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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Democracy, the least worst option

I got back from the cancer clinic to catch a glimpse of Mad Gordon trying to justify a change in the "first past the post" voting system that we currently use. If anything reeks of a desperate measure to stay in power, this is it. I heard the boss of the Electoral Reform Society say that the problem with the current system is that the person who gets the most votes can also be the least popular, a statement that sounds contradictory. His view is that the candidate with 40% of the vote actually has 60% of the electorate against him. We are however, discussing popularity, and the most popular newspaper or soap opera or chocolate bar all share the fact that more people voted for other choices than the most popular.
Can this version of democracy be changed for the better? The problem is falling turnout. A significant percentage of people don't turn out on polling day. They say they don't/won't vote because it only encourages them (the politicians). Many local elections have a turnout of less than 50%, which means that the combined total of votes cast is still a minority, thereby reinforcing the Electoral Reform Society's viewpoint.

I've thought long and hard about this and have come to the conclusion that if the turnout decreases through voter apathy, we'll end up with a comitted minority going to the polls and electing an extremist government by default, because the majority of the electorate didn't or wouldn't vote. And that would be dangerous for everyone. So how can the turnout be increased?

My limited knowledge of world affairs nags away at me. Is voting compulsory in some countries? I don't mean the so-called democracies where a dictator stands unopposed, but countries like Australia.
My system would involve both compulsion and choice. Firstly, the right to a free vote is precious and must never be lost, therefore make it compulsory for every UK citizen of voting age. This is obligatory and a condition of UK citizenship.
Then add the element of choice. There are lots of them, that's why they're called choice. My favourite would be to abolish political parties and have every candidate stand as in Independent. The candidate would then have to be someone well known to the electorate, thereby ensuring that local interests are put before party lines.
Anyway, let's say that the political parties are retained and the names are put on the ballot paper, along with one extra box marked "NONE OF THE ABOVE". Each voter must tick one box. The extra option can be used as a protest vote where instead of the customary practice of voting against a candidate by voting for a rival.
The votes are counted. It's still "first past the post".  If the "None of the above" candidate scores the highest number of votes, then  the election must be retaken, perhaps with different candidates.

I can see a hundred reasons why a system like this would be unpopular with the political parties,which is why it won't happen, but it is democratic. I'm as sick of our politicians as the next man, but if we are to retain democracy as the least worst option, something must be done, or else we'll see ever more extreme polticians elected with ever decreasing majorities.

What about the problem of elections being declared null and void? That's the price of democracy, and the art of politics is to get people with differing viewpoints to agree on something. The current political system gives the real power to the unelected government officers. In local politics, the council officers make the decisions and the councillors tweak them before rubber stamping them. If the council wishes to build a house, the councillor can choose the curtains and the colour of the front door and no more. He can't choose not to build the house, or build it somewhere else, or build more or less. This is not democracy, but that's how it is, because the electorate aren't encouraged or compelled to contribute any more.

I've read of lot of books and enjoy the speculative and prophetic fiction of authors like Ayn Rand, Robert Heinlein ( The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an excellent political what-if book), George Orwell and others.

Brown's proposal is crazy, an act of a desperate man looking for allies in the Liberal Democrat party. Like everything he devises, from tax credits onwards, it's badly thought out and impossible to implement. In short, it's rubbish and will only hasten the demise of the current system. Maybe that's the long term plan?

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