Voting in elections has always been entirely voluntary in Britain. In Australia it is compulsory. Australia is a well-governed country with strongly British traditions which has a great deal to teach us. For this reason if for no other, the idea of compulsory voting is worth thinking about.
Why do people vote? Why do they choose not to vote? Why have voting levels gone down so much in recent years? Why are they so low among younger people? The decline in voting and the low levels of voting among younger people are commonly thought – particularly in UKIP – to have been caused by the remoteness of the political class from the concerns of ordinary people. There is much truth in this, of course, but perhaps it’s not the whole truth. Another reason may be a decline in “tribal loyalties”.
When democracy was first introduced to the colonies of the British Empire, it was always found that voters were mainly influenced, not by policies or personalities, but by tribal loyalties. Most colonies, particularly in Africa, had taken shape in the European struggle for colonies at the end of the nineteenth century. Frontiers cut across the boundaries of tribes and most colonies included people falling into distinct groups, speaking different languages and with different traditions. Tribal loyalties were strong and it was invariably found that votes were cast in a spirit of tribal solidarity. The effect of this was that the numerically strongest tribe in each colony formed the government – and (unless removed by a coup) in most cases the numerically strongest tribe is in power still.
Coming a little nearer home, why are so many constituencies classified as “safe” Labour seats? And why do so many working-class people, particularly older working-class people, still consistently vote Labour, despite their strong opposition to certain Labour policies, notably on immigration? They vote in a spirit of working-class solidarity, a loyalty built up in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the trade unions. And the strength of working class solidarity has encouraged the development of a middle-class anti-union solidarity, which loyally votes Conservative: hence the safe Conservative seats.
So why do people vote at all? In very many cases, they vote in a spirit of class solidarity. So why do others not vote? Perhaps because they do not feel a sense of class solidarity with either of the two principal parties.
It might be argued that people do not vote because they are not interested in politics or feel alienated from the government of Britain. But one of the interesting things about the rise of UKIP is the remarkable degree to which UKIP gets votes from people who have not previously voted. Were these people not previously interested in politics? Or were they concerned about politics but didn’t feel able to express their concern by voting? Could it be that these are the very people who actually think before they vote? People, surely who should be encouraged to take part in the democratic process, but who previously didn’t feel able to do so.
The Australian system does not actually compel people to vote. What they must do is register for voting and on election day, go to their polling station, take a voting paper and put it into the ballot box. (Of course there are special arrangements for people who are sick or away from home). Nobody oversees what, if anything, they write on the paper. There are always some spoiled or incorrectly filled in papers; but in Australia, not too many.
Let’s suggest that we introduce this Australian system, but make an addition to it. We include at the foot of the list a place to indicate unwillingness to vote for any of the candidates listed.
Suppose this proposed system had been in force twenty years ago. What would we have done, we UKIP voters who, in those days, did not vote? We would have obeyed the law and shown, by choosing the option at the foot of the list, that we did not feel able to vote. Our “vote” would not have affected the result of the election, but it would have been counted. We should have participated in the political process, to some degree our voice would have been heard. The proportion of “deliberate non-voters” would have been publicised as part of the election result. Whereas previously we were ignored – “those people don’t vote anyway” – we would have given a message to the parties that we were potential voters, people not firmly attached by tribal loyalties who might vote for a party willing to take the trouble to attract our vote next time.
And suppose, ten years later, there had been a candidate in our constituency whom we were inclined to support, but who was thought very unlikely to get in. With the old system, it perhaps did not seem worth a walk to the polling station. But if we had been compelled to go there anyway, he or she would have had our vote.
In this way, smaller parties arising in opposition to the main ones would find it easier to get off the ground. It would have been easier for UKIP, but easier also for the Greens and the Nationalists and maybe others.
In UKIP we believe in individual freedom. We are the people who, although perhaps we don’t smoke, would not wish to stop others from doing so. We are reluctant to make anything compulsory which has previously been voluntary. We hate the “nanny state”. But compulsory voting is not a manifestation of the nanny state. It is an extension of the principle of citizenship, which compels us to pay taxes and can compel those able to fight to risk their lives in the service of their country. Compared with conscription or even compared with tax-paying, it is very little to ask. It would make us all part of the political process.
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