It is not enough simply to claim to have a democracy. Like much else, democracies must be kept in constant repair and be seen as relevant to those they are supposed to serve.
Our political fabric is unravelling, as is evidenced by low turnouts and a precipitate decline in political party membership, signalling a deep-seated and potentially dangerous disaffection of British voters with their democratic process.
This is reflected in the 2012 edition of the Economist Magazine’s Democracy Index, an international league table of democracies showing the UK languishing in 16th place out of 25 “full” democracies, thanks in large part to an abysmal score for political participation, as is evidenced by some recent statistics: the 2010 General Election turnout was only 65%; in 2013, a stand alone round of local elections in England attracted participation by a measly 31% of voters, while a tiny 15% participated in the Police Commissioner Elections of 2012.
A combination of circumstances is responsible for the decline in British voter engagement. To begin with, the post-war public has become far more educated, less deferential & trusting, better informed and more eclectic in its politics. By contrast, the British polity has not adapted sufficiently to accommodate the greater political sophistication of those it is supposed to serve.
And then membership of political parties is shrinking; in the 1950’s, 1 in 10 adults were members of a political party; today, that ratio is less than 1 in 100. Moreover, those who remain active in local associations seem to comprise little more than a radical core of activists from the margins of society who bring little more to the table than their partisan politics and whose shrinking numbers struggle to put up half-decent campaigns at election time. And, while every party has always had its cohort of “swivel-eyed loons”, perhaps their influence amongst a declining membership has over time become progressively disproportionate, to the extent that candidates, campaigns and policies seem more adversarial and partisan. This further alienates voters who no longer consider membership of a political party as a normal activity and look askance at party political point scoring which is not how normal people conduct their everyday relationships with family, friends and colleagues at work & play, even those they dislike.
Perhaps political parties as we know them may be approaching extinction, having been no more than a passing phase in our political development, victorian museum pieces from the steam age of politics when simplistic Christmas hampers of policy were required for a badly educated population which had just been given the vote. After all, philosophies fuel political parties but the battles of the “isms” were decided a long time ago and today’s British politics is now a fusion of philosophies, a liberal democracy with a social welfare programme resourced by a capitalist economy. So, traditional political parties as we know them could be on their way out, perhaps to be replaced over time by blended politics or “football teams” of individuals which people vote for on the basis of their competence, vision, experience and costed programme, rather than just the colour of their rosettes.
It is also true to say that there has been a decline in the number of “conviction” voters. There was a time when people were sure to vote because they believed it would make a difference to their future and that of their class or community. This no longer pertains to the extent that many voters perceive politics as being irrelevant to their lives.
Matters have not been helped by the number of additional elections that politicians have saddled themselves with over the last few decades; elections to the European Parliament, the devolved assemblies and Parliaments, and for mayors and commissioners have all added to the workload that hard pressed volunteers in local party associations have had to cope with. There is even the prospect of elections to the Lords. There are places where local elections by thirds, county elections and national polls have combined to inflict a year in, year out, workload on local associations whose dwindling activist base is never stood down; they are always fighting an election or delivering leaflets in preparation for the next one. This is no longer sustainable and perhaps we need to consider whether we need all these tiers of government and elections.
Part of the problem could lie with the decline of local government, which was once the coalface of British democracy where membership of a political party was a mainstream social activity in which people gave their time and expertise for the benefit of their community. It could be that, after the 1972 replacement of local councils with mega authorities, ordinary people lost interest in daytime meetings held in distant places and huge budgets which no part-time elected representative could hope to adequately oversee. Once “local” became “regional”, the whole process of participation went off the boil, as did voters’ appreciation of the relevance of democracy to their everyday lives, witness declining voter turnout at elections. This did not happen immediately, rather over a generation, as local association stalwarts gradually died off or resigned. This process is continuing, as councils merge and grow larger and more remote, such as Durham and Cornwall, now huge impersonal unitaries.
