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4 May 2007

Outsourcing democracy

Solidarity candidate Jamie Allinson reports on chaos at the counts in Scotland

By Jamie Allinson

There is an old anarchist saying – if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it. At the count for the Scottish parliamentary and council elections on Thursday, it seemed like they had.

Several counts were delayed, three of the eight regions were unable to give a result by Friday afternoon and thousands upon thousands of ballots were declared spoiled. Watching the results at the Edinburgh count – I was standing for Solidarity and we did not do well– I noticed an average of a thousand spoiled votes in each constituency.

That means more than one hundred thousand people disenfranchised in the whole of Scotland. Holding different elections on the same day probably accounts for some of the mess. That is only a small part of the explanation, however. What I saw in Ingliston Highland hall, amongst the frustration and overpriced coffee stands, was the reductio ad absurdam of privatizing and contracting out the public sphere.

The parliamentary election is, we should remember, the climax of liberal democracy. Winning one is the reason that mainstream political parties exist – and the means, we are led to believe, by which the people govern the country. Yet there was no real drama, or even information, available at the Scottish election counts. Only the same jargon laden genuflection to the private sector we find meet getting on a train or going to the doctor. One might expect this sort of thing in an ordinary business, such as a hospital or a school, but even the New Labour candidates found it vulgar in the hallowed leisure centres of democracy.

Scotland’s elections were administered by a company called DRS Data and Research Services. This is not the same outfit that took public money to mangle English A level results in 2004, nor that which cocked up the Department for Works and Pensions systems. They do seem to have the same business plan though. One of the counting workers (part time temporary staff of course) told me:

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“We don’t have a clue what’s going on. We’d finished counting by half past three then we sat around doing nothing. There was some problem with the computer system. I don’t know who’s supposed to tell us things. At the training day we were just shown how to use the machines.”

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This computer failure caused the ballot delays and suspensions. The spoilt ballots that I saw, at least, often showed a clear preference. I suspect the counters may have been deliberately strict because they did not trust the computer system. Even if the spoilt ballots result only from the confusion of holding parliamentary and council elections together, DRS were hired because they were supposedly more efficient at managing those simultaneous elections.

We are well used by now to the efficiency of private contractors in public services. The electronic counting system cost 4.3 million pounds – and the best DRS seemed able to do was to stand around saying ‘try turning it on and off.’ The explanation given was that

“A problem has been identified in the management computer system. There is no timescale for the resolution of this”.

Note, please, the absence of personal pronouns and active verbs – in short, of responsibility.

When I got home from the count the BBC was describing the election as neck and neck. In the polling station I saw a hands down victory for the vacuous and wasteful ideology of neo-liberalism. We need a timescale for the resolution of this.