Sunday, 29 April 2012

Rain or shine, turnout is just the barometer

There's a routine which plays out at every polling station in the land and which never fails to amuse me. It features a polling agent from one of the parties entering a polling station and when he or she returns, all the other polling agents from different parties cluster round. "Well, what's the figure?", one will say, while they all wait with bated breath. "Eleven point seven per cent" comes the reply. "That's low", "Yeah, eight point nine at Bogend Primary an hour ago". And so the discussion continues.

Turnout is a big issue amongst the anoraks on polling day. In 2007 it was around 53% across Scotland and is anticipated to be anywhere between 25% and 45% on Thursday, depending on whom you listen to, but with postal voters in the ascendancy the figure on the day in any one polling station may tell you little.

I have an issue with people who assert that a high turnout is good for democracy. It's not the figure which is important, but the reason why it is high or low. Turnout, after all, is just a barometer on people's willingness to participate in the democratic process. If we made voting compulsory, as some advocate, this would not in itself instil more confidence in our politicians, but would merely mask people's discontent. When the local and Holyrood elections were held on the same day, the resulting increased turnout at the local election was not a vote of confidence in local politicians - it just meant some people voted in the local elections because they were going to the polling station anyway.

When attendance at a football match is low, it's not the fans who are blamed for apathy, but the teams for offering little prospect of entertainment. When a film flops at the cinema, it's not because people can't be bothered venturing out in the rain. If you run a market stall and no-one buys anything, perhaps it's because you're what offering is not what people want, and so it is with politics.

If we want people to come back to our political market stalls, we need to offer the punters what they want, and more critically, provide an after-sales service which encourages them to come back again next time.

There are two types of non-voter; those who really are apathetic about the whole political process and those who would vote if there was someone standing they perceived as worth voting for. To distinguish between these, I would advocate an extra option on every ballot form - the often suggested 'none of the above'. If this non-candidate is elected, the seat remains vacant - and allows people to see what it's like not to have someone to represent them (maybe the difference wouldn't be noticeable in some cases). If a sufficient number of such vacancies are returned on a council, a full rerun of the election would be triggered. Only in this case would I support compulsory voting.

I believe that people get the politicians they deserve. If they vote for numpties, then don't be surprised if numpties get in. If politicians promise the earth and fail to deliver, who is to blame if they are then re-elected? People often tell me they are voting for X to keep out Y; that is not a positive choice and voting for 'none of the above' would work equally well as well as being a more transparent representation of voter intentions. It would concentrate the mind wonderfully, both of those standing for office as well as those going into the polling booths, and you never know, it may encourage more people to get involved in politics to help fill the perceived void.

So if turnout is low on Thursday, we shouldn't blame the voters who have failed to turn out, but the politicians who have failed to deliver.

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