With all this said, it would not take much to transform our democratic process and, more importantly, the public’s perception of it, but the governors, having all the power, are going to have to make the first move to re-engage the governed. And by re-engagement, we are talking about the entire range of representative democratic activity, ranging from standing for public office, actively supporting and campaigning for candidates to voting, and even doing no more than acknowledging that we live in an open and fully participating liberal democracy.
The following 10 proposals are offered as the means of achieving this.
Voters are confused by the profusion of tiers of government and the elections to them, which are often held concurrently. If the 2012 proposals for Lords Reform had been implemented, we would have had elections to the Commons, elections to the Lords and a round of local government elections, all on the same day! It might make sense to the political class but voters don’t understand it and human nature dictates that you avoid involvement in things you don’t understand. Certainly nobody in business would dream of trying to promote a product nationwide - let alone a multi-faceted political programme to different sets of consumers - under such ludicrous circumstances.
To its credit, the Coalition government introduced fixed term Parliaments, but the 5-year term for Westminster fails to synchronise with the existing 4-year cycles for all UK local government and the various legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Assuming that all the existing tiers of government are retained (of which more anon!), it is surely logical to legislate for a fixed election timetable based on a 5-year term of office for every tier, so that you would have the European Elections in 2019, the General in 2020, elections to the Celtic Parliaments in 2021, elections to local councils, Mayors and Commissioners in 2022, and the projected Lords Elections in 2023. We would need to ditch the wastefully indulgent and not particularly democratic concept of local elections by thirds. Over time, the political profession, media and voters would become accustomed to a natural and ordered rhythm of debate, elections and government, with each tier of government accorded its own electoral year, unencumbered by other ballots.
Since the war, the British adult has metamorphosed into a well-educated and highly sophisticated consumer. Much time is now spent by all in the pondering of choices between products and services and in wading through reviews and technical specifications for anything from holidays to hoovers. The market has been very adept at accommodating this thirst for information.
By contrast, information about our political process is relatively rooted in the Stone Age. Standing for public office seems to be an activity which is rarely advertised and encouraged. Electoral law is cloaked in mystery and every level of entry into the political process seems blocked by reams of paperwork and regulation, as is evidenced by the bewildering array of information tucked away in the labyrinthine website of the Electoral Commission. Anybody who is considering standing for nothing more than their local council is bound to be discouraged by 102 pages of guidance and a further 64 pages of text if registration of a new political party is contemplated.
As for voting, information to assist the electorate in making informed choices is usually restricted to a skimpy election address from the moneyed candidates, comprising little more than photos of the candidate striking unconvincing poses with the family, pensioners, police and children. Such little textual information there may be is usually restricted to a handful of populist slogans and snide remarks at the expense of the opposition. The polling card mailing represents an information opportunity lost and is about as user-friendly as a reminder of a dental appointment. With all things considered, it’s a wonder that turnouts are not a lot lower than they already are. There needs to be a sea change in the way the government interfaces with the governed, starting with the conduct of elections. Voters must be treated like the sophisticated choice-makers they are and be supplied with consumer-friendly information about all aspects of the electoral process.
A start could be made by taking an axe to the forest of existing legislation and regulation, with particular reference to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). This legislation was the result of Westminster’s misinterpretation of public concern about 1990’s sleaze. In fact voters were more exercised by what politicians got up to once they had been elected, rather than by the ramshackle process which put them there, delivered in the main by volunteer-based political organisations with pitiful resources. In targeting the latter, PPERA has not only failed to control sleaze but has created a pen-pusher’s paradise of form filling which has impacted on the already hard-pressed party volunteer whose job it is to deliver the political message at the coalface of politics – local communities.
