The TED talks came to the House of Parliament in Westminster this month, bringing a host of influential speakers to the stage to speak on general themes of democracy and representation. They ranged from Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition leader and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, to Rick Edwards, journalist and presenter of various TV shows aimed at young people. Whilst anything Aung San Suu Kyi has to say is very interesting and important, it was in fact Edwards that caught the eye with a credible short talk on the general lack of political participation from 18-24-year-olds in the UK. It is generally, across the popular political arena, a given that low turnout from this social group in various forms of election (local, national, European etc.) is a problem, and that, in turn, it should be prioritised by politicians and solved. How to go about stimulating political interest – in the system, not necessarily in the political – is far more contentious. Edwards provides 5 solutions, which, although interesting, innovative and potentially invigorating, are also problematic and fundamentally reactionary. This article will discuss the problems that Edwards presents, whilst assessing and critiquing his proposed solutions. [See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlYpMGI6iNQfor the entirety of his talk.]
True, as Edwards states, electoral turnout among 18-24-years-olds in the UK is crazily low, but it has only been so for a reasonably short amount of time. He presents the facts: in the 1992 general election, more than 60% of the aforementioned age group turned out to vote, compared to 78% of the entirely UK population. This could be considered a good ratio. In 2010, however, the proportion of 18-24 year olds that turned out to vote had dropped to around 44%, compared with the population turnout of 65%. That was a 27% drop in young voting turnout, compared with a 17% drop in total proportional turnout. Edwards claims that polling suggests that the proportion of 18-24-year-olds intending to vote at the 2015 general election is as low as 24%; less than 1 in 4 young people.
Edwards conceptualises this as a problem, as do many others, because, in his own words, ‘democracy is a system of government by the whole population, typically through elected representatives’. He therefore suggests that a system is ‘undemocratic’ if certain socioeconomic groups fail to participate in such a system. This assertion is not necessarily universally accepted. Edwards admits himself to not being particularly liberal, despite being fervently pro-democracy. This, perhaps, explains the autocratic nature of some of his solution proposals. A debate on the nature and characteristics of ‘democracy’ would, and does, fill a library. But there are certain principles which take precedence over others in certain circumstances: for instance, it should be proposed that democracy be a product of liberalism, and not vice-versa. Therefore, liberal principles should not be abolished in favour of democracy itself. It could also be considered that to have the choice to vote, and not to actually vote, is the be all and end all of the system we call democracy. Why, one might ask, should democracy force its electorate to vote in the first place? By taking this stance, holes begin to appear in Edwards proposed solutions.
In order to bring democracy into the 21st century, and align with the daily practices of many 18-24-year-olds, Edwards recommends the introduction of online voting. This, perhaps, is the best of his solutions to the problem of the lack of young engagement in British politics. He does not suggest that young people are too lazy to bother going to a polling station; but it is true that the electoral system does make itself somewhat (relatively) inaccessible by insisting on the physical presence of a registered voter at a particular time and place. An online system would increase turnout among those who simply cannot, or will not, travel to a polling station (although, admittedly, it is reasonably difficult to avoid stations altogether).
There are, however, concerns about fraud in the online voting debate. Edwards critiques these concerns, by comparing online voting to online banking, which perhaps places it in an interesting perspective. He also comments that online voting would be less susceptible to fraud that postal voting. In addition, it is actually quite easy to commit fraud in the current system of face-to-face voting. A voter is ‘mandated’ to tell polling station stewards the truth about their identity, and in turn, the steward is mandated to accept the voter’s word as truth. No ID is required, a relic of the apparent British political rejection of identity cards. Therefore, theoretically, fraud is reasonably easy to commit. Online voting may neutralise this threat. However, making such a stark change to the traditional system, just for around 9% of the population, may be a white elephant. Perhaps the two together might work. In general, increasing the breadth of voting methods cannot be a bad thing, and here Edwards has a point.
Compulsory Voting for First Timers
Edwards then abandons any liberal philosophy, by supporting compulsory voting for those eligible to vote for the first time, to ingrain, he says, the voting habit on young people. It is here that the advent of liberalism most violently rejects his proposals. Edwards draws on ideas and policies from the Australian ‘democratic process’, such as a small but nagging fine for non-attendance at the polling station (around $20 down under) to encourage first timers to vote. He does say he would allow for conscientious objection, but that the process to opt out would be ‘a ball ache’ compared to voting. Perhaps his choice of language highlights the sincerity, and legitimacy, of this particular reform.
On the basis of the political-philosophical stance described in the previous section, i.e. that democracy should be a product of liberalism and not vice-versa, Edwards’ idea for compulsory voting is poorly constructed. In the first place, he claims that what is undemocratic is people ‘not voting’ – which, incidentally, is not true, and relies on a very narrow definition of democracy – so therefore increased (or forced) participation will broaden the value of democracy. This is naïve, and undermines the very basic notion of democracy, i.e. the value of choice, including the choice to either abstain or be ignorant of the voting system. Secondly, Edwards’ logic seems floored, in that he only supports compulsory voting for new members of the electoral roll. Why not extend compulsory voting to everyone? Or why not introduce it at, say, the age of 30, after members have been given a decade or so to decide whether they want to vote of their own accord in the first place? It could be suggested that being forced to vote at 18 or slightly older may put more people off the process than it encourages to participate in it. Either way, compulsory voting for anyone in a supposedly democratic system is a flawed idea, and should be avoided.
