§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]8.22 pm
§ Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)
May I say how glad I am to be in the House this evening with my colleagues, particularly following my recent travels? I would have liked to come to the Chamber this evening in the knowledge that fellow Members would hang on my every word. However, as I understand it, there is a game of football on tonight somewhere that colleagues feel an urgent desire to watch. As a Welshman, I am still dismayed that the Welsh team were scandalously deprived of their rightful place in the Euro tournament, but I will not detain the House overlong for fear of reprisals from some of the English fans lurking in these Corridors. I wish the England team good luck tonight.
I do not hold out false hopes this evening of changing Government policy, yet it would be a triumph if I could return to Ogmore to tell my constituents that their MP had effected a sea change in domestic politics and democratic government in the United Kingdom; that the Minister and I had reinvented civic society, fit for the 21st century; and that, together, we had re-established the direct and vital connection between those who govern and the governed. However, that will not happen tonight, unless I am mistaken, nor do I expect it to. I hope for a humbler victory than that. I hope this puts the Minister at ease.
Sometimes, it seems that being a supporter of compulsory voting has something in common with how Columbus would have felt when he returned home from the Americas and tried to persuade doubters that the world was indeed round, or as Galileo felt when arguing that our planet did orbit around the sun, and not the other way round. These were seminal arguments, based on challenging a whole way of thinking—challenging accepted and entrenched ways of thinking. The proponents of those ideas were branded mad, bad and dangerous to know—heretics, fools, blasphemers—but they were right.
The arguments on compulsory voting are no less revolutionary, and also no less valid. Columbus and Galileo argued that our understanding of the physical and celestial universe was wrong-headed. I, a number of Back Benchers and a growing number of Government revolutionaries argue that our understanding of the political universe is simply wrong-headed. With the former, considering even the scale of the misunderstanding of the earth or the universe, there would be no real danger of falling off the edge of the planet, or of the earth catapulting into the path of the sun, even if the fools had failed to persuade the wise men of the time. With the latter—with democracy—the dangers of misunderstanding our political universe are alarming as we look at declining turnout and despair.
All that I ask this evening—all that I hope for—is that the Minister opens his mind to the unthinkable and listens to the voice of those blasphemers on these Benches. We should not say, "We can't do that." At the risk of making a very tenuous link, I draw attention 1155 to another "Kant"—the philosopher—who said, quite wisely, "You cannot stop an idea whose time has come."
§ Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said so far. Does he agree that during the last elections many people applauded the turnout, which averaged about 45 per cent., as though it were some great achievement? However, 55 per cent. of people did not take part in those elections. Is that not an important point? We cannot consider the last elections as in some way totally changing a problem that has been ongoing for a number of years.
§ Huw Irranca-Davies
Indeed, and I applaud my hon. Friend for his commitment to this cause of the blasphemers and heretics. He is certainly right. I strongly support the Government in what are quite splendid moves to increase turnout and I urge people not go to with those who have cast doubt on the experiments with, for example, postal voting. Despite problems with it, it has increased turnout. However, applauding the fact that less than one person out of every two turned out to vote is indeed testament to the scandal going on in our democracy.
The time has come to talk of compelling people to vote, but in the nicest possible way. We often and too easily talk of the right to vote, which we regard as a sacred part of this country's hard-earned democratic tradition. In various Reform Acts, we have rolled out the principle of suffrage and extended the right to vote so that it is no longer the exclusive preserve of the ruling classes. It has been extended to property owners, working men over 21, progressively to women and to all those over 18. Now we even talk about extending the right to vote to those who are 16 years and more.
Universal suffrage has been hard won over the centuries on democratic battlefields. Also, however, our commitment to preserving that right by destroying the threat of tyranny abroad has been shown on real battlefields and paid for with real lives. Indeed, we have recently paid tribute to those who participated in the D-day landings and did just that. The right to vote we all agree is sacrosanct, but what about the duty to vote, to engage and to give meaning to that which has been so hard won.
