Wednesday, 12 November 2014
People Fought and Died for the Right Not to Vote Too
I have never understood the case for compulsory voting. Except to say, that is, from those with a personal stake in the system who are entitled to feel threatened when that system is undermined, as inevitably it is when a significant number of people fail to take it sufficiently seriously.
People are becoming seriously disengaged from our political system, these people tell us. Turnouts at elections begin in the region of 60% or so when we are deciding who will be running our country for the next five years, and drop to 20% or less at local council by-elections and polls to determine the identity of the next police commissioner. How to tackle that disengagement? Simple - we just threaten people by telling them if they do not vote they will be fined or locked away. Suddenly 100% of the adult population is actively interested again. The disengagement problem is solved.
But no argument for compulsory voting would surely ever be complete without the old chestnut about people "fighting and dying for the right to vote" being dragged up?
Well I'm sorry, but freedom-loving people did not fight for the right to vote. They fought for the right to choose. And every bit as much as the right to choose from amongst the names of sundry talking heads on a ballot paper that must imply too the right to say NO if none of the options is what the voter really wants. That is the essence of democracy. The right to disagree.
An electoral contest which inspires 25% of voters to take an interest is relevant to just that many people - one in four. As somebody who always votes and who has actually participated in numerous elections as a candidate I wish it were not so. But absolutely nobody will be converted to system politics down the barrel of a gun. I'm afraid if you want them to be excited, you need to do something to excite them.
As much as I would hate to win an election with the support of one in ten people of voting age, I have far less desire to win one on the toss of a coin.
But of course, there will always be an option for voters to cast their votes for "none of the above", we are reassured. But only if "none of the above" is a meaningful option - that is if in the event of "none of the above" getting more votes that any of the named candidates none of them is elected - is the inclusion of this not a deliberate act of fraud against the voter who might be inclined to give of his or her time to express a view only for it not be listened to.
What it boils down to is that for many within the system compulsory voting has represented an attractive opportunity to force ordinary people to acquiesce. They may be allowed freedom of choice from amongst a finite range of permitted options, but by obligating them to vote for one of those options they are obligating the voter to recognise the validity of a system which he or she may not wish to recognise.
Which brings us neatly onto Russell Brand, the outspoken comedian, actor and radio host who has recently invoked a stir by declaring himself of the view that the current crop of establishment wannabes who infest our system are not worthy of our votes and that for as long as they are in the ascendancy we should boycott the system and seek revolutionary change.
Brand seems to have quite successfully polarised opinion amongst those who want to see some form of change. Interestingly in my experience it has been the "plastic radicals" - those who squeak loudly about the inequities of the ConDem government but who already have committed to the colours of the establishment-provided "opposition" party - who seem the most put out by Brand's stance. The notion that a little change is better than no change at all runs as a common theme throughout all the criticism that he has received, not least from John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten) who referred to him as "bum face".
But Brand points out that he is not anti-voting per se. He says he'll vote when there's a party which will take on the "financial economic elites and corporate entities", although he notes such a party would be difficult to create because of "global trade agreements which prevent that kind of thing happening at a national level".
"It’s a complicated issue," he adds, "and I can see why John Lydon might have trouble to get that in a tiny little interview space particularly when he’s got to promote a show about bugs."
For me Russell Brand is bang on the money. He may for all I know be a self-publicist, or an attention seeker, or a man with half an eye on the main chance to promote his book. But nobody else of note is saying these things at all, and until they do he deserves our undivided.