Over the last 15 years, voting numbers in Britain have seen a sharp decline. Even in 1992, 77.7% of the electorate voted, compared to just 61.5% in 2005, hardly more than a decade later. It is little wonder then, that everybody from politicians to academics and media commentators view this as one of the defining political problem of our times. This is for a good reason: it has often been the case that a majority of the population do not actually support the Government, thanks to the voting system. Now, for the first time, non-voters are the largest single group outnumbering those who supported the winning party and overshadowing the whole election process by their abstention. Should this trend continue it will pose a question about the legitimacy of the institution of parliamentary democracy itself.
At the Fabian Democracy Day on Saturday 8th September, renewing democratic engagement was predictably to the fore. One speaker, Fiona MacTaggart, joined a growing chorus of other policy makers and politicians, including Geoff Hoon, Tom Watson (Director of New Policy Network), Mark Tami MP and member of Labour's National Policy Forum and Gareth Thomas MP to endorse a particularly draconian solution: compulsory voting. Just as the IPPR recommended in their paper A Citizens Duty last year, this, as she went on to explain, demands that the government make people take their responsibility to vote seriously.
"But why aren't the electorate voting?" I asked. "Because people are either lazy or uneducated" MacTaggart responded, "we are trying to educate people about voting through citizenship classes and raising awareness of the importance of voting. As far as I can see, the compulsory vote would address any problems of laziness". From this lofty vantage point, it's the public rather than the politics that's the problem.
This is as unconvincing as it is simple minded. Aside from the fact that historically, people had to fight to be given the vote - and they didn't fight after being educated on the importance of voting but because they recognised that the vote, and democratic engagement more generally, was the way that they could have some control over the society they lived in - the lazy or stupid argument makes even less sense today given that people are not only taught about voting at school but also have more opportunities to vote than ever before, be it online or by post. And as for the notion that people are simply unaware of its importance, it can hardly be for want of material. As the heightened awareness of green issues shows, people are positively bombarded by information, whether through traditional or new media.
When I asked Ed Milliband the Cabinet Minister in charge of drafting the Labour manifesto what he thought about the decline of civic participation his response was slightly more nuanced. Though he recognised that young people in particular need to be engaged, he wanted to do it through local politics or, as one audience member put it, ‘boring politics.' And on compulsory voting? Not ruling it out entirely, he said "the party would try and attempt to engage people through social services, (that is), by reorganising the distribution of power in society and giving people more control over how local resources are spent, before they gave up on people wanting to vote".
For the political elite today, therefore, the issue centres around not why people do not want to vote but how they can be made to vote. I asked Fiona if she was comfortable with overruling people's decision not to vote. "I don't care about that" she said, "people ought to vote". Moreover, she said that people could tick a box saying 'none of the above' if they were not persuaded by any of the parties. What, I then asked, would be the point, if everybody voted, but for nobody? "It's about the shared experience of voting and reigniting the sense that we're all in it together". Fiona happily made a virtue out of the act of voting without much consideration for the fact that voting is simply part of a process to elect a government - the value of which lies in the majority of people actively supporting the elected government. In a similar vein, IPPR made a case for compulsory voting on the basis that it would reduce poverty and exclusion while better supporting people who did get involved. But, by loading the mechanism of voting with extrinsic meanings, this is really just a more elaborate attempt to make a virtue out of voting of and in itself.
"Compulsory voting is ultimately not a big deal", Fiona went on, "given that Belgium, Greece and Australia have the compulsory vote and in more recent cases the introduction of it has increased voting figures for the main parties, making the governments more democratic". In fact, 32 countries worldwide have the compulsory vote. However, that isn't a good enough reason to introduce it in the UK, especially as it would be in response to apathy, rather than as a result of tradition, for example. Although the compulsory vote may increase the main parties' votes by a small number and would certainly have everybody voting, albeit under duress, it would not address people's disengagement from the main parties. There remains a significant difference between voting and being engaged with parties and supporting their ideas. Compulsory voting is particularly dangerous as it serves to redefine what political engagement is, effectively legitimising its lack of content and ability to inspire by placing more emphasis on turnout than what might be wrong at the level of party politics. A full turnout would be no more than a smoke screen for disengagement. It would do little to redemocratise a system that's legitimacy is in decline because the government does not embody - and this sadly seems a rather quaint notion - the will of the people.
Fiona MacTaggart was not the only person making an argument for the compulsory vote. David Aaronovitch, a respondent to Fiona at the Democracy Day, also supported compulsory voting on the grounds that "those who don't vote are like teenagers refusing to do their homework, they must do it but don't want to, so they end up being forced". He went on to say that he gets sick of libertarians moaning because "not voting is essentially the same as saying that someone refuses to pay their tax, because they disagree with where it is spent, or refusing to do jury service".
Ignoring the wider implications of this argument, most notably that to make voting compulsory would mean re-writing democracy to exclude the freedom not to choose, David's justification took no notice of the fact that whereas jury service and tax legitimises our system of government, voting is about legitimising the content of that system, that is, the ideas which inform policy and affect the way we live our lives. Compulsory voting advocates consistently whittle down political disengagement and the issue of voter turnout to the most simplistic terms. Although everybody from IPPR and the Electoral Commission to Fiona MacTaggart and Geoff Hoon are aware that turnout is a complex issue, they all separate the need for something inspiring to persuade people to vote from the problem of the number of people going out to the ballot box.
Little attention was paid by Aaronovich or MacTaggart to the fact that compulsory voting changes what engagement means from endorsing a party's ideas to ticking a box. This reduces the voter's role to formal participation, rather than genuine endorsement. Problematising the ‘serial non-voter' (Electoral Comission report - opens pdf) rather than the government for being uninspiring, when election campaigns are currently run on everything from school dinners to environmental programmes, is criminal. Where PR and rhetoric have taken the place of true manifestos for change it seems that parties would rather modify the voter than face up to their own inadequacy. By tacitly assuming that people will not voluntarily buy into politics anymore, they betray themselves.
So, will the compulsory vote become part of the democratic process in the UK? At present, according to the Electoral Commission, 49% of people oppose compulsory voting but Fiona believes that, as voting is a ‘citizen's duty', "there is scope for this to happen as part of Labour's rights and responsibilities agenda". The increasing frequency with which this conversation is being had suggests it may see the light of day yet. After all, it is the logical destination for an elite focused on improving turnout rather than tackling the reason for low turnout, ultimately, the need for a more inspiring political discourse.