The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Restoring the Demos: Is compulsory voting the answer?

27th November 2013

ResPublica's Penny Yewers examines political apathy and new models for increasing political engagement

Last month Russell Brand espoused his disdain for our ‘broken political system’. He asserted that, by voting, we endorse the inadequacy of our leaders and reinforce the imbalance of our flawed system of democracy. Nick Boles brought further attention to the general ennui of so many across the political spectrum in suggesting that the Conservatives need to find a ‘new way’, and recommended establishing an alternative liberal party. Evidence of the public’s frustration is reinforced by electoral statistics showing a declining voter turnout (fluctuating from nearly 84% in the 1950s to its lowest point of 59.4% in 2001 and to 65.1% in the 2010 election). These figures signal progressive feelings of disempowerment within and disengagement from the system. But is lower voter turnout a symptom of the broken political system or its cause?

New research reveals the depth of distrust that many Britons have in their elected leaders. Four in 10 people in one survey felt ‘alienated’ from Britain’s political parties and said they would not consider voting for any of them. Even more young people were disillusioned, with 46% selecting ‘none of the above’ when presented with a list of the parties to vote for.

So what does this declining confidence in our core political institutions say about our leaders? Recent opinion polls suggest a cynicism towards not only the political mechanism but the people at its heart: 93% of respondents in a further survey said they have little or no faith that an elected representative will tell the truth in a sticky situation. The situation is not much better across OECD countries where an average of 56% of citizens say that they trust their political institutions. Even more concerning is the 33% of British adults who believe that most MPs use their power for their own personal gain.

This mistrust is compounded by the inability of leaders to get their message out — a problem not limited to British politics. During recent elections in Australia there was an overwhelming feeling of frustration across the country as leaders duelled over ‘personality politics’ and failed to define the critical policy issues facing the nation or solutions for them. This was an issue for both the left and the right which led to widespread voter disengagement (the highest proportion of informal votes in nearly 30 years — possibly an attempt by some voters to communicate that they are ‘against all’ candidates) and a high number of early votes. While early votes might evidence engagement in many countries, in Australia, where voting is compulsory, it was widely seen as people opting to switch off from the entire political process as soon as possible.

With one survey showing that 52% of Britons believe MPs put their own interests first and 31% thinking that they put their party’s interests first, distrust of (and disengagement from) political institutions is surely a symptom of a deeper disconnect in society. We are increasingly isolated from our communities, loneliness is rife, there is a widening gap between rich and poor and too often we drift toward passivity and apathy rather than active engagement, ownership and action. These societal imbalances are only being entrenched through the current voting system.

The OECD has released data which suggests that, in Britain, the poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote. Research has shown that voter turnout increases with education levels, age and, worryingly, with income — there is an average difference of 12 percentage points in voter turnout across OECD countries between the top 20% and bottom 20% of income earners. The figures don’t stack up well for social inclusion and participation in Britain, with a difference of 23 percentage points between these two groups — significantly above the average. For those in the top 20% in Britain, voter turnout has been estimated at 73%, as against 50% for those in the bottom. This is a stark contrast with the Australian figures, which sit well over 90% for both groups and differ by only 2%. But does compulsory voting and higher voter turnout make for a more representative and connected government?

Given this need to increase social inclusion in the formation of Britain’s democratic institutions we come to the matter of electoral reform. Introducing compulsory voting is one way we could not only increase voter turnout but voter engagement. Polling suggests that people are more interested in politics now than they were in previous decades but fewer people believe that they have a say in what the government does on their behalf (down to 59% from 71% in 1986). Compulsory voting, by facilitating electoral participation, could encourage more people to engage with the issues and to feel ‘ownership’ of their elected representatives — but introducing compulsory voting would not only impact on the voters. It has the power to shift the mindset of our leaders, broadening their mandate — and legitimacy — to represent the entirety of their local community.

With half of people surveyed saying that they trust their local member — the highest proportion in over a decade — local representatives enjoy a far higher level of public confidence than politicians generally. By engaging more people locally and strengthening local communities, we may be able to harness and build on this goodwill towards local representatives and thereby create a cycle of re-engagement. Compulsory voting is a much needed enabler with the potential for moving Britain towards a more inclusive, engaged and representative system.

The issue of civic engagement is complex the world over. No doubt there is some merit to Brand’s argument, but it fails to offer any way out. By widening the net so as to capture a larger proportion of the population in the vote, we could change the system from the bottom up and the top down, creating a cycle of positive re-engagement and, in so doing, energise British politics at a local and national level.

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