The right of universal suffrage is as nothing unless those rights are exercised. Democracy is only a word unless it is made real by the very act of voting.
When our predecessors deliberated over Reform Acts in this Chamber and in the other place, did they envisage, as my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) has pointed out, that we would be celebrating a turnout of 45 per cent. in recent elections, or extolling the fact that less than one in two people have exercised their right to vote? Did they envisage that as we sought to hand power to all those who were entitled to vote, they would, in effect, hand it back to us, and that as we sought to progress from this country being governed and elected by a ruling minority class, a new ruling class would emerge, elected by a new self-selecting minority of the population?
§ Mark Tami
Does my hon. Friend also agree that there is a crucial point in relation to those registered to 1156 vote? A very large group of people are not even registered to vote, and cannot even get involved in the political process. We have all seen gaps on registers—we know that there are people there, but they are not on the register. Is it not strange that we are required to register, but we seem to do nothing about it if people do not, yet we are not required to vote?
§ Huw Irranca-Davies
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know that the Minister has paid great attention to this issue. The greatest technical challenge to compulsory voting is that the integrity of our electoral registers can be questioned so severely. Before we move to compulsory voting, it is a great challenge to make sure that everybody is on the register, and that registers are accurately recorded and up to date.
Increasingly, there is a pattern whereby fewer people vote at a variety of elections, at all levels, which means that we are rolling back universal suffrage by stealth, or at least accepting the de facto rolling back of that suffrage. People who were once excluded from voting, and from taking part in the governance of their community, their council and their country, by class, age or sex, are now excluded because of new factors, not one of which relates to apathy. People want to vote—I know that but we must equip them with the tools to do so: understanding of the importance of democratic engagements and of politics; reducing the fear of voting; making the process easier; showing people that politics really matters and not being afraid in the House or elsewhere to say that it matters; and working in schools with new generations of voters to increase the probability of their engagement. I applaud the Government for their excellent work on all those issues. The Government have been serious about turning round voter engagement. The recent election's increase in turnout is testament to this innovative work.
In taking a technocratic approach to increasing turnout, however, we are missing the fundamental point. We are missing Galileo's moment of madness and genius—the point is not the right to vote but the duty. What makes a democracy work is not the word but the action.
Let me put it in terms of the flat-earthers who doubted Columbus. As with those maps of the 14th and 15th century, we are advancing our skills of cartography, and painting ever more elaborate images of beasts that inhabit the oceans at the edge of the world, but in doing so we are failing to see that just beyond the horizon are whole new continents. The prize is great—full electoral engagement. That is a fine aspiration, and it is an even finer one for the Government who aim for full employment.
Having expounded the politico-philosophical basis for compulsory voting, let me tackle some of the myths that are often lined up as objections, so that the Minister and I can go home tonight with the feeling of a job well done. The first mythical beast is this: people must have the right to deny their vote to any and every candidate. That is because people think one of the following: "They are all the same anyway", "They are corrupt, venal and self-serving", "We never see them at elections", "I don't even want to see them at elections or at any other time", "Politics does not affect me, and I keep myself to myself", or "Any combination of the above or even more." How do we slay this mythical beast that says, 1157 "They are all a waste of space." It is quite straightforward. We put a box on the ballot paper, which says, "None of the above." Not voting, and not taking part, does not send the same message at all.
In imitation of my previous point, not voting, like 55 per cent. of the population, could mean any of the following: "I've genuinely studied the candidates and the parties and none of them is worth my vote", "I don't know how to vote and I'd be scared of making a fool of myself", "I've never learnt enough about politics and democracy to understand what a difference a vote can make", "I disagree so much with the Government's policy on this and that that I cannot bring myself to vote for the progressive policies", or "There was a match on television, and I couldn't be bothered."
Therefore, what message does the absence of a vote send? It is a mixed one.