All existing legislation needs sweeping away and replacing with one simple but well-thought out statute more attuned to 21st century politics in Britain. To accommodate possible changes to the nature of our democracy briefly referred to earlier, all electoral procedures and mechanisms need to be neutral, so that they function just as well in an individual independent-centred election as they do in a traditional party contest. If there is a need for party registration at all, Companies House can run a simpler and less expensive system, as indeed it did in 1998 before PPERA.
Public information about the electoral process should be far more informative and comprehensive than just a few cutesy TV adverts about registering to vote; Autumn advertising of the following year’s tier of elections, January and March notices about nominations and voter registration, and a “how-to” ad during the election campaigns are needed to raise the profile of the entire election apparatus in the national consciousness and instil an awareness that this is a process - in terms of standing, as well as voting - that is open to virtually anybody.
“The deposit...is a splendid innovation. If we are going to have a number of candidates,
it is only right to ensure they are genuine, substantial men…
I don’t see that the smallest harm is done.”
The sentiments above, expressed by leading Liberal statesman Herbert Samuel in 1917 in support of the introduction of the deposit system, are clearly from another age. British Society has progressed a long way since judgement on the suitability of a person to hold public office turned on the size of that person’s bank balance, and yet the requirement that Westminster Parliamentary candidates deposit a sum of money which is forfeited in the event of failure to poll a certain percentage of votes is alive and well. Indeed, the Deposit System was extended by Tony Blair’s Labour Government for use in elections for the Welsh and Scottish legislatures, for the London Assembly, and for the London Mayor. Only local elections remain deposit-free.
While Edwardian politicians were trying to keep ordinary people out of government, today the imperative is exactly the reverse and a new, open and inclusive nomination procedure needs to be introduced as part of the quest to open up our democracy and re-engage voters at every level. The nomination stage of an election is just as important as the ballot. It is this nation’s primary process and the first portal for would-be candidates to pass through. Its construct warrants as much attention as any other part of an election.
The Deposit needs to go. It is an obstacle to voter engagement, a crude monetary device which reinforces the impression that standing for public office is an activity restricted to rich individuals or institutions. Surely the only criterion that ought to be used to judge whether a person should become a candidate is tangible evidence of support, the rationale being that, if somebody cannot persuade several dozen voters to support his/her candidacy at the nomination stage, there is little chance of thousands of voters doing so three weeks later.
Two methods have been canvassed. The method long favoured by many reformers is a substantial increase in the number of signatures required in support of a candidate. Ten signatures are currently required in support of a Westminster/local election candidacy and an increase in anything from several dozen to several hundred signatures has been suggested. The problem with this would be that verification of dozens of signatures would be time-consuming and very much hit-and-miss if records were not to include signatures of everybody on the electoral register. There is also the question of depth of commitment in the mere signing of what is tantamount to a petition. The late Screaming Lord Sutch reckoned he could collect signatures for his numerous by-election forays within half an hour; it seems some people will sign anything on the doorstep.
A more recent suggestion is that a lesser number of nominators be required to attest a candidate’s nomination, but in person, in the presence of the Returning Officer. A ratio of one person per 2,000 or part thereof on the relevant electoral register has been suggested as a formula for all elections, which would mean about 35 signatories would need to attend for a Westminster poll, making the process more manageable, especially if they were required to bring along some identification. Clearly such a procedure would require commitment on the part of the supporter and organisation on the part of the candidate, but these are surely vital prerequisites for a successful election campaign.
Such a nomination procedure is as logical as it is democratic, a process which is open and inclusive and which would then enable consideration of the proper resourcing of candidates.
The question of the funding of British politics has been kicking around the political arena for a couple of decades without any sign of resolution because nobody appears capable of thinking beyond the usual bog standard state funding of political parties.
In any case traditional state funding schemes have features which simply serve to reinforce public prejudices about politics. To begin with, state funding invariably ends up in Party HQ coffers to be spent on ineffective centralised campaigns and bureaucracy. Hard-pressed local party volunteers working at the coalface of our democracy rarely benefit from such taxpayers’ munificence.
