It’s apt, in the weeks prior to a massive, democratic exercise such as an election, to consider our value institutions — and not just give them credit, but consider the ways in which we can improve them.
I’m writing this just over a month after Theresa May squeaked back into government, after a night of despair for her party. Whether you like it or not, she returned with a majority of the vote and more seats than any other of the parties, and whilst we must have a conversation about our outdated first-past-the-post system, this isn’t it. One of the major stories coming out of election night was strong voter turnout. This, after some dismal figures — 43 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds, 58 per cent of the entire population in 2015 — and this was supposed to be cause for joy for anti-apathy campaigners like me. In fact, in arguably pessimistic fashion, I chose to look at the flip side of the turnout figures. Around a third of eligible voters are still not heading to