It cannot be taken lightly, but it is often completely misunderstood. It is always better to vote, and even to put a cross in a box that says, "None of the above." The Minister knows that in the countries where that is done, they do not have six out of 10 people putting a cross against the box saying, "None of the above". The figure is not five, four, three or two out of 10. On average, the evidence shows that one in 20 or one in 25 will do so.
Why? Because the act of compelling people to vote adds meaning to the whole process. It is taken seriously; politics is taken seriously; and democracy is taken seriously.
Suddenly, the differences between the parties and the candidates emerge as each voter realises the power of their vote. They can no longer opt out. They have the power to put bread in the mouth of a child in Africa by supporting a party with progressive policies on debt relief and fair trade. They have the power, if misused, to put in place a Government who will tolerate tyrants, or give succour to monsters. They have the power to give winter fuel payments, so no pensioner should die of cold in winter, or the power to take them away. They have the power to put people into work or into poverty.
The power of democracy is made real only by the act of voting. It is no longer a paper exercise carried out by "other people" while someone sits at home and pours scorn on the lot of them. Suddenly, every voter has real power, can make or break Governments, can help or harm their neighbour. That is why, when forced to vote in other countries, so few people will choose to abuse that duty by ticking, "None of the above". They treat their duty to vote with due gravity and intelligence, whereas, in this country, we treat our right to vote carelessly, not realising that, as we do so, we betray ourselves and our neighbours in this country and in the next. In effect, we walk on by on the other side.
In response to a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), stated:I do not think that compulsory voting would necessarily force everyone to engage with the political process."—[Official Report, 24 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 1034.]I know that that view is commonly held but I contend that the absolute opposite is true, as is shown in some of the biggest, if you will excuse the phrase, Madam 1158 Deputy Speaker, pilot projects of compulsory voting. One could not get bigger pilot projects of compulsory voting than Australia, Greece and Belgium, and there are many others.
Mythical beast number two is that there is no evidence to show that compulsory voting would drive up turnout. What if, on the day of the next election, perhaps a general election, we were to see a total vote throughout the country of 86 per cent. of the electorate, as they do in Luxembourg, where compulsory voting is the norm? Would we cheer? I think we would. Would we throw a party for a vote of, say, 91 per cent., which is achieved in Belgium, another home of compulsory voting? We would do somersaults across the Floor of the House if we achieved a turnout of 95 per cent., as they do in Australia.
Mythical beast number three is that it is all our fault, because we do not speak the language that voters want to hear. Myth number four is that the media are dripping with cynicism and are turning people off voting: yes, yes, yes! We must as parliamentarians try harder to communicate our message to the electorate, and convince them that we are worth voting for. The media must try harder. I argue strongly that it is not my job simply to persuade voters to vote per se, although I have a key role in that However, it is my job to persuade them to vote Labour. It is the job of Opposition Members to persuade them to vote Conservative or Liberal Democrat. It is not my job to persuade them to vote alone.
§ Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab)
Has my hon. Friend experienced what I think all 659 of us have? A high proportion of the people who come to our surgeries and expect us to work miracles on their behalf have not voted. They are unaware that hon. Members have access to the marked register. We are generous souls, so we are often forgiving. We often work as hard, if not harder, for those folk, but there comes a point when we have to say to them that they are abusing the system. They are often the greatest complainants but the people who give least back in terms of commitment.
§ Huw Irranca-Davies
My hon. Friend is right. At the recent election, I had many instances of that. In Maesteg, I knocked on a door and a young lady answered with her baby in her arms. She said very politely, "I am not really interested in all this. I keep myself to myself. My family do not get involved with politics." My response was, "Okay, I am not going to persuade you on the door step. You never get involved and that is why we are here this evening, but when the street light has gone out and the council will not fix it, when you have a problem with the drains, or when you disagree with Government policy, come to my surgery on Commercial street and I will help you sort it out."
That is what we are failing to get across to people. We must return to the idea of a duty to vote, so that people understand how important their votes are, and that we represent every man and woman who votes—and all those who do not, as well.
