plaster unless those who favour it can show that compelling people to vote will make the system more responsive to those concerns. Unfortunately, the report does not make this case and looking at the list of the very diverse political systems that do have compulsory voting – from Australia to Singapore, Belgium to Uruguay – "pro-poor" policy outcomes hardly appear to follow as a matter of course.

Introducing compulsory voting at a time of great alienation from formal politics also conjures the spectre of even greater disgruntlement. How would the customers of that company feel when they learned they were now required to buy the goods they had consciously rejected? The ippr report deals with this by arguing for a "none-of-the-above" option on all ballot-papers. The Power commission agreed that such an idea was worth consideration if its wider proposals for the change of the voting and party system were not taken up, but it was very much a second-best option.

Peter Facey of the New Politics Network pointed out to the Power inquiry the great practical difficulty of the option: what if "none of the above" wins? Is the election rerun over and over again until some poor soul secures a grudging victory after the electorate has been beaten into submission? Or worse, does the second-placed candidate take office with all the attendant privileges and responsibilities, even though the greatest number did not see him or her as fit for that role?

The truth is that it is far harder – but far better – to chuck the comfort-blanket away and accept without evasion that democracy in Britain is indeed facing a crisis of popular confidence. Those who wish to remedy its parlous condition need to redouble their commitment to renew public trust and involvement in formal politics. This can only be done by rethinking the fundamentals of the way all involved – citizens politicians, institutions and media – "do" politics in Britain to make it genuinely responsive to people's concerns. In short, we need to create a system that enforces compulsory listening by politicians not compulsory voting by citizens.

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