Then there is the considerable independent tradition in this country, especially in town halls, but neither independents nor small local political parties usually benefit from party funding schemes. The last time I checked, there were just over 400 political parties registered with the Electoral Commission but scarcely a dozen of these would have benefited from the latest party funding proposals published in 2013. Taxpayers' cash would have been restricted to shoring up the political establishment in Parliament, thereby discriminating against new ideas and independence, ultimately fossilising our democracy.
It is difficult to think of anything more guaranteed to infuriate the electorate than an announcement that the established political parties have agreed to subsidise their own activities – both during and in between elections - using taxpayers’ money. It would be a public relations disaster. The widely reported dire and dependent state of British political party finances must not be used as an excuse for the established parties to start helping themselves to substantial amounts of public money to subsidise their day-to-day party activities. What to do?
The establishment of a democratic nomination system has already been advocated in the third proposal above, a public portal through which every aspiring candidate for every tier of government would need to pass. If there is any money to be spent, it is best handed out here, in the form of a “candidate communication entitlement” (CCE), available to all properly nominated candidates - whether local or national, large party, small party or independent- to enable them all to more effectively communicate with their electorates. In this way, public money would be spent where it is most needed - at the local grassroots, helping candidates to compete on a level playing field whatever their politics and helping voters to make informed choices. In this way, pressure on party finances would be eased inasmuch as party candidates would receive the same CCE as everyone else but expenditure outside elections on regiments of researchers and fancy offices in London is surely a matter for party members, not taxpayers.
In these cash-strapped times, a CCE for all candidates will have to be limited in scope, but a start could be made by merging the lacklustre polling card mailing and the freepost election address facility to create a “Ballot Pack”, sent to each voter, comprising information about the tier of government, polling day details, and a page for each candidate to give an election address. Something along these lines is already used for the election of the London Mayor and was greatly missed during the Police Commissioner elections.
The quest for a truly level playing field will be a long one and this proposal is but the first step to the eventual goal of an open, inclusive and moneyless public election. The idea is that, if the man in the street can see that he could stand for election to public office if he wanted, that he could do so without vast quantities of money or party sponsorship, that all he needed was to show evidence of meaningful support to get his name on the ballot paper and access some basic means of communication, then, even if he concludes he hasn’t the time or inclination to stand for public office, he is more likely to value those who do stand and is more likely to vote for them as well.
"... the British system [of voting] is possibly the most corruptible in the world because of the potential for postal ballot fraud and double voting through the absence of any requirement for identification at polling stations"
Ababu Namwamba, Member of international team of 2010 Election observers.
Mr Namwamba’s shocking observations of the 2010 general election should have been a wake-up call but, while the Coalition government took steps to introduce individual voter registration, nothing else has been done to enhance or promote the value of the vote. After all, secure voter registration and vote casting represent the foundation of any claim to have a democracy.
The ballot paper is a unique legal instrument. While it is registered in the name of an individual, the name of that individual does not appear on the document. It is not transferable, but if it falls into the hands of a third party, it is easily utilised and the resulting fraud is generally not detected unless the true owner reports the loss. A ballot paper’s vulnerability to fraud is due to the requirements of conducting a secret ballot. Before the 1872 Ballot Act, people had to announce their choice of candidate before an assembled multitude, thereby incurring the displeasure of opponents who might include employers and landlords. Secret ballots ended this intimidation but it was important for maintenance of confidence in the ballot that the votes were totally secure from the time they were handed to the voter to the time they were counted in the presence of those voters and/or their representatives.