There are many other myths surrounding compulsory voting, all of which can be roundly put to death by the Government's superb commitment to extending the franchise by educational and managerial means, combined with an acceptance that in a democracy such as ours it is not only a right to vote, but a duty.
1159 If the Minister wanted a concluding argument, I would seriously wager with him, for powerful odds, that the majority of those who currently vote would support compulsory voting, because they see the value of a vote, and recognise the difference that their vote will make in so many ways. If the Minister announced a change in Government policy tonight and called a national referendum tomorrow, in a referendum based on the present "turn up if you want" system, the proportion of the electorate who already vote would vote for compulsory voting. I can give him a personal guarantee that he would win the referendum and cast himself as the hero of democracy.
I began by acknowledging that we were unlikely to effect a change in Government policy tonight. However, I ask the Minister at least to recognise that there is growing support for a fuller debate on compulsory voting among Back Benchers, and some Ministers. I, and many others, continue to raise the issue, write articles and make speeches, in the hope that Ministers will recognise that this growing band of men and women, this merry few, have some arguments to deploy. If he recognises that our arguments have some currency, I, and the many colleagues who have sustained such arguments over the years, can return to our lonely apartments tonight with the feeling of a job well done. I thank the Minister and other Members for their indulgence, and I hope for a sympathetic response.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) can return to his apartment feeling that this is a job well done—the job of raising this important topic. Although we may feel—indeed I am sure that we will—during the course of my comments that there is some distance between us on the policy, I believe that he has made a thoughtful and detailed contribution on this exceptionally important subject.
There is no doubt—the Government certainly believe it—that participation in our electoral process is a matter of central concern in our democracy. Democracy needs active citizenship if those who are elected are to be able to speak with the authority of the public whom we represent.
However, I am afraid that unsurprisingly, as my hon. Friend suggests, I shall have to disappoint him and say that the Government do not now favour the introduction of compulsory voting. There are obvious attractions to removing any worries about electoral turnout at a stroke, but although I sympathise with the laudable intentions expressed by my hon. Friend, we are not convinced that compulsory voting is the answer, or that its advantages would outweigh some of the possible disadvantages.
Of course it would be legally possible to require people to attend a polling station or to vote in some other way, such as by post. However, there can be no guarantee that they would mark their ballot papers properly, or make a reasonable choice between candidates. Ultimately, voting is a matter for the free will of the elector, and rightly so. Democratic engagement is a right, and perhaps a duty—but in a free society, it should be open to citizens not to take part if they do not wish to do so.
1160 There is also the issue of enforcement. Criminalisation of non-attendance at a polling station would be a very big step to take in British civil society. The immediate reaction to an introduction of compulsory voting here might be that considerable numbers of electors would mark their ballot papers at random, deliberately spoil them, or actively refuse either to vote or to pay any imposed fine for non-attendance. Enforcement would be a mammoth task, perhaps disproportionate to the nature of the offence.
Quite apart from the burden that that could place on the courts and the prison system, such protests could cast doubt on the fairness and validity of elections and the electoral process. What would it say about the mandate if more people spoiled their votes than voted for a candidate?
I hear my hon. Friend's comment that one possible solution would be to have an abstention box added at the bottom of the ballot paper, but I am afraid that there are also problems with the "none of the above" option that he advocates. Democracy is about choosing a direction of travel for society, not about descending into a void of indecision. What if the number of votes in that abstention box were greater than that in any of the others? Would we re-run the election, and how many times could an election be re-run? Would we elect the next best candidate, who obviously had little support? Those questions are not easy to answer, so we remain unconvinced about that idea.
It remains the Government's view that persuasion, in terms of engaging people in the act of voting, is better than coercion. It is difficult to see how, in this day and age, compulsory voting could be practical or enforceable. Nor is it by any means clear that it would be desirable to compel the electorate in that way. By way of analogy, schoolchildren can be forced to read Shakespeare or Dickens, or to go cross-country running, but they certainly cannot be made to enjoy those things. The long-term answer lies in persuading the unconvinced of the merits of those activities, to engage their interest and perhaps even their enthusiasm.
