Stephen Lambert and Philippa Everingham look at the arguments
Voting is the most basic form of political participation in a democracy like Britain. Yet voter turnout has declined sharply since the 1950s – from about 88 per cent in the 1955 general election, it fell to 65 per cent in 2015. Levels of electoral registration have also declined from about 95% in the 1950s to around 82% in recent years.
In the Newcastle East constituency only 55 per cent of those registered to vote did so! Amongst some social groups like the young, aged 18 to 34, only 45 per cent voted. Estimates reveal that 95% of the nation’s 19,000 elected politicians were voted in on turn-outs of less than 50%.
Turnout is even lower in town Hall elections, euro elections and by-elections. Turnout in the 2016 city council elections averaged 40 per cent.: but was considerably lower in working-class wards like Westgate and Elswick. In the recent parliamentary by-elections turn-out was 51% in Copeland 36% in Stoke respectively.
Our country is not alone in this. Low levels of electoral participation are a central feature of other liberal democracies such as the USA, France and Spain.
To several pundits significant non-voting threatens the democratic legitimacy of any elected body. According to the Political scientist Paul Whiteley: ‘’if this is not a crisis of democratic politics in Britain, then it’s hard to know what would be, while Manchester Don Bill Jones notes: ‘’worryingly large numbers of people have little faith in the political system’’. Academics have long debated why 40 odd per cent of the electorate don’t bother to vote, despite the increase of postal voting which takes the hassle out of walking to a polling booth.
It’s generally assumed that apathy in the UK’s political culture is a major factor, and that compulsory voting (with non-voters being fined) would help. Let’s consider the arguments for and against compulsion.
The argument for compulsion is quite attractive, especially when other methods of boosting turnout haven’t been highly successful such as postal voting as noted earlier, voting on-line and longer polling hours. It’s already practised to some extent in several countries, including Australia (where turn-out is 96 per cent), Austria, Belgium and Greece, and seems to work well. Though compulsory in Australia, in truth there’s only a requirement to attend a polling station and have your name checked off the electoral roll. Most do vote, but of-course that tiny minority can make a point of not voting!
Others have rightly pointed out that it if turnout continues to fall this could be due to the fact that a significant minority of people are not on the Electoral register .It also raises the possibility that extremist candidates could be elected on low turn-outs. Likewise, a liberal democracy is entitled to look upon voting as a civic duty for its citizens. Over 75 per cent of older people feel it’s their obligation to vote.
Let’s not forget that working-class movements in the nineteenth century such as the Chartists, the trades unions and female Suffragettes in the early part of the last century were prepared to give up their lives for the right to vote. Only 58% of men were eligible to vote by 1918. In the same year the franchise was extended to all men over 21 and women aged over 30. The electorate widened from eight to 21 million, but there was a huge disparity between men and women. It was not until 1928 that women gained the same voting rights as men. Universal suffrage had been achieved through class and gender struggle.
Hundreds of thousands died during World War Two (1939-45) to preserve Britain’s democratic way of life against Hitler’s fascist expansion to take over mainland Europe. Don’t we have a moral obligation to those millions of servicemen and women both on the home front and abroad?
Yet some members of the ‘commentariat’ are strongly against compulsion for the following reasons. Apathy, it’s argued, may not be the main cause of non-voting or abstentions. It could be confusion and lack of knowledge about politics or the lack of any candidate representing the voters’ views. If indifference is the main factor behind non-voting, it may not arise from laziness. It could arise from distrust of politicians and the democratic system itself. Certainly there’s ample survey evidence to indicate that lots of people have little faith in elected politicians, especially at national level. This is partly attributable to the MPs expenses scandal which was exposed in 2009 under the Freedom of Information Act by an American researcher. If so, it’s suggested, we should not blame and punish non-voters, but make politics cleaner, transparent, more relevant and arguably more idealistic.
And lastly, some writers have pointed out that ‘forced’ voting is anti-democratic because it takes away freedom of choice. But to counteract this view, why not have a box on the ballot paper saying ‘none of the above’.
Overall, in the light of the sharp demise in electoral turnout, the time has come for the UK to adopt the Australian model of mandatory voting with fines being imposed on those who won’t visit a polling station.
Stephen Lambert is Executive director, Education4Democracy. He is also a Newcastle City Councillor.
Philippa Everingham is an Australian with dual citizenship. She is a Harrogate teacher and businesswoman.