Because of this, it is impossible to guarantee the security of a secret ballot once other institutions or procedures are interposed between voting and counting. Postal voting is one such procedure. First introduced for the benefit of the few who were chronically sick or absent either on business or due to moving house, it is now available on demand thanks to legislation in 2000 introduced by a government desperate to improve voter participation. As a result, the percentage of votes cast by post increased from 2.4 % in 1997 to 18.8% in the 2010 election. In the 2004 European Elections, the Government took their quest to drive up turnout to another level by holding all-postal ballots in some of the regions as a pilot exercise. The North West of England was one such constituency where over 5 million postal votes were sent out. While the turnout did indeed increase from 19% in 1999 to 41% in 2004, the fact remained that nearly 3 million usable votes were discarded and completely unsecured in dustbins, pigeonholes and recycling boxes.
While postal voting on the grounds of necessity such as illness is acceptable and the associated risk of fraud minimal, widespread extension of postal voting simply to make voting easier in the pursuit of increased turnout runs the risk of material increase in personation, undue influence and in compromising the secrecy of the ballot, thereby undermining confidence in elections.
The Electoral Commission recently stated that about 30% of voters believe electoral fraud is taking place, The authorities are apt to dismiss voter concern by referring to the small number of convictions of electoral fraud, but they miss the point; voter personation is very difficult to detect because of the requirements of a secret ballot which make a postal ballot paper as vulnerable to fraud as a signed blank cheque.
The Introduction to the White Paper presented to Parliament in March 2001 on the subject of combating electoral fraud in Northern Ireland says it all. Acknowledging that penalties were infrequently invoked due to the difficulties of prosecution, the paper went on to state:
“The precise extent of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland is not known; the perception that it is widespread comes from anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, it is apparent to those involved in elections, officials and politicians alike, that individuals and groups from across the political spectrum often abuse their right to vote and successfully defraud the poll. The public perception of widespread electoral abuse is itself a cause for concern, in that it has the effect of discrediting the poll and undermining the authority of elected representatives.”
We need to take note of the fact that there is no postal voting for the Presidential Ballot in France and yet 80% of the French electorate voted in the 2012 election. At the very least, we should revert to the previous restricted system of postal voting.
The efficacy of the ballot could be further enhanced if voters were required to furnish identification at polling stations and sign to acknowledge receipt of a vote, thereby ending the current and rather slovenly practice of handing out ballot papers to people who just quote a name and address. Personal identification would further discourage personation and help to reinforce the public perception that a ballot paper has ownership and value and will not be handed out to any Tom Dick or Harry who wanders in off the street.
All these proposals are complementary, with none having greater importance than the others. Nevertheless, an annual Polling Day holiday will be, for the general public, the most visible evidence of change and perhaps the most symbolic. The idea is quite simply that one weekday a year be set aside as a public holiday to enable the electorate to ponder who will represent them in the various tiers of government and to cast their vote at local polling stations.
As for the detail, it is suggested that, to avoid detriment to national output by creating another bank holiday, the current May Day Bank Holiday could be re-scheduled for this purpose, to possibly the first Wednesday in May or June, with a Christmas Day-style shutdown legislated for, to give as many as possible a full day in which to vote, and also to discourage day trippers. While Polling Day is the terminology currently in use, the opportunity might be taken to think of a change of name, such as “Election Day” or “Democracy Day”.
The intention is to make a national day of it. Town Halls would be encouraged to get the bunting out. Candidates could be permitted to festoon lampposts with poster boards, as is already the practice in some areas. This in turn might encourage residents to get the flags out or display a poster for their chosen candidate. The aim is to create public awareness that this day is special and that something is happening which is worthy of everybody’s participation.
A polling day holiday would also enable the better management of polling station personnel & resources, and make it less likely that floods of last-minute voters would create the problems experienced in the 2010 elections. It could even allow earlier closing of polling stations and early evening counts, which otherwise take place at some God-forsaken hour or on the following day, thereby preventing working people from attending the count.
There is a body of opinion which advocates weekend voting, as is practiced on the Continent. The difficulty with this is that Friday, Saturday and Sunday are all days with religious connotations which might preclude participation by certain members of the community, both in terms of voting and standing for office.
