Professionalisation of politics and the drop in participation

Alex Kane notes that the drop in voting levels which has been apparent in all parts of the developed world is finally making itself felt in Northern Ireland. He examines the shifts he’s witnessed in almost thirty years in politics and argues that simple blanket solutions like making voting compulsory simply ignore the reasons why politics is being sidelined in the ordinary citizens priorities.By Alex Kane

There have been a number of recent demands for voting to be made compulsory. Indeed, earlier this week, the UUP’s Sam Gardiner called upon the Electoral Commission to carry out a feasibility study on the subject. While I appreciate the concern within UUP and DUP circles about the consequence of a continuing decline in voter turnout, I really can’t go along with the argument that forcing people to the ballot box is a sensible way forward.

In my own case, for example, I have never voted during the European Parliament elections. I am fundamentally opposed to the UK’s membership of the European Union. I don’t believe that there should be UK representation in what is, to all intents and purposes, a dictatorial travesty of a parliament. And, to my mind at least, there has never been a local candidate, party political or independent, who has struck me as being capable of genuinely representing the hostility I feel. That being the case, why should I ever be forced to vote for any of them?

There is clear evidence across Europe in general, and the United Kingdom in particular, that increasing numbers of people are refusing to vote in any kind of election. My own conclusion is that the trend owes much to the fact that there is very little real difference between mainstream parties. Let’s face it if David Cameron gets his way, it will be impossible to tell the Labour and Conservative parties apart. Sam Gardiner is right when he says that political extremists do well in these circumstances. But they do well, precisely because they mark themselves out as different.

Making voting compulsory is actually a negation of democracy. It is the failure of the political parties to interest, attract and hold onto their voters which is the real problem; a problem which cannot be resolved by frogmarching the reluctant millions to the ballot boxes. I suspect, too, that compulsion would actually encourage the laziness and self-interested behaviour which is the hallmark of so many of the bloated mainstream parties; too many of whom are already over-funded from the taxpayer’s pocket rather than their own fundraising efforts.

I address a lot of civic meetings, as opposed to specifically political ones. My experience is that most people really are interested in the world around them. They aren’t indifferent to politics; rather, they are indifferent to political parties, inter-party rows and the politics of the soundbite and photo-opportunity. They aren’t impressed, either, by the calibre of many of the professional politicians. And that, too, is a problem.

Compared to thirty years ago there are far too many “career” politicians. They joined the party at university, moved onto the research or policy staff, worked for individual elected members and then found a seat for themselves. They have no experience of the real world. That is bad for politics and even worse for democracy.

There is no evidence that compulsory voting produces better parties or a higher class of representation. Just look at Australia, for instance, which has some of the most cantankerous politicking in the world. People will vote if they believe that their vote will make a real difference. They will vote if they are given a banner they can rally to and a political agenda which appeals to them. But they will not vote for the same old same old—and they shouldn’t be forced to.

So, are there any arguments in favour of compulsion? Yes, but it depends upon the political parties offering a quid pro quo. There should be the imposition of age limits, under which, and over which candidates would not be allowed to stand. Representative careers should be term limited to a fifteen year maximum. A “none-of-the-above” option should be made available on the ballot paper and counted as a valid vote. And in PR elections for multi-member seats no-one should be deemed elected if they haven’t reached the quota; even if that means that some constituencies end up with fewer members than others.

Voter apathy is a sign of an unhealthy democracy. It is the sign, too, of incompetent and inadequate political parties, suffering the consequence of too great a distance from public opinion. Before rushing to blame the electorate, the parties would be better advised to re-connect with them and respond to real rather than manufactured concerns.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 7th January 2006

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