Sir George speaks out on voter apathy
6 Mar 2003
This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons on Sunday voting and voter apathy.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): There is much in the Minister's excellent speech with which we can all agree. Part of it might have been made on the Floor of the House. The moving bit about women getting the vote might have been said by her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Minister for Women, who has been speaking in the Chamber today in the debate on international women's day. I am grateful to the Minister who is here with us for making available the speech that she gave last month to the Association of Electoral Administrators—although I suspect that it was written on a word processor, as chunks of it reappeared in a very similar form in the speech that we have just heard.
I suppose that it makes sense for the Lord Chancellor's Department to have responsibility for elections, but that responsibility seems to move around somewhat. It used to be with the Home Office, then with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and it is now with one of the few Departments that does not have an elected Minister at its head.
My contribution will be fairly brief, because I see that there are some serious psephologists in Westminster Hall this afternoon. The Minister gave several reasons why turnout dipped at the last general election, to which I would add just one. As the two major parties are closer together than they have been for some 40 years, many voters, as well as thinking that the election was a foregone conclusion, genuinely thought that it would not actually make much difference who won it. Indeed, some Labour MPs believe that the Prime Minister is at heart a Conservative, so the wider electorate might be excused for making the same mistake.
The European election was touched on earlier, and I believe that the adoption of a multi-member proportional representation system did have an effect. People prefer to vote for a face, not a list, and the election of Members for a large amorphous region such as the south-east somehow lacked the relevance and immediacy of an election of one Member for a smaller parliamentary constituency. The mechanics of elections, to which I shall return in a moment, can influence turnout.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I agree with the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. He may recall that Liberal Democrats—and, I believe, some of his party—argued strongly that we should have either open lists or smaller constituencies and a single transferable vote, which to some extent would have overcome the disadvantage to which he refers. It is important not to brand all PR systems as identical.
Sir George Young : I agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that I believe that people prefer to vote for one person—a face—rather than a list of people. That should be an important component of a successful electoral system.
The Minister spoke about declining turnout and voter apathy, which must concern all of us. In some cases, disenchantment with the main parties manifests itself in the election of independents, and Wyre Forest showed what can happen when an MP does not get on top of an important local issue. I regard such election results as worrying but healthy. Too many independents in the House would obviously lead to problems in delivering a coherent political programme, but if there are a few—and the threat of more—that keeps us on our toes. We have seen that with independent mayors in London, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. It is more worrying, and less healthy, when people turn to parties that really are nasty, such as the British National party and the National Front. The best answer to that is for the mainstream parties to show that they have sensible policies to manage the issues that worry people.
For many people, the solution to disenchantment is simply not to vote. I remember that when I first went out canvassing people were reluctant to admit that they were not going to vote, and found all sorts of reasons to conceal the fact. People are now open about it. Only 39 per cent. of 18 to 25-year-olds voted at the last general election, and the British social attitudes survey in 1999 showed that only one in 10 of that age group considered themselves "quite interested" or "very interested" in politics. For some of those young people, not voting has become part of a culture, and a statement that they are at arm's length from the democratic process. They will sign petitions and engage in single issue politics, and they are interested in what happens locally, but in the fast-moving, consumer-based society in which they live, which gives them relevant choices and instant results, voting once every four years for a remote assembly is old fashioned.
There is no point in blaming those young people. They are perfectly entitled not to vote, and for many it is a conscious decision. They simply do not like what is on offer—so we must ask why they are not voting. There are two responses. One addresses the mechanics of voting, including Sunday voting and voting by text message. The other response concerns the motivation for voting, and that is by far the most important. Most people do not vote not because it is inconvenient, or because they do not have the time. They do not vote because they do not want to vote.
There are all sorts of theories for that, and the Minister advanced some of her own. I will mention another. The Hansard Society sponsored a meeting at my party's last conference; similar meetings were also held at the other two party conferences. At it, the makers of "Big Brother" explained why more people voted for Kate Lawler in the third series of "Big Brother" than voted at the past general election. They pointed out that the two houses involved had some similarities. They are both difficult to get into—150,000 applied for "Big Brother"—and both houses are filled by media-seeking self-publicists.
However, the short answer to the question about why one captured the imagination of the British nation and the other did not was simple. Viewers empathised with the contestants in "Big Brother" because they behaved like human beings. They spoke the same language and had the same problems and emotions, and viewers found it easier to relate to them. They find it difficult to relate to us because we do not seem to live in the same world as they do. There is also an opportunity for interaction and involvement with "Big Brother", and there may be lessons for Parliament about making it more interactive and relevant.
