Saturday, 1 June 2013

Chartist No. 6: the call for annual elections

Of the six democratic reforms famously demanded by the Chartists in Britain in 1838, real progress had been made on all of them bar one – the call for annual elections.

Those in government have over time conceded that all adults should have a vote, the ballot should be cast anonymously, and constituencies with a relatively tiny population base should not have the same number of representatives as larger ones. But somehow annual elections remain completely anathema to them. One wonders if governments in the UK, US and elsewhere, where responsiveness to the public has been a growing issue, should give the idea of being held to account by voters on a yearly basis more serious consideration.

Perhaps annual elections would be too costly. To win control of the White House or Parliament for four/five years with one throw of the dice is indeed a big prize that attracts huge donations. With elections coming up every year, however, the dividends from backing the winner along with the corresponding appeal of digging deep into one’s pocket, would be lowered. So with less private money drawn into mudslinging about public policy differences, there is less scope for distortion by expensive negative advertisements. Besides, anyone worried about elections becoming too costly should back reforms to curb the excesses of campaign finance.

What about the claim that annual elections would switch people off? At present, many people, especially those in non-marginal seats, believe that their vote would not make any difference. Political parties tend to contact voters only when the once-in-many-years’ national elections come around, and that fuels voter alienation. But with annual elections, politicians would have to make more effort to engage their constituents on an on-going basis, and short-term swings can have far greater impact on electoral outcomes than if they were absorbed into a long cycle. Instead of resorting to casting protest votes in local elections which cannot affect national policies, people can vote directly on their government each year. Consequently, more, not fewer, are likely to take advantage of that opportunity.

Finally, it is said that annual elections would be disruptive to policy-making, because politicians stuck in perpetual electioneering mode would not focus on addressing the needs of the country. But political campaigning has ended up being divorced from actual problem-solving for society largely as a result of the impossibility of setting out in a single election what a government would do in up to half a decade. So we end up with vague promises, pledges that have to be jettisoned, and interminable disputes over how to respond to changing circumstances. By contrast, annual elections would focus politicians’ minds on getting real results because that is what year-in, year-out, they would be judged on.

Would this mean that annually elected governments would neglect sustainable solutions for superficial improvements? Actually annual elections and the constant scrutiny they bring would make it more difficult to get away with either cosmetic changes or irresponsible cuts/expenditure. One has to be genuinely effective if one is to last more than a year.

The elite used to think the Chartists were absurdly radical in calling for democratic trust to be placed in the public in assessing and choosing the representatives who will look after the interests of their country. They came to accept the wisdom of nearly all those proposals, and 175 years on, it’s time to sign up to the sixth and final one – annual elections.