Thursday, March 24, 2011

Will compulsory voting set us on the way to reform?

In the 19th century political reform was a hotly debated topic that often captured the imagination of the public. The various reform acts, the Chartist movement, the suffragettes etc all played their part as Britain’s political system attempted to transform itself into a modern democracy.

The establishment and the Conservative party resisted every change but step by step, through genuine people power, change gradually happened. By 1928, every adult over 21 had the vote and the powers of the unelected House of Lords were restricted.

The most alarming aspect about the recent political system is the now complete disinterest shown by most of the electorate.

We have an electoral system where most people’s votes do not count, where the majority of seats have been held by the same party for over 40 years, where a government with a large majority can be formed with 36% of the votes (2005), where a party can get nearly a million votes but nothing to show for it (UKIP), and where the votes of 1.6% of the electorate can decide the entire election (IPPR) – but people don’t care.

Turnouts for general elections are going down, those for other elections are usually around a third. Even the recent Welsh referendum, the most important vote in the history of Wales, only got a turnout of 35%.

And of course the upcoming AV referendum – a recent poll shows that while 84% are aware of it, only 46% know what it is about. And while I am campaigning for the Yes vote, I fear that on the day the combined power of the mass media, the Conservative party, the remnants of old Labour, and the apathy of the electorate, will win the day to get a comfortable No vote. The establishment will be overjoyed and voting reform will be put to bed for 20 years or so.

How did we get to this state of affairs? Why is it that people will rush to vote in the X- Factor and Strictly Come Dancing yet can’t be bothered to make important decisions which will affect their lives? If they abolished voting tomorrow, how many people would be marching down Whitehall in protest?

Part of the problem is of course with the politicians themselves. People are generally disenchanted with politics. ‘You’re all the same’ we often hear on the doorsteps. All the main parties report reduced membership. Communication and spin is carefully managed whereas one small slip can end a career. People feel distant from politicians. As the saying goes, whatever the vote, the government always wins.

There is also the disinterest and selfishness of modern times. As Mrs Thatcher famously put it, ‘there’s no such thing as society’ – and she is right. Not only in politics - all voluntary, charitable and church organisations report a lack of interest and participation. Many people simply want to shut the front door, switch on the TV and hope the world leaves them alone.

Many times I have heard that people are angry about the expenses scandal, angry about getting a Council full of Tories with only a fraction of the votes, angry when their preferred party has no chance so is a wasted vote. Yet when you mention changes to the voting system, the reply is ‘oh, it’s all right as it is’.

It is a vicious circle. We can only win back people’s interest in politics through wide political reform. Yet major political reform won’t happen because of people’s disinterest.

So I have a suggestion. For a one-off experiment, let’s make voting compulsory at the next general election.

Each ballot paper can have an extra option ‘no vote’ for an abstention, and we must bring in ways to make voting easy by post, by phone and internet. If we can make the census compulsory, why not the ballot paper?

With the aim for as close to a 100% turnout as possible, the disinterested and apathetic will have to give it some thought, even if it is to spoil their paper. And some of those may develop an interest, join a party or campaign.

This may speak off interest amongst others – and what we all want to see is greater political involvement amongst communities, a greater quality of debate, more ‘real’ people rather than professional politicians, and higher membership of all political parties. And hopefully, we will eventually see some genuine political reform.

This way, we may finally break the circle to bring politics back to the people – whether the people want it or not!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Libya - am I wrong?

Over the last couple of days, Libya has grabbed our attention. Allied coalition forces are enforcing a no-fly zone, actions which have been approved by the UN. British forces are in action, our Prime Minister solemnly told us,  Gaddafi must be stopped from killing his own people, all the political parties are behind this action, the media are generally in favour, and a rare air of consensus has reached our political scene.

So why am I uneasy? I feel I cannot join in this general air of using military force against an evil dictator. There is no argument that Gaddafi heads an appalling regime and is guilty of crimes of sponsoring and supporting terrorism throughout the world, and attacking his own people. But surely a golden rule of military strategy is that you don't start a war without knowing how you are going to end it?

