Speech to CPS Seminar

Speech to CPS Seminar – 6th April 2011

[Check against delivery]

In contrast to most of the other participants of this course, I have no great international or professional expertise.

What I am hoping to offer, however, is a UK practitioner’s view of work in progress here.  I don’t claim that we have special expertise or experience in making representative democracy work better.  Indeed, I note that all the new democracies – in Eastern Europe as well as many other parts of the world – have wisely avoided using our discredited electoral system.

Equally, I certainly hope that we are learning from others experience.   Just because we have been doing some of these things for a long time does not mean that we have got it right.  We may have just got it consistently wrong !

So I hope you will take what I have to report about the UK situation as “work in progress”.

If it echoes what you are finding, please let me know how you are getting on.  If it seems peculiarly British – even eccentric – let me know that too !  

But first let me see if there are a few very basic principles, key objectives if you like, which we all share:.

1.  We’re all – throughout the representative democracies – trying to improve the integrity and accuracy of the process; notably, the record of those entitled to vote

2.  The same time we are all anxious to make sure that everyone who is entitled to vote has equal access – artificial barriers etc

3.  Even if general acceptance that there is no perfect electoral system, we are all concerned, in whatever social and economic context we live, that every citizen should feel that their vote counts.

Peculiarly among features of modern life in the UK, the process of voting – and of having your vote counted – is fundamentally the same today as it was when the franchise was extended to all working men in 1832.

The way British citizens shop, the way we work, the way we live with our families – they’ve all changed out of all recognition, but that simple democratic act has remained a constant.

Yet what’s worrying today is that while the British political debates and the campaigns of the early 19th century were about extending the franchise, the debates and campaigns of the early 21st century are about encourage people to use it.

When I was first elected as an MP in 1974, nearly four in five of those eligible to vote did so.

Today, we are lucky to get to three in five at a general election, and derisory turnouts in local government and other elections are commonplace.

There are two elements to this decline:

First, and I think most fundamentally, is an increasing distrust of politicians and the political process.  So many people believe that voting simply makes no difference.

The contrast with the determination to vote in new democracies, often in the most discouraging even dangerous circumstances, is very humbling.

Secondly, and it’s something I want to talk about a little, is that unlike any other area of consumer affairs – and that’s effectively what voters are:  consumers – you still have to fit your life around elections – being around on the right day – and ensuring you vote in precisely right the place. 

In a society where you can access your bank from any computer in the world, and have your shopping delivered to your door in a two-hour timeslot of your choosing, we still find it impossible to let you vote at the polling station nearest to where you are, because your name is on one paper register in one place.  If you aren’t there, you can’t take part.

It isn’t as though these are new problems.  The last UK government considered possible solutions, and tinkered with various pilots, at some length but they never really took any decisions to do anything about it.

The ideas they tried out over various elections between were 2000 and 2008 were:

-        ‘early voting’, whereby people could vote before the main polling day, just in case that particular Thursday was inconvenient

-        all-postal ballots, ensuring that political parties had time to get to all electors over several days, to encourage them to use their votes

-        electronic voting – either on a touch screen in the polling station, or over the internet

-         weekend voting – a commonsensical idea which very frustratingly was only tried out in one place: Watford;

It seemed that early voting had little real effect on turnout, not least I imagine because most people think elections are on Thursday, so the opportunity to vote early on, say, the Tuesday or Wednesday wasn’t taken up.

All-postal ballots, by contrast, clearly did have an effect on turnout.  In the 2004 local and European elections, turnout in the English regions which tried it jumped up quite sharply….

…From 19.6% in Yorkshire and the Humber, for example, at the 1999 European elections to 42.93% in 2004.  I can remember councillors getting elected with majorities in four figures – usually unheard of since the number of people voting is usually so small!

Electronic voting, using the internet and telephone was tried out in five authorities during 2007 – Rushmore, Sheffield, Shrewsbury and Atcham, South Buckinghamshire and Swindon.

The idea of internet voting, and text voting, is one whose time, you would think in 2011, has come.  Yet curiously, the 2007 trials turned out to be too early, because the government had yet made another important change to the electoral system – namely Individual Electoral Registration.

E-voting got a bad reputation in the UK because it wasn’t considered that the security systems were sufficiently robust to prevent fraud.

The trouble is that that reflects the situation with traditional voting. 

If you live in my area and know my address, you can already go along to my polling station and claim to be me.  You’d get my vote and no one would be any the wiser.

It’s only when Individual Electoral Registration (IER) is introduced later in this Parliament that that issue will really be addressed.  

The Coalition Government is committed to speeding up the introduction of IER – the previous Administration were anxious not to drop particular social groups (eg young, mobile, ethnic minorities etc – who they thought supported Labour!) off the Register.  They kept referring to a false choice between “inclusion” and “integrity”, ignoring the simple fact that an accurate Electoral Register is one which lists everyone who is entitled to vote, but only those who are so entitled.      

Then, once we have a unique identifier for each elector, progress on e-voting should be easier.

Finally, weekend voting.  This seems to me to make perfect sense.  You vote near your home, you’re more likely to be at home at the weekend, so elections should be at the weekend.

But the forces of traditionalism are rampant in Westminster, and everyone starts getting jittery when you mention the change.

What about religious observance?  What about people who like to vote on the way to work? 

I think all these problems are entirely surmountable, so I tabled amendments to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill – which sets the election date for 2015, and then for every five years thereafter – to allow flexibility for voting to take place at the weekend.

So far, though, the Government has proved curiously resistant.

I want to raise one further issue, which may echo experience and anticipation in other parts of the democratic world:    what are the wider implications when voting is easier ?

If there are ways – and I have described them – of making voting fit round people’s lives more easily, I wonder what you think about whether we might ask people to vote more often and on more contentions.

If you’ve seen some of the ludicrous scaremongering from the ‘no’ to AV campaign, you’ll have an idea of the flaws which are inherent in referendum campaigns.

But I wonder if we had them more often, whether more people would get used to listening to the arguments and taking real decisions.   Or would familiarity breed greater contempt, and so even lower turnout and discredited results ?

One way or another, the kind of democracy where you simply mark your cross in a box – or, we hope, from the next election, mark 1, 2, 3, by the names of candidates – then nothing until the next election five years later, seems incongruent with a society where interaction and discussion on any and every issue is so easy and so common.

With the impact of instant electronic communication between individual citizens having such an obvious effect on the crumbling state governance of some Middle Eastern countries, the painfully slow evolution of representative democracy here in the UK – and perhaps elsewhere too – seems curiously out-of-date.

And on that point, I’ll open it up to some discussion.

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