Monday, 24 March 2008

Compulsory voting? Electoral reform?

The Government is consulting on the introduction of compulsory voting and changing the voting system for Westminster elections. Are either of these things a good idea? On balance, I favour the introduction of preferential voting (where second or third choices are re-distributed to the leading two candidates) but I am opposed to compulsory voting. I've come to two opposite conclusions but for the same reason.

There is only one good reason to change our system of voting. That is democratic engagement. Political engagement is weak in the UK and is getting weaker. Local organisations of all the parties are failing to motivate voters to either vote or participate in the democratic process. That harms politics: it makes political decisions seem remote and imposed and that further feeds disillusionment. Politics is something that is done to people rather than done with them.

I have always been sceptical about electoral reform- I never bought the arguments about 'fairness' and I do still have concerns about handing disproportionate power to minority parties in Government (that can happen in the current system of course and is more likely to when you have a third party with 50 seats or more as the Lib Dems currently do.) But the gains to be had from an electoral system that forces parties to engage locally with 70% or 80% of the electorate rather than 45%-50% are considerable and parties that fail to widen their appeal will face electoral defeat. So I am in favour of the Alternative Vote system for Westminster elections because the democratic benefits could be considerable and the risks are not monumentally greater than the current system.

But compulsory voting is another matter. The 'liberal' objection, that to force people to express an opinion is wrong doesn't quite fly. We force people to do all sorts of things (including registering to vote, for example) when there is an overriding community benefit. But voting rates have been declining, give or take, for a considerable period of time. It is something that politicians, local or national, should be deeply concerned about. Compulsory voting would mask this fact and therefore would allow politicians to feel that they were engaging competently when the opposite could well be true. That would only further feed disillusionment. If you want to really anger people then introduce state funding for political parties at the same time...

So the Alternative Vote could improve democratic engagement and compulsory voting could harm it. I am for the former and against the latter.

Post script: How would the parties benefit from change? Labour would benefit most from compulsory voting (its voters have a lower propensity to vote.) In the current context, Labour would also benefit to a certain extent from electoral reform in terms of seats won (though coalition politics would probably then determine whether it was in or out of power.)

It is worth seeing some research from a year ago about the second preferences of Liberal Democrat voters.

Conservatives on balance would favour the status quo. Liberal Democrats have much to gain from any type of proportional voting system. Compulsory voting is neither here nor there for them. I bet on the basis of this analysis, you can predict how each of the parties' will vote on the overall package.....the question is whether the Conservatives can prevent the changes coming in before the next election by crying foul at a Government changing the rules of the game.....It will be a brave short term political decision for the Government to try to force these changes through in time for the next election.

1 comment:

  1. How on earth would compulsory voting be enforced? By sending a policeman round to frogmarch reluctant voters to the polling station [where they could of course spoil their ballot papers]? By fining them if they do not collect their paper? [A concealed tax - very nice for the government!]

    Compulsory voting is a preposterous idea, and the negation of democracy. It would destroy the - already dubious - secrecy of the ballot.

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