‘None of the Above’
Thirdly, Edwards advocates the inclusion of a distinct ‘None of the Above’ option on ballot papers. He claims that this does not exist at the moment (the equivalent being to not vote) and that its inclusion would be a genuine opportunity for the electoral roll to show discontent with the system or the candidates on the paper. Should NotA be elected, he says, then candidates (or their parties) could fight to fill the space and attempt to change voters’ minds and win back their confidence and support.
Edwards in fact misses that this does exist, in the form of a ‘spoilt ballot paper’. Spoils are counted and included on result lists just like any other candidate, and it is generally accepted that spoils can be made on purpose for exactly the reason that the voter wants to participate, but does not want to vote for any of the available candidates. True, a genuine NotA option may increase the frequency of a no-confidence vote, and will cut out those papers which are genuinely illegible. But Edwards seems to herald this idea as a new one, and one that will change the landscape of the House of Commons. In reality, it would probably have little impact on the voting habits of young people, because if a young person is going to vote, they probably have a strong enough opinion, and too little experience of British politics, to avoid spoiling their ballot or voting NotA anyway.
Voting Advice Applications
Fourthly, Edwards implores British politics to accept the Voting Advice Application (VAA) as a useful and practical tool for helping choose who to vote for. He silences critics of his pro-compulsory voting stance, who claim that forcing people to vote will result in naïve and ill-informed voting, with the VAA, claiming that the online programme educates new voters on party policies, and helps to align personal opinions with the views of politicians. Because of the specificity and clarity required by the VAA, parties have to cut out the rhetoric and get to the point on policy and political stance, which is useful for those less familiar with the political system. VAAs are widely used in continental Europe already, and Edwards believes that they can add value to the voting habits of many in Britain, especially those of young people.
True, VAAs help people to decide who to vote for, but they do not necessarily increase the credibility of a democracy. Firstly, the VAA assumes that voters, especially in a general election, are voting on macro-level policy – when some may vote on the basis of the individuals standing in their constituency. Secondly, the VAA assumes that policy is concrete – when in reality, it is reasonably common for parties to go back on promises or alter policy depending on suitability. Thirdly, the VAA gives no weight to anything other than policy; for instance, the Liberal Democrats have traditionally been popular with young people, and their current policies, being quite neutral, inoffensive and liberal (by nature) remain theoretically so. But in reality, the Lib Dems have lost the confidence of many for various reasons, including the university tuition fee affair, and their domination by the Tories in the coalition government. Therefore, the VAA does not necessarily encourage ‘good’ voting, nor may it impact greatly upon the voting habits of young people. History must always play a part, however small, in the voting decisions of the electorate; how else will the British political system learn from its many mistakes?
Finally, Edwards comments that many young would-be voters would have more respect for the democratic process if they could see like-minded, or similar, people in power; i.e. young politicians. He uses the example of a university classmate of the editor of this website, 22-year-old Adam Jogee, recently elected a Labour councillor in North London’s Haringey, to prove that young people are more likely to vote for younger politicians. This is probably true, and Mr. Jogee is a strong example, having been involved in national youth and local politics for a while despite his tender years.
Edwards, however, seems to suggest that politicians should be younger, purely for the sake of getting young people to vote for them. At the end of the day, the country needs the ‘best’ people running it – traditionally brought about by the popular vote – whatever their age may be. At times, young politicians have been popular. Take William Pitt the Younger for instance, who was elevated to Prime Ministership at the age of 24 in 1783 and survived for 18 years through various forms of political turmoil. The profiles of the biggest names in the current coalition government are certainly younger than other cabinets have been – reinforced by today’s cabinet reshuffle and the resignation of William Hague and Kenneth Clarke, two of the Tory’s longest-serving senior members. The point is, however, that politics should be based on merit and suitability, not familiarity or similarity to the electorate. Younger people should indeed be encouraged into politics as a vocation, but not arbitrarily nor artificially.
So far, this article has simply critiqued Rick Edwards’ policies, on the basis that they are reactionary and have many flaws themselves. It is, however, appreciative that Edwards is attempting to solve, or perhaps neutralise, a very real and important problem, and for that, the TEDxHousesofParliament talk deserves distinct respect. The answer, however, as with many liberal qualms, is education. All 5 of Edwards’ solutions attempt to take a nominal, politically-disinterested 18-24-year-old and turn them into a voter. But why not try to create natural voters through education and the encouragement of debate in compulsory education? There is, from the editor’s own experience (for better or for worse) a lack of political engagement in the national curriculum. Why not make divisive political discussion a norm for young teenagers, so that by the time they reach the voting age, they’re itching to get to the polling station? Perhaps some of Edwards’ policies might be useful in simplifying the electoral process, but they do not necessarily make the system more democratic, nor do set the country up for a long and prosperous period of political participation. Education on various material and ideal concepts might just.