Thursday, 1 May 2014

All Quiet on the Voting Front?

Europeans and Americans have got a number of important elections coming up. Elections to the European Parliament in May; followed in November by midterm elections in America for Congress and many Governor posts; and barely six months on from that, we have the next general election in the UK. But while our forebears fought for the right to vote, many of our contemporaries across the EU and the US don’t seem to bother with voting at all.

In the 2010 general elections in the UK, nearly 35% of registered voters did not vote. Amongst 19-24 year olds, 44% have not even registered to vote. In the US, figures suggest that almost 58% of voters did not take part in the country’s last congressional elections. And compared with the elderly, young people today are 20% less likely to vote.

Why is this happening?

There are three main reasons and unless we deal with them, democracy will be completely hijacked by manipulators who capture public offices for their own gain, and leave everyone else much worse off.

First, too many people are falling into the trap of believing that all the main political parties are really the same. This is a product of callous politicians doing a good act of pretending to be caring, and caring politicians being too timid to show their radical stance. But the fact remains that some politicians are committed to improving people’s lives, and some have no compunction about hurting others so that they and their corporate sponsors can get richer still. And while there may not be the perfect party that will do everything we want, so long as one party can reduce the sufferings that would otherwise be perpetuated or even aggravated by another, then citizens ought to vote for them.

Secondly, most people have little idea about what political institutions do. Without adequate political education, they just don’t see how their lives will be affected by different people winning elections. Some ignore local authorities because they misunderstand their jurisdiction. Others pay no attention to inter-state bodies when these can substantially strengthen or remove the protection they have as workers, consumers and cross-border travellers. People need to know the possible consequences from different politicians winning each election.

Thirdly, we must be honest about the first-past-the-post system being a serious drawback. 10% of the people may favour a particular party and its policies, but instead of getting 10% of the seats, they get none. Furthermore, for people living in the multitude of safe seats, the entire contest is rendered irrelevant when the incumbent is almost certain to win. In the UK nearly 60% of the seats in the House of Commons are regarded as safe. And the problem is even worse in the US.

In the short term, efforts have to be concentrated in the marginals. Even if there is no point in casting a vote in one’s own constituency, one should help the party one supports by aiding campaign efforts in a marginal seat. In the long run, proportional representation needs to be brought in. Any party getting X% of the votes should get X% of the seats. As for the perennial claim that it would benefit extremist parties, either those parties are genuinely so dangerous that they should be banned, or else they are entitled to win political offices on the basis of the electoral support they get.

Ultimately, in politics – to adapt a saying – all it takes for evil to triumph is if good citizens stay quiet on the voting front.

(For a dystopian vision of a dying democracy, take a look at: Whitehall through the Looking Glass)


Jax Blunt said...

Part of the problem with proportional representation is that it further strengthens the parties and weakens the relationship between individual representatives and the areas they represent. Do you see this as a problem at all, and if so what would you propose?

Henry Benedict Tam said...

MPs have too many constituents to have a genuine one-to-one relationship with them. What can be improved is party's relationship with voters through the development of teams who engage citizens and involve them in the shaping of party policies. MPs as quasi-social workers are highly paid advocates who acting on their own achieve relatively little. It is only when they act as a party that they can bring in changes or sustain valuable policies to make a real difference. Alongside proportional representation, I support much greater decentralisation and delegation of power to local councils so these can deal with more local issues that should not be presented to MPs. MPs should focus on national policies, and people should vote for them on the basis of a clear party policy platform, and parties will get % of seats on the basis of % votes obtained. People would then see how their support for particular sets of policies are reflected in power in Parliament to deliver those policies.

Mohamed said...

Maybe it isn't this idea that politicians are "caring" but rather that new labour really neutralized the political spectrum ... Arguably now that may not be the case but the legacy of that can perhaps be seen in the public sphere still

Henry Benedict Tam said...

Attempts to appeal to the 'centre' have actually dragged politics to the plutocratic as well as reactionary right. Democratic hope can only rekindled by rallying calls to address the social injustice that injures the vast majority of citizens.