Voting revolution proposed

IN a democracy, everyone has the right to vote. But equally, and no matter how much the politically astute might deplore it, we have the right not to vote and, increasingly, we are choosing to forgo the privilege.

By Graham Dines

IN a democracy, everyone has the right to vote. But equally, and no matter how much the politically astute might deplore it, we have the right not to vote and, increasingly, we are choosing to forgo the privilege.

Older people, especially those from the generation which fought fascism, see it is their duty to vote at every opportunity - from the General Election down to electing faceless directors in building society contests.

But the young are cynical. They don't like party politics, preferring direct action. So should we compel them to vote by following Australia's lead and force people to the polling stations?

In an attempt to increase voter turnout, recommendations were made yesterday to widen the franchise to everyone aged 16 and 17.

The voting reform lobbyists are salivating at the prospect. Even Prime Minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown has signalled support for moves which encourages active citizenship.

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But of course giving the vote to children does not guarantee they use it. Putting more people on the register who subsequently don't vote simply means the overall percentage of people who do turn out becomes even lower.

Voter apathy at the May 2005 General Election was at its highest in this region in Colchester where just 56.83% of the 79,010 on the register cast a vote. Contrast this to Suffolk South, where 71.84% of the eligible 67,799 voters turned out.

In Chelmsford West, 61.89% voted - in neighbouring Saffron Walden, one of the safest Conservative seats in the UK, the turnout was 68.32%.

Would flooding the Colchester and Chelmsford registers with hundreds of 16 and 17 year olds inspire them to do their democratic duty?

There's little evidence that it would. And the Power Report - Power to the People - which was published yesterday, gives no convincing answer.

Instead, the document's author - Labour life peer Baroness Helena Kennedy - comes up with this ludicrous assertion to back the recommendation for lowering the voting age. “Politics and government are increasingly in the hands of privileged elites, as if democracy has run out of steam.”

If she had said: “you can die for your country in the armed forces at age 16 and 17, therefore you should be able to vote for the politicians who can send you to your death” then that would have been a far more cogent argument.

The Power Report is on far stronger ground when it says “the current way of doing politics is killing politics.”

The public watching on television is turned off by the utterly yobbish behaviour of MPs, especially at Prime Minister's Questions when the House of Commons reverts to its historic adversarial roots rather than turn itself into a modern grown up debating forum.

The report sees the declining membership of the mainstream parties as symptoms of an ailing democracy, claiming that millions of voters are turning away from elections and political parties in favour of single issue campaigns and direct action because they don't think party politics has any influence over decisions affecting their lives.

The panacea, argues the report, is a reform of the voting system, scrapping the first-past-the-post method of election the House of Commons, and introducing a model of proportional representation which would make the outcome of the General Election more reflective of the mood of the nation. This would do away with the massive parliamentary majorities which have been enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, who won landslide victories without obtaining anything like 50% of the total vote.

Instead of multi million pound donations to the parties, the report proposes a £10,000 cap plus an innovative system of “voter vouchers”, which would allow individuals to use a tick-box on their ballot paper to allocate £3 of state funding to the party of their choice.

How this would square with the secret ballot remains to be seen.

The report also proposes a shift in power from ministers to Parliament and from central to local government, along with new systems to encourage a wider choice of parties and political viewpoints at elections.

The recommendations are designed “to save British democracy from meltdown and tackle the creeping threat of authoritarianism by harnessing the kind of mass interest inspired by single-issue movements like Live8 and the fox-hunting protests.”

Votes at 16 campaign manager Alex Folkes says: “We believe that lowering the voting age to 16 will encourage young people to use the knowledge gained through citizenship education in a practical way.

“Sixteen is the age at which most people have well-formed views on matters which affect them. If we let them have their say, they are likely to believe that politics matters to them. If they are ignored, then they may give up voting for life.”

Malcolm Clark of the Make Votes Campaign says: “Non-voting is often a perfectly rational response to living in a seat where voting will not be seen to make a difference or where the choice between candidates doesn't necessarily reflect the spread of opinions that people hold.”

Richard Spring, Conservative MP for Suffolk West and a director of the cross-party Westminster Foundation which encourages citizenship in the emerging democracies, says that while most 16 and 17 year-old might think it a good idea to be given the vote, the general public does not.

“I supported the lowering of the age from 21 to 18 many years ago - 18 seems to me to be a reasonable age because children have finished their schooling and are ready to take on the responsibilities of voting.”

While Gordon Brown welcomes the tenor of the report, he has baulked at supporting a lower voting age. Expect Labour's manifesto for a fourth-term election victory to promise to devolve decision making closer to the people and to overhaul many of the UK's arcane electoral laws - but votes at 16 and 17 will be a step too far even for New Labour.

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