Donald Brind on cumpulsory voting
Eddie Izzard writes his own jokes. He made that very clear when I offered him what I thought was a good line he could use in pressing young people to get out and vote. â€œVote and you get stuff, donâ€™t vote and you get stuffed.â€
I was touring North London marginals with the Labour-supporting comedian and Eddie was a bit sniffy about my offering. It cut no ice when I pointed out that the author of the aphorism was the young, supersmart editor of the New Statesman Staggers blog Stephen Bush.
I was reminded of the exchange by Mikeâ€™s posting last week on the political implications of the greater propensity of older people to vote â€“ and thereby to be given â€œstuffâ€ by the Tories â€“ a variety of benefits for pensioners are locked into the system while the you are hit by cuts in housing and , unemployment benefits and maintenance grants.
Getting young people to actually use their vote was a major preoccupation of Labour campaigners â€“ including Eddie Izzard and leader Ed Miliband. Remember his dalliance with another comedian Russell Brand?
In the runup to the election I was reporting for The Week and I posted a piece discussing the idea of compulsory voting, as a way of involving young people. . I noted that in Australia, where registering to vote and going to the polls have been legal duties since 1924, turnout in the 2013 general election was 93%.
What I found particularly striking back in January 2015 was that two influential columnists on the activists website Conservative Home were saying nice things about a private members Bill presented by the veteran Left wing Labour MP David Winnick. It proposed a law on the Australian model.
Tim Montgomerie founder of Conservative Home and a Times columnist was clearly surprised to find himself backing the idea. He told Times readers â€œIâ€™m not comfortable recommending any kind of compulsion. But Iâ€™m much more uncomfortable at the prospect of Britain becoming some sort of gerontocracy where older (and richer) people decide who is in power. This is a much greater social evil.â€
Montgomerie argues that â€œA skewed electorate produces skewed public policy.â€ Older people are more likely to vote so parties woo them. â€œThatâ€™s one big reason why austerity has fallen so disproportionately on younger people with families.â€ He cited housing and benefits as examples where older people got a better deal from the Chancellor George Osborne.
Another Con Home writer Peter Hoskin was clearly uncomfortable about supporting Montgomerie. Â â€œThereâ€™s something weird and un-British about the idea of compulsory voting, isnâ€™t there?â€ But he was impressed by arguments in a report by the Left think-tank IPPR Divided Democracy which showed there was is a gap of more than 20 per cent between turnout figures for 18-24 year olds and the national average. â€œUnsurprisingly, itâ€™s voters over 40, and particularly over 65, who push that average up,â€ says Hoskin.
Hoskin came down in favour of IPPR’s suggested half way house â€œthat voting be made compulsory, at pain of a fine, for first-time voters only. This makes sense because voting is what they call â€œhabit formingâ€; once people pop to the ballot box they just canâ€™t stop.â€
Labourâ€™s prescription is votes at 16 strongly advocated by the London Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan. He told the Independent it was part of a package to make voting easier for the young with polling stations should be set up in secondary schools, on-the-day voting registration and perhaps online polling.Â â€œWhy do elections take place on a Thursday? Why do you have to go to a cold church hall to cast your vote? Why canâ€™t you vote by the web? Why canâ€™t you have same-day registration? You can get a mortgage in a day â€“ why canâ€™t you do the same with voting registration? If the concern is fraud, we can address that.â€
Khan says â€œIf you speak candidly to a campaign manager of any of the mainstream parties they will say that they concentrate their energies disproportionately on those they know are going to vote,â€ he said.
The arguments are very similar to those of Montgomerie who argues that compulsory voting is really all about forcing politicians to reach beyond their comfort zones. â€œItâ€™s a 20-minute burden for voters once every four or five years but it would compel our politicians to change in fundamental ways and to build much broader voting coalitions.â€
Making the political parties find a way to appeal to the 16 million people who did not vote â€œcould have a profound effect on British politics.â€ He adds there would need to be strict caps on political donations â€œso that the rich and organised cannot find back-door ways to reassert their disproportionate influence.â€
Is George Osborne listening? Almost certainly not. Montgomerie is a supporter of the social justice movement in the Conservative Party. He thinks Osborne is aÂ flop, as he makes clear in a recent must-read dissection of the Chancellorâ€™s record on Capx.Â The disdain is probably mutual.