Turnout in the recent PCC elections averaged around 15% and for the last six by-elections has averaged under 29%, (for Manchester Central it was just 18%). At the last General Election, twice as many people boycotted the democratic process as voted for the principal party now in Government – 80% of the electorate did not vote for this Tory-led Government which is making major changes to the welfare state everybody relies on.
This is a long-running problem. Turnout in General Elections has fallen from a peak of 84% in 1950, to a low of 59% in 2001. And, crucially for the Labour Party, this fall has not been evenly spread. The latest “Audit of Political Engagement” shows that voters from AB social groups are still 65% certain to vote, whilst the other groups average only 45%. In effect, in 2012, the majority of voters on average and below average incomes are choosing to disenfranchise themselves. Politicians of all parties have responded to this problem simply by focussing on the priorities of those who do still vote, leaving those who don’t unrepresented.
As the Labour Party’s founding purpose was to provide a political voice for those unable to buy one, shouldn’t we grasp this nettle? Australia and nine other countries have enforced compulsory voting and whilst it would be a long drawn out process to implement that here, it would be a fairly simple matter to put in place a voter turnout incentive.
A “Democracy Premium Bond” could be set up, whereby a Voter ID number is drawn at each count from amongst those who’d contributed to a healthy democracy by going out to vote. Of course there are potential pitfalls, but for these there seem to be fairly simple solutions:-
1) Those who find the idea morally repugnant could, of course, be exempted from the draw.
2) Irresponsible voting from those who turn up at the polling station just to be included in the draw. My own view is that most people, knowing they are definitely going to vote, would be more aware of the political campaigns and would vote responsibly when it came to it. It takes as much effort to spoil a ballot paper as to vote. The extent of this problem could be assessed in a trial before a national rollout.
3) Extremist parties targeting those who are not politically engaged but go to vote because there is an incentive. This is the same argument which was used against giving non-property owners and women the vote. Any political party which cannot communicate the benefits of its philosophy compared to extremism has a problem not related to turnout.
If a draw was held in each ward, with a prize of £1,000, this would add around £10million to the £80million cost of a General Election. Not peanuts, but possibly a price worth paying to re-engage 40% of the electorate?