Now, while the political profession might be willing to discount the rights of this minority, the majority’s weekend hedonistic tendencies are far more problematical. Most Britons religiously observe their weekend together with the various associated leisure pursuits which will be disrupted at a politician’s peril. Weekend voting could be counterproductive to the objective to engage - and might even alienate - weekday workers who are likely to resent being got out of bed on a Sunday morning by an enthusiastic party worker wishing to know if they had voted. Weekend voting might also precipitate increased use of postal voting by leisure-seeking absentees which needs to be discouraged for reasons already stated in the Fifth Proposal.
A mid-weekday public holiday is surely the best option. To begin with, such a holiday may be received somewhat cynically, and the opportunity will doubtless be taken to put up countless shelves and mow many square miles of lawn. Nevertheless, with other reforms in place, many more people should take the time to vote, and eventually a “Democracy Day” will percolate through the nation’s psyche and become a national institution on a par with the Grand National and Remembrance Sunday, a day to acknowledge - if not to celebrate - the fact that we are a democracy, and one in which everyone can participate.
Why is it that people from abroad who successfully apply for British citizenship are treated to a ceremony and handed a piece of parchment commemorating the event, and yet 18 year old Brits just stumble into adulthood with no recognition by the State at all? While much good work has been done over recent years in the promotion of citizenship in schools and colleges, the link between the classroom and the polling booth needs to be as seamless as possible so that the voting habit is nurtured and sustained. This is particularly important as voter registration is poor among young voters; according to a 2011 Electoral Commission report, registration rates among 18 year-olds was only 55%.
So the idea is that, on Democracy Day every year (see the Sixth Proposal), first time voters attend a citizenship ceremony at their place of education, as the final part of an induction course in democracy. As for the ceremony itself, this could include the receiving of a certificate, and then participation in the actual election being held on that day, with perhaps candidates’ hustings, provision of a polling station at the school/college and an invite to the count.
If for no other reason than to ensure as many youngsters as possible participate in this event, legislation reducing the voting age to 16 ought to be introduced, as part of an enhanced citizenship education package.
Last year, the Electoral Commission reported that the most recent electoral registers were only 85% complete, due to 7.5 million adults not being correctly registered. This represented a nearly two-fold increase on the 2000 figure. The Commission attributed this to increased mobility on the part of the adult population, whose movement traditional methods of compiling a local register of electors were having difficulty keeping up with. The recent introduction of Individual registration, while desirable in itself, will undoubtedly have a further detrimental impact on levels of registration.
A modus operandi of registration more attuned to today’s mobile society is required, perhaps one which is compiled from national databases such as those recording National Insurance numbers, arguably the most comprehensive and accurate record of names, addresses and ages for everyone over 16.
Perhaps the opportunity could be taken to raise awareness of the significance of the National Insurance number, by re-branding it as the BritPIN, the identifier of a person’s citizenship, the key to the national taxes (s)he pays, to the national services (s)he receives and to the means of having a say in determining the extent of those services and taxes. A “BritPIN” would evidence value, commitment and belonging, it would appear on the citizen certificate handed to a 16 year old at a “Democracy Day” ceremony at school or 6th Form College, and would evidence entry into the world of adulthood as a full member of British civil society.
In the introduction to this paper, reference was made to the profusion of tiers of government and of the elections to them. While this paper has been compiled on the assumption that the existing structure will be retained, perhaps somebody needs to ask whether we really need it all, whether there are enough capable politicians and civil servants to sustain the whole caboodle, and whether the voting public is suffering from election overload, hence declining voter engagement.
If it were possible to appoint some truly independent body to draw up plans for the future administration of a small nation state of 64 million people such as ours, it would probably conclude that all that would be needed would be one layer of central government to levy taxes, to keep us safe, to look after the money, and redistribute wealth through welfare services, and then just one more layer of genuine local government serving local communities not exceeding 100,000 people They would find there was no need for the rest of it – no need for parish councils, counties, regional assemblies or “national” parliaments, and no European Parliament. They would also conclude that devolution was nothing more than a 1970’s fad, an expensive and politician-intensive exercise which, far from being a solution, turned out to be the problem.