On that theme, the former editor of "Newsnight", Sian Kevill, said:

"people see politics and political coverage as being mainly about white, middle-class middle-aged men being badgered by other white, middle-aged middle-class men in a secret shared language. It is a symbol of an apparent new political divide: it is no longer left and right; it's now us and them."
There is a message in that for all Members of Parliament. We need to consider what we can do as individual MPs to re-engage people and get on the same wavelength. We could start by recognising that our opponents get some things right and we get some things wrong. We should also recognise that there is little appetite for conventional adversarial politics. I think that we should change the format of Prime Minister's questions, which I regard as a switch-off rather than a switch-on. It reinforces people's worst prejudices about politics and politicians. It should be a serious exchange on a few themes with a view to eliciting some useful information.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that people do not mind the clash of view or opinion and ferocious debate when they think that it is real, but that they think that what they see in Parliament is cosmetic and unnecessary confrontation? Does he agree that we need confrontation when ideas clash, rather than just as a stage performance?
Sir George Young : A lot of Prime Minister's Question Time is synthetic, and people would not normally behave like that; it is an act that they put on. It would be better if they did not do that, and asked questions in the usual way.
We all have our answers to the problem of voter apathy—I mentioned a few—and they are far more important than the mechanical ones, which I shall come to in a moment. We need to make people want to vote, and then we can ask how we could make it easier by changing how, when or where they vote. The basic question about Sunday voting is that if postal voting is freely available, do we need to change a well tried system to introduce weekend voting?
In the pilot schemes run by local authorities in 2000, which the Minister mentioned, postal voting was the only new electoral arrangement that had significant potential for increasing turnout at local elections. The Library analysed the results in a very good paper—02/33—and the Electoral Commission carried out its own analysis. It said:
"The technology-based voting pilots appeared to have no significant impact on turnout."
It found that postal voting had again proved a success in improving voter turnout, although not in all the pilots. In Trafford, the pilot scheme produced an election turnout of 50 per cent., which is a significant rise from the 15 per cent. in 1997.
On the specific proposition of weekend voting, will the Minister say whether she means the weekend after the Thursday when we would usually vote, or the weekend before? General election campaigns are already lengthy, and I was alarmed to discover that the Electoral Commission is consulting on making them even longer by harmonising them with other elections. I hope that that move towards bureaucratic tidiness will be resisted. There is genuine election fatigue towards the end of the campaign, which would be made worse if it were three days longer. In any event, we are in permanent campaigning mode these days, and the campaign is much less significant than it used to be.
In its study of the previous general election, the Independent Television Commission found that 70 per cent. had little or no interest in coverage, and 40 per cent. switched channels to avoid it. The consultation paper published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the experiment in Camden, in which voting was possible the weekend before the usual election day. Only 1.1. per cent. of the 28.4 per cent. who voted at all did so during the early voting period.
How good are the Government's arguments in the consultation paper for weekend voting? They argue that more leisure time at the weekend means more opportunity to vote. However, many of those who are disaffected have enough leisure time, and if time is an issue, as it is for some, they may vote by post. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) does not regard their argument that an election should be held on the same day as elections in the rest of Europe as a strong one. We have different systems and different cultures, and that argument is unlikely to find favour with the public.
What really alarmed me was the proposition that the general election would take place on two days. It would be seriously bad news for the polling stations to be open for two days. Given all the other means of voting, do we really have to have an election for two days? I suspect that the second day will be like the extra hour that we now have at the end of polling day for local elections, when very few people actually vote, and we irritate many more by asking them why they have not voted—adding under our breath how close the race is locally. The same would happen if the general election were held over two days. Very few people would vote on the second day, and there would be a disproportionate effort for very few extra voters. I accept that the schools would not have to close, but in my constituency many people vote in a village hall, not a school, and taking a village hall out of play for two days over a weekend is serious local politics.
There are other issues, including exit polls and what the press and other media would be allowed to say on the second day, when perhaps more than half the country has voted, but the other has not. The sheer fatigue of a second day of chasing up the non-voters who do not want to be chased up is a strong argument against two days of voting. I understand the religious sensitivities that would be offended if we plumped for either a Saturday or a Sunday, but surely those who have religious objections to one of those two days could vote earlier by post, or by proxy on the day. Two days of polling seems dotty. It is tinkering with the system, not addressing the underlying causes of voter apathy.
To conclude, I am not sure that I would look for alibis such as changing the day on which we vote. The answer lies far closer to home, and relates to how we conduct ourselves as politicians, how we motivate our electorate, and how relevant and effective they perceive us to be. If we get that right, they will vote on Thursdays, as they used to.

 
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