The Kuwait war 1990-91 had a defined objective. It was to liberate Kuwait and push Iraqi forces back to the borders. This was successful. However British forces have been in Afghanistan for nearly nine years now - with no idea of how to get them out. Wouldn't it be nice for a Prime Minister's question time not to begin with a sad note on the latest casualty?

So what is the objective of this action? Is it to overthrow Gaddafi? How will you do this? With the exception of a well-aimed bomb, the only way is either to invade the country or rely on the Libyans to overthrow him - and someone who has exerted a tight grip for over 40 years won't go quietly.

Let's say coalition forces bomb the country for six weeks. Then what? Keep bombing? What if the coalition forces say the lesson is learnt, all go home, and then Gaddafi waits for a few weeks before attacking the rebels again?

Question one is what's the objective? Question two is what is the post-war strategy? If Gaddafi is overthrown, is there an alternative to take his place? Will this a stable regime or will it have to be propped up by Allied forces as we saw in Iraq?

Either way, I can't get over the certain scenario that, sooner or later, there will be British forces on the ground in Libya - they will be attacked, and some will be injured and killed - and will be there for longer than we intended.

Very well, I hear you say, what would you do? Would you leave Libyan people to their fate? This is a very good question and I can't pretend I have an easy answer. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe Gaddafi will be overthrown soon, a stable democratic regime take his place, and then all will work out well. But Gaddafi is not the only evil tyrant out there.

Britain cannot afford nor should it desire to be amongst the policemen of the world. In Afghanistan and Iraq it was Britain and the USA which led the way, and suffered the most consequences. And now here we are leading again. By all means we should support the action - but not by involving British forces.

My main question is - am I wrong? I have not found anyone who agrees with me. As I said, all the political parties and most of the media are raring to go. Lib Dems were right to oppose the Iraq war, but I think we might be incorrect to do so here.

In the 1960s, the then PM Harold Wilson got great criticism for not involving British troops in the Vietnam campaign. With hindsight, we might say that he was right to keep out. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it provides lessons - my worry is that these lessons are being ignored.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spreading the word - canvassing and AV

The early stages of our local election campaign are going smoothly. We’ve knocked on many doors in the cold and dark nights and we are looking forward to when the clocks change and it gets bit lighter.

We’ve found support for us and also support for Labour but the biggest response is ‘don’t know’ or ‘oh, is there an election on?’

We haven’t yet found any support for the Conservatives – but then we didn’t find much in the local election canvassing last year – and that didn’t stop them winning everything. (Voting Conservative is a bit like watching adult films, or gorging a huge bar of chocolate in one go. There’s nothing wrong with it – but you would not admit it to a stranger).

Of course there is the usual anti-politician, slam-door-in-the-face types, but contrary to my last post, people have generally been polite, including those who were unhappy with the national coalition.

Many, of course, are unable to tell the difference between local and general elections. I had a long conversation persuading one lady that David Cameron wasn’t a candidate while another gentleman was angry that ‘you and the Lib Dems have taken us back to the days of Neville Chamberlain’ – a reference I am still unsure about. Tuition fees have not come up at all but the NHS changes and fuel prices are frequently mentioned.

As usual, though, it is enjoyable talking to real people about their concerns and questions. Despite what the media say, there are some people who still like us, and those who don't like us are still generally happy to chat. Whether all this will turn into votes, we’ll find out soon.

This last Saturday we decided to do our bit for the Fairer Votes campaign and set up a stall in Sittingbourne High Street to promote the Yes to AV cause in the upcoming referendum. This went surprisingly well. We received a lot of interest, ran out of leaflets and pens to give away, answered some questions and discussed the options.

There were some who were not interested and some who did not agree (although no-one raised the £250k myth) but overall we raised awareness of the campaign so hopefully some people will give the topic a bit of thought.

We are now planning a second stall with our colleagues in Faversham down the road.