Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Disaffection Is Their Problem, Not Ours

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Disaffection Is Their Problem, Not Ours

Article excerpt

Citizenship takes many forms and works at several levels. Obeying the law is, or is supposed to be, a requirement. Contributing to the good of society is a voluntary act. In Britain, voting--or participating more generally in the political process--has always belonged to the latter category. If some people have their way it will be upgraded to an obligation.

Voter disengagement is an axiom of modern politics. Although not unique to the UK, the problem is pronounced here. As voters went to the polls on 4 May in local elections, another record low turnout was forecast. But is this as much of a problem as pundits proclaim it to be? Indeed, is it a problem at all? If the vast majority of those eligible to vote deem that none of the parties on offer is worthy of their attention, are they not exercising a perfectly rational choice?

Not so, the political class declares in unison. Disengagement is an ailment of the poor that needs to be cured through social deeds, or it is a demonstration of decadence by those who ought to know better. Within hours of publication of a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, two senior cabinet ministers express support for its main recommendation, that attendance at the polling booth be made compulsory. By all means, you may spoil your ballot or declare "none of the above", the think-tank generously allows, but you should be fined for any failure of duty.

The IPPR paper produces some thorough research. It shows that people are less likely to vote if they are poor or young. It provides tables on gender, ethnicity, age group, educational attainment and other details. It demonstrates that where voting is mandatory--Australia and Belgium are the prime examples--greater equality is assured. Where the requirement has been rescinded, such as in the Netherlands, the gap in representation between economic groups has increased. …

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