Compulsory voting could not solve the problem that faces us: a lack of engagement in conventional politics. We should not be forcing people to vote but making them want to vote because they see it as good and important. Political parties and politicians from all sides have a key role to play in that. If we engage with voters, inform them, interest them and show them that their views really count, they will turn out and participate.
My hon. Friend rightly raised the experience of other countries, and I understand that the independent Electoral Commission plans to review the literature on the international use of compulsory voting. We will be interested to see the results of that work, but there are a few obvious lessons to be learned from practice elsewhere.
First, compulsory voting is by no means widespread. In South America, three countries—Peru, Uruguay and Chile—have compulsory voting. Of course, Australia has famously had compulsory voting since the 1920s. In addition, three of our European neighbours use compulsory voting: Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece. Most commentators agree that although compulsory voting works well in Australia and regularly produces high turnouts, it would not be possible to introduce it 1161 there now had its people been voting voluntarily. There would be considerable public and political opposition. As for our European colleagues, turnout in Belgium and Luxembourg is, as my hon. Friend said, consistently high at around the 90 per cent. mark, including for the recent European elections. However, in those countries, as in Australia, the population tends to regard it as a civic duty to vote and is willing to be coerced. Conversely, however, in Greece, the recent election turnout was 62.8 per cent., despite compulsory voting, which is hardly a resounding endorsement of that system.
That helps to demonstrate that compulsory voting is possible where the population is willing to be coerced and where enforcement is effective, but the experience in Greece suggests that simply having a law in place is not enough. However, it will be interesting in due course to see the international facts and figures collated and marshalled by the Electoral Commission. I gather that it is due to report on that next spring.
There are other, preferable and better means by which we can raise turnout and encourage participation, such as working with schools, including in the citizenship education component of the national curriculum, to widen awareness of how decisions are made and who takes them. Reforming our electoral mechanisms could also help, for example, registration for those without conventional addresses, postal voting on demand and piloting of innovative voting methods, including all-postal voting.
The recent local and European elections on 10 June were always going to be of concern, given that the turnout in the 1999 European elections was 24 per cent. The Government were keen, therefore, to pilot new voting mechanisms on a wider scale, to test out whether all-postal voting would make an appreciable difference.
Judging by the turnout levels this time—though not, I admit, reaching the 90 per cent. mark—it is clear that the policy choices that we made did contribute to a 1162 substantially higher turnout than before, doubling that which occurred in the four pilot regions from the 1999 European elections and increasing turnout substantially, albeit to a lesser degree, in the non-pilot regions. It was a deliberate policy choice to combine the local and the European elections on the same day. While that did bring with it accusations of complexity from some quarters, in fact, it is clear that voters preferred to exercise their vote on the one occasion, rather than on separate occasions. They found it easier and more convenient, and it is clear that there are lessons there for the future.
The all-postal voting pilots are, of course, subject to a full evaluation by the Electoral Commission, and the Government will also be studying the lessons learned there too. But for the turnout levels to have more than doubled in the pilot regions compared with the 1999 European elections, does prove that these were worthwhile trials, and puts paid to many of those who said that the public would not engage with postal voting.
In my view, we must continue to focus on engagement, on making people want to vote, and on making it easy for them to vote. Turnout is not just about attendance at a polling station: political disengagement is the deeper problem, and failure to turn up to vote is merely a symptom of it. Nevertheless, we should not be too disheartened. It is surely encouraging that turnout on 10 June indicated that if sufficient information is available to help electors consider relevant issues and if voting is made easier for them—for example, by combination or postal voting—people will be more likely to vote. The recent elections are an indication that there may be other solutions available to raise participation levels, and the Government believe that we should continue to test those out. In the meantime, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing yet another opportunity to debate his preferred alternative.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Nine o'clock.