Democracies have an ingenious mechanism for ensuring that public policy broadly reflects the demands of the population: voting. Yet elections are only able to achieve this if the views of the electorate accurately reflect those of the population. When the collective desires of the voting population diverges too much from those of the citizenry at large, elections can no longer steer governments according to popular wishes. There are worrying signs that this is beginning to happen in the UK, with potentially devastating consequences for the body politic.
Turnout in this week’s local elections is likely to be low. But falling turnout is not the fundamental problem facing British democracy. The far greater challenge concerns the growing inequality in turnout, which gives those that do vote unfair influence at the ballot box.
Electoral participation is falling fastest among the young and the least affluent. According to Mori at the last general election, 76 per cent of voters from the top social class (AB) voted, whereas just 57 per cent of voters in the bottom social class (DE) did. This social-class gap has tripled since 1992, suggesting that the political voice of the well-off remains strong, as that of the poor gets weaker.
The age-gap is even starker: the young are getting massively outgunned by the burgeoning grey vote, with 76 per cent of those aged over 65 voting in 2010, compared to just 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds. This gap between the voting power of the young and old has grown steadily over time. Worse still, there is now clear evidence of a generation effect: that is those that don’t vote when they’re young are now less likely than previous generation to develop the habit of voting as they move into middle age.
The consequences of differential rates of electoral participation for public policy are profound. Worrying evidence from the US suggests that non-voters are much less well represented than voters, and surely it cannot be coincidental that the recent spending cuts in the UK have disproportionately affected the young and the poor – precisely those groups that vote with least frequencies. Why has the Education Maintenance Allowance been cut and tuition fees trebled but the free goodies (TV licenses, bus passes, winter fuel payments) going to older people preserved?
Indeed the ageing of the baby-boomer generation is emboldening the power of the grey vote over non-voters. In an age of austerity this means governments are likely to continue to allocate scarce resources to the health service and state pensions, at the expense of investing in tackling longer-term strategic challenges like climate change and child-care provision.
Just look at the recent furore of the so-called Granny tax – which asked pensioners, and relatively affluent pensioners at that, to make a (small) contribution to deficit reduction – to appreciate how difficult it is for governments to take on the grey vote.
Increasing electoral turnout is not just a nice idea, it is something we must actively strive for if elections are to serve the needs of all citizens. Sadly this is not something the coalition government cares about: their proposal to shift from a compulsory to voluntary system of voter registration will at a stroke disenfranchise millions of voters.
So how can we increase rates of electoral participation, particularly among ‘hard-to-reach’ groups such as the young and the poor?
IPPR research demonstrates that by far the most effective – albeit controversial – way of boosting participation is to make voting compulsory. It is more widespread than many realise, and is currently practiced in approximately a quarter of the world’s democracies, including Belgium and Australia, though in no case is voting itself required by law; rather what is mandatory is attendance at the polls. Not all of these states actively enforce the legal requirement to turn out on election-day, but among those that do, enforcement is usually underpinned by means of small fines.
Countries that use such sanctions have turnout levels that are on average 12 to 13 per cent higher than those where electoral attendance is voluntary. Moreover, states that make electoral participation a legal requirement also have higher levels of satisfaction with democracy, lower levels of wealth inequality and less corruption.
Calls for compulsory voting are, however, commonly met with the objection that it is a citizen’s right to choose not to vote and this is an argument that has long stuck in the collective gullet of the British public.
To allay such fears we propose a more realistic approach which is to make electoral participation compulsory for first-time voters only. Voters would be compelled only to turnout – and would be provided with a ‘none of the above’ option. The logic behind this proposal is that people who vote in the first election for which they are eligible are considerably more likely to vote throughout their lives. Introducing an obligation for new electors to turn out once would thus go a significant way toward breaking the habit of non-voting that often gets passed from generation to generation, and could have a substantial and lasting impact on turnout.
This measure would also right the balance of British electoral politics, which has tilted toward the grey and affluent vote in recent years, and it would oblige politicians to speak to new sections of the electorate and develop policies to suit the needs of those groups. Comparative evidence suggests that there would be no overall partisan impact of such a move, as all parties would alter their appeals to reflect the changed composition of the electorate.
Such reform may well be sufficiently radical to jolt the younger and less affluent sectors of the electorate into political action, but it is probably not so radical as to be unacceptable to most citizens. After all, there are many aspects of our lives that include compulsion, from going to school to annual MOTs to jury service to completion of the census.
As it currently stands many non-voters do not believe political leaders are responsive to their wants and grievances, and the sad thing is they are right. Politicians have little incentive to cater to the views of groups which are known to have low rates of participation. The result is a cycle of disaffection and under-representation which can only be broken by radical means. Adding a small measure of compulsion to our electoral process could go a long way toward putting our political institutions back on an even keel and addressing the problem of growing political inequality.
Guy Lodge is Associate Director at IPPR and Sarah Birch is a Reader in politics and Essex University. They will shortly publish a major IPPR report looking at political inequality in Britain.