Unfortunately, the British body politic is going full tilt in the wrong direction, fuelled in the main by the Scottish question. Having initially underestimated the amount of support for independence in advance of the 2014 Referendum north of the Border, the Westminster Establishment then panicked and made all sorts of promises about additional powers and, indeed, more devolution for everybody, which now runs the risk of screwing up the governance of the entire UK, all because of the nationalist predilections of 3.5% of the UK population!
Now everybody is supporting more devolution, as if more politicians and more labyrinthine bureaucracy would encourage more voter engagement, improve democratic accountability and make government of the UK more efficient. It may not be fashionable to say this right now, but it could achieve exactly the opposite.
And then there’s the problem of local government’s no longer being local, which was touched on at the beginning of this paper. Ideally, 21st Century local councils should be run as a small business, with a board of elected decision-makers having a detailed knowledge of their community and a head for business and money, buying in services from the private sector as required, and overseeing a small but adaptable workforce who would have a commitment to the area and to the residents, who in turn would take an active interest in local politics, which would be embedded in their community.
What we have is exactly the opposite - centralised artifices, impersonal regional public corporations built for another age when local authorities were once direct providers of services with their own depots, vehicle fleets and housing stock, for which economy of scale was important. Today’s local authorities are hardly local and are invariably run by remote one-party cabinets, staffed by a union-dominated work force and run by overpaid officers who run rings round mediocre reactive career councillors who bring little else to the table other than their partisan politics, and who lack any business background that would equip them to run a multi-million pound business.
Local Government needs to come home. Unitary District Councils need to be created throughout the land, with no more than 50 councillors per council and each councillor representing no more than 2,000 voters, with over-arching authorities overseeing large conurbations and strategic services, governed by appointees from the Districts who represent the best and most experienced councillors in their community. If Rutland Council has satisfactorily performed the role of a unitary authority since 1997 notwithstanding its tiny population of 37,369, there's no reason why small local councils could not work everywhere else.
Having refined all these procedures for electing representatives, perhaps it is logical to consider some means of getting rid of them. After all, most of the electorate work in an environment where employment is far from secure, so it is understandable that voters look askance at the 4 or 5 years of guaranteed tenure of office for their elected representatives.
This was brought home to many voters during the 2009 expenses scandal, when they realised there was nothing they could do to precipitate an election or to get rid of MPs caught fiddling their expenses. There was no civil equivalent of a safety valve to enable the release of the considerable pressure of public opinion that had built up against Members of Parliament as a result of the scandal and consequently much damage was done to the Nation’s political institutions and international reputation.
The 2010-15 Coalition’s promise to “introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing ”, was very weak. Who decides what wrongdoing is and who judges how serious it is? Would going back on a manifesto pledge be judged to be serious wrongdoing? The thousands who wanted a referendum on the EU would probably have made use of such a facility and I imagine that tens of thousands of students would have judged abandonment of a manifesto pledge on tuition fees to have qualified as serious wrongdoing and would have used the recall facility to register their displeasure with a few Liberal Democrat MPs.
Moreover, why restrict this facility to MPs? Why not widen the legislation to include all elected representatives such as local councillors?
The Coalition proposals were a wasted opportunity and very limited in their scope, designed merely to get rid of the occasional bad egg. The idea needs to be re-introduced and up-rated by extending the power of recall to all councillors, MPs, members of the Celtic parliaments & assemblies, MEPs and any elected peers. Furthermore, elected representatives should be subject to the power of recall at any time on any issue decided upon by a given percentage of that representative’s electorate.
Such a facility would provide the safety valve that was lacking in 2009 and it would have provided angry students with a practical, sure and legal alternative to wrecking property as a protest against tuition fees.
