There will be alot said and written over the coming days and weeks about the implications of the low turnouts in the police commissioner elections and the Parliamentary by-elections – Corby almost certainly excepted.
Do not listen to anyone who tries to gloss over the implications of this collapse in voter engagement. It is serious, potentially catastrophic for the future of democracy in this country. It is not a blip, not merely a function of the ill-thought out decision to create directly elected police commissioner posts but part of a relentless trend over the last 20 years. We have just seen the lowest vote in a Parliamentary by-election since the modern franchise was created so it goes way beyond the police elections.
Do not listen to people who say that there have always been low turnouts for local elections, by-elections and so on as it is simply not true. I will give you one personal example. In 1988 I stood in a council by-election in the predominantly working class ward of Leyton in east London (thus susceptible to low turnouts) in the middle of July (a time of year, like November, when people are thought less likley to vote). I stood for the newly merged Social & Liberal Democrat Party at a time when that party was bobbing along at 4-5% in the opinion polls. It was a Labour seat, although with a strong Liberal vote as the other two seats were won by the Liberals two years earlier. The turnout was just under 50%. I won with over 50% of the vote and when I retained the seat two years later the turnout was over 50%. So don't tell me you can't engage people in local politics.
There are so many reasons for this disenchantment that you could easily write a book but here I'll list just a few of them:
- Corrupt and self-serving policticians
- Politicians who have never worked in the real world
- Lack of real leadership in any of the main parties
- Parties that follow public opinion and don't lead it
- Political parties that stand for little other than occupying the centre ground
- The stripping away of powers from local authorities
- Too much power vested in the hands of self-selected elites like bankers and EU officials
- Too many 'wasted' votes
- Out-moded voting systems and practices
The list could go on and many of those factors will take a generation to change. After all, the background to my by-election nearly 25 years ago was a much more polarised party system with a strong leader of one, Margaret Thatcher, and, at least locally, another that was partially in the hands of the far-left. At least people knew who stood for what and there was some real passion. Passion engages people. It will take some time before such passionate people find themselves leading political parties again.
Where can we start with such a daunting list? How about with the last point? Why do we vote on Thursdays? Answer: because we always have. That simply is not good enough.
Let's vote on a Saturday
Voting should be spread over two days, the first a Friday so that the traditional, although declining, voters can be captured. The sceond day should be a Saturday with polling stations moved to shopping centres, high streets and town centres, maybe even night clubs. People should have more flexibility over where they vote in their area and not be shackled to one polling station. This is easy enough to do with modern databases and networks. I feel embarrassed for the officials fingering through old-fashioned paper registers when I go to vote.
Tackle that and then we can start moving up the list and re-open the debate about introducing a uniform proportional system for all elections - we have at least four different voting systems now in the UK which must leave most people hopelessly confused. After that, it is about getting better politicians, politicians who actually believe in something other than just getting themselves elected and becoming 'celebrities'. The higher turnout in Corby owes alot to the public backlash against the type of people entering politics today.
Why does all of this matter? Because democracy matters. It might, as Winston Churchill observed be a flawed system but it is the best one we have. If we don't start making it work properly then we will many, many more people lected without any mandate. it is quite possible today that some police commissioners will be elected with less than 5% of the population voting for them: that is not a mandate. It is also an open door for unrepresentative extremism.
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