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Compulsory voting? It's politicians, not the people, who need to change their ways

By Mark Wallace
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“Unequal turnout unleashes a vicious cycle of disaffection and under-representation. As policy becomes less responsive to their interests, more and more decide that politics has little to say to them.”

So says Guy Lodge, of the think tank IPPR, in a new report released today about the low turnout among young voters.

He is undoubtedly right that this is a slow crisis of democracy, which crushes the validity of Parliament and raises popular disaffection more and more at each election.

He is, however, dreadfully wrong about the solution.

IPPR proposes compulsory voting, backed by a fine, for first time voters. Faced with a problem by which young people in particular are not turned on by politics, and often feel voting does nothing for them, it is hard to imagine a worse response.

Many of these voters think politics has nothing positive to say to them - or, worse, is a scam by people who don't care about their wellbeing. Making their first interaction with the electoral system one of compulsion, backed by a demand for money if they refuse to obey, will simply confirm and strengthen those opinions. 

Yes, you would probably see a rise in first time voter turnout. But for many of those voters, such compulsion would guarantee this would be their last vote, too. Plenty of others would spend months being chased by enforcement officers seeking to collect their fines, hardly a positive experience to inspire democratic participation.

We can all have sympathy with IPPR's concerns. A healthy democracy has high participation, and the "vicious cycle" argument that politicians ignore the opinions of those who tend not to vote is undoubtedly true.

There are policy problems which are already developing due to this trend - just look at the vast cost of pensions and associated benefits which remain entirely unreformed due to the political power of older voters.

But to solve this problem requires a proper understanding of it. Turnout isn't low because there isn't enough negative pressure, through fines and laws, to visit the ballot box. Turnout is low because there is a lack of positive reasons for young people to vote.

Voters (or rather, non-voters) have no reason to lie about this. When we knock on their doors and they say "voting doesn't change anything", they are often correct.

Look at the vast alienation of Parliament's sovereignty to quangos and to Brussels, and the unwillingness of the Westminster establishment (at least until recently) to break the polite conventions by which almost every politicians publicly held the same opinions about wind farms, international aid, the EU, fuel duty and so on. Listen to the politicians who declare "you have to understand...." on radio phone-ins when voters ask common sense questions which do not fit with an established consensus.

Those are the reasons for not voting, and they are perfectly understandable. Frankly, as someone who always votes, I have to admit that my friends who mock my optimism that participation can change things have often been right.

The parties, not the people, must change their behaviour in order to drive up turnout, among voters generally and young people in particular.

They need to offer policies which will make politics matter directly and obviously to more people, and our democratic system must be demonstrably open to change driven by popular demand - not hamstrung by European courts, outsourced to "expert" quangos and bound up in cosy consensus after cosy consensus.

There must be a radical offering to people struggling to find their first job, people who battling to pay the bills and people who want their country to become a better place. Those, not fines and bullying, are positive ways to encourage more voting.

The IPPR is right that there should be consequences for doing the wrong thing. But it is all of us who already suffer the consequences of uninspiring politics - in return we get higher tax bills, turgid policies, slower reactions to serious issues and a declining rate of return for those who do continue to vote.

Politicians will eventually suffer the consequences, too, if they don't up their game.

There is much hand-wringing about this issue when it comes up, followed in practice by a decision to continue to focus on those who are guaranteed to vote, even as they get older and start to die out. The attitude is to focus on the next election, and the long-term trend be damned.

But the long term trend will make itself heard eventually. The bigger the share of the population who don't participate, the larger the potential resource is for new parties to harness their frustrations and upset the apple cart.

There's evidence that much of UKIP's support is drawn from long-term non-voters. Unless the mainstream parties inspire and engage those left outside the system, then the sudden UKIP boom will prove to be the first of a common phenomenon - not a one-off.

There is no inevitability about the decline in turnout, and it can be fixed. Managing decline was the wrong response for economic policy in the 1970s, and so was trying to force things to work through top-down intervention. Compulsory voting looks at the problem the wrong way round - are the people broken, or is our politics?


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