Particular care would need to be taken in the design of the modus operandi and in the setting of time limits and thresholds to prevent elected representatives being held hostage by vexatious petitioners and political opponents. Over time, experience would enable the leavening of the limits and thresholds to achieve a workable balance.
No to Compulsory Voting!
To contemplate compulsory voting is to misunderstand the scale of disaffection of many voters with the democratic process, and to fail to appreciate the low esteem in which the political class is currently held.
Compulsory voting might seem attractive on paper and we would doubtless see magnificent turnouts of the sort they have in North Korea (99.97% in 2014!) but forget quantities of votes for a minute; have advocates of compulsory voting considered the quality of decision making that will take place in the mind of someone who has been frog-marched to a polling booth and forced to participate in an exercise (s)he doesn’t understand or want anything to do with?
Moreover, in the UK, there is a healthy disrespect for authority and the authorities should avoid trying to force a Brit to do something (s)he is not inclined to do. Policing compulsion, collecting any fines and processing reams of spoilt ballot papers will be the least of the worries of the powers that be. What is more likely to happen is that future elections will be subject to subversive social media campaigns of the sort that deprived the 2009 X Factor winner of the customary Christmas No 1 in the music charts. The discomforting of Simon Cowell is one thing; the social media-fuelled propulsion into Parliament of several Monster Raving Loony candidates or of some unsavoury gentlemen of the Far Right is another matter altogether.
Champions of compulsory voting suggest that compulsion could be made more palatable by the incorporation on the ballot paper of a tick box signifying “none of the above”. What happens if a majority votes for “none of the above”? Are nominations re-opened and another expensive ballot conducted? Must the formation of a national government await the holding of another poll in Cornbrash North? Here is another opportunity for the subversives to create chaos! Logically, if the opening of nominations is fair, voter-driven and advertised widely, there seems little point in repeating the process; would a fresh batch of candidates be any better than those that come forward the first time round?
On-line voting may sound cool and trendy and there are many who do not understand why, if citizens are able to shop and bank online, they should not be able to vote online as well. There are drawbacks. Firstly, there is the question of the quality of decision-making, the voting equivalent of impulse buying. A vote should be cast on the strength of some degree of deliberation, rather than on impulse, as, say, the result of having seen a news item of a politician’s having left his young daughter behind in a pub or of some political leader being filmed having difficulty eating a sandwich. Having to traipse off to a polling station evidences commitment prompted by some sort of thought process which ought to be a pre-requisite to participating in a representative democracy.
But the problem of impulse voting pales into significance when set against the impossibility of protecting and scrutinising an on-line public ballot. Those who see no difference between on-line voting and on-line shopping are not comparing like kinds; if Amazon sends the wrong product or your bank account is subject to hacking or error, evidence of the mistake or fraud will soon manifest itself and remedies can be demanded. By contrast, unless you are prepared to abandon the concept of the secret ballot, you will have no way of determining whether any on-line vote you cast was counted for your chosen candidate once, twice, at all, or even for someone else. You would have no way of checking and neither would anyone else. Given recent news reports of on-line hacking by rogue individuals, groups and even states, who would be prepared to trust the Internet so absolutely?
They may be bulky and processing them may be extremely labour intensive but paper ballots have their uses; the power normally conferred on British government is for one day devolved among 46 million pieces of paper which are subject to a process of security and scrutiny by a host of people with competing interests in thousands of polling stations and hundreds of counting centres. If properly conducted, a traditional British paper-based ballot is well nigh impossible to corrupt.Besides, remote voting detracts from the notion of community which is surely better served when citizens congregate at their local polling station on one given day to express their corporate political will. Civil society and the human interaction it generates must be fostered, protected and kept in constant repair otherwise we are all doomed to ending up in isolated living pods, our experiences limited to what we see on an edited screen, doing everything remotely and making choices for everything from politicians to pizza on some greasy beer-soaked keyboard.