“Outside the hall in which the meeting was being held a large crowd of poverty-stricken Liberal working men, many of them wearing broken boots and other men’s cast-off clothing, was waiting to hear the report of the slave-drivers’ deputation, and as soon as Sweater had consented to be nominated, Didlum rushed and opened the window overlooking the street and shouted the good news down to the crowd, which joined in the cheering.”
– The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell (1914)
Amongst the fallout following the General Election nigh on three weeks ago, one of the loudest calls for those of a reforming mindset has been for electoral reform. This is in light of a Conservative majority secured by only 39.6% of the vote, SNP domination north of the border and UKIP and Green disappointment south of it. The Electoral Reform Society has seen a petition for a change from First Past the Post to a more proportional system (and theirs is only one of many such online campaigns) already accrue nearly 140,000 signatures. Others are already looking ahead to 2020, suggesting that proposed boundary changes is an act of gerrymandering that will hand the Conservatives a significant advantage next election.
However, when it comes to electoral reform, fewer people, especially the average person on the street who may talk about PR or constituency reviews, want to consider reforming the voter. This is curious, as a nation can establish the most perfectly representative electoral system imaginable but if their electorate is as downtrodden, apathetic and under-informed as ours in the UK is, then all that hard work will still produce undesirable results. It is not fashionable, nor politically advisable, to pin any kind of blame or onus for a certain outcome on the voter, but that is the case in Britain in 2015, and anyone who truly believes in democracy should seek to remedy that. We have to ask ourselves if an engaged, informed and socially aware population would have allowed a party that has overseen a huge rise in the reliance on foodbanks, a slump in living standards unseen in decades and fiscal policy of austerity condemned by two thirds of economists to return office undiluted by coalition.
Voter apathy, ensuring that turnout at general elections has not risen above 70% since 1997, is not just dangerous for the overall goal of democracy, but it results in a skewed advantage for parties which favour the wealthier owing to a marked correlation between financial anxiety and voter inactivity. Constituencies up and down the country with high levels of deprivation, especially in the South and Midlands of England, voted in Conservative MPs whose agenda has precious little to benefit the impoverished. Turnout was lowest in the poorest seats, giving the parties elected there less credibility than they could otherwise deserve. Fortunately, the remedy to this issue is straightforward and at least notionally familiar: compulsory voting.
Compulsory voting would reduce voter apathy both in the practical sense of increasing turnout and the psychological sense of preventing eligible voters from shutting out all political discourse from their lives on the grounds that they simply cannot be bothered to vote or because they have decided spontaneously that “all of them are the same” (comparing David Cameron to Alex Salmond or Dennis Skinner is enough to bust that myth). What it does though is throw them into the deep-end of politics and current affairs along with the rest of the electorate. Opponents to compulsory voting protest that it takes away an individual’s right to not vote, although this is clearly nonsense: plenty of ballot papers are spoilt every election, and the inclusion of a “none of the above” option is always possible. Once in a voting booth with the power of a cross at their fingertips, those who hitherto profess apathy would be given the chance to scrutinise their decision and consider whether it is still truly their position on democracy. Online voting would resolve the issue of unforeseen emergency circumstances that remove a voter from their constituency obstructing their new obligation. The penalty of a fine for evading the vote would further discourage those from less fortunate socio-economic brackets from disengaging on election day.
However, 100% (or thereabouts) turnout means nothing if the voter is incapable of making an informed decision. In fact, it would only serve to amplify that incapability further. Herein lies the more deep-seated and more firmly-rooted problem with the electorate in the UK: it is grossly misinformed, underinformed and difficult to re-inform. Work by the Royal Statistical Society in 2013 revealed the alarming degree to which the perceptions of the British population about issues such as immigration, crime and benefit fraud- some of the most emotive policy areas of the last election- are wrong. It is impossible to accept that voters will choose the policies that are the best for their country and for them as employees, parents, business owners, welfare claimants or any combination of such if the facts, or the opinions of the most qualified experts, are not delivered to them.
Nowhere was this more apparent in the last election than in the debate surrounding Labour’s fiscal legacy and the Conservative-led response to it. Time and again, the Conservatives conflated household microeconomics and nation state macroeconomics despite the fact that the two work very differently. Government debt is perfectly normal and manageable, and it is the kind of private debt encouraged by financial deregulation which voters should be wary of. Despite this, the Tory narrative (and their seemingly logical solution of retrenchment) stuck, and Osborne’s promise in 2010 to see that “like every solvent household in the country, that what we buy, we can afford, that the bills we incur we have the income to meet” sounded remarkably similar to the attack from one voter on Ed Miliband as he compared the government running a deficit to being able to buy a pint even without sufficient money at the end of the week. The Conservative Party managed to triumph with a blatant blurring of the boundaries between two separate economic realms because they employed a concept that related to the average voter’s narrower sphere of reference. Even a Nobel Prize-winning economist was not going to change that.
This illustrates the greatest cause and sticking point of voter misinformation: voters are often unable to grasp the ideas that lie at the most abstract or ‘macro’ end of the spectrum, those which often defy what would seem to be ‘common sense’. Immigrants are causing a net economic loss by straining our public services, people on benefits are lazy and scroungers, making those wealthier at the top will see prosperity for all eventually, poverty for one is rightful gain for another, outlawing drugs is the best way to stop them being an issue. All seem like perfect comprehensible, straightforward ideas and processes that voters can easily grasp at, process within the framework of their experiences and then hold onto in the face of more nuanced and ultimately sensible yet intellectually-heavy counterarguments. Consider long working hours that leave little time and energy for thorough self-information and a lot of motivation for selfish introspection, teachers mercilessly harried by the goal of government targets rather than inspired by the goal of creating critical and aware citizens, and a right-wing press that dominates print and online fora (peddling the same ‘common sense’ as the right-wing politicians) and it is utterly unsurprising that we, as an electorate, especially those of us from less affluent backgrounds, are in this position of severe information deprivation. We are like the decorators of Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: time and again cheated by the system of Edwardian free market economics, yet time and again defending that system whilst looking to our obfuscating newspapers and underhand, untruthful ‘betters’ for guidance.
The challenge of resolving voter misinformation, indeed ignorance, is far more difficult, especially when people begin to fall into the trap of equating the equality of each vote to the equality of the opinion of each voter. A politician cannot simply stand up and tell millions of people that they are probably wrong about most things, that they have either been duped or are frankly unable to properly understand the truth. Nor is the quixotic idea of introduce eligibility tests that are grounded in political, social and economic awareness advisable, as the better off who are bound to be- generally- better educated (if not necessarily more socially concerned) would at first dominate the electoral register in a way unseen since 1867. However, fighting for the expansion of the BBC as the only outlet capable to disseminating impartial reporting on a wide-ranging scale and supporting the break-up of media empires, which are monolithic in their editorial stances and often underpinned by big business, would be a start. It is unsurprising that the current government is against either of those propositions. The inclusion of a proper ‘citizen education’ in the state school curriculum that goes beyond the effects of smoking and how to write a CV and instead touches upon elections, economics and abstract reasoning would also be welcome. Combine these with a renewed engagement in politics resulting from the establishment of PR and compulsory voting, and maybe this nation will get closer to the goal of a better democracy founded on better voters.
We as a country lay claim to the “Mother of All Parliaments”, yet we as a country have an appalling record of sending those who have our best interests and the best idea of how to benefit the people as a whole to represent us within it. We need to break the myth that the voter is sacred and everything around him or her is broken, and instead recognise that the solution to policies that cheat us and politicians that lie to us does not principally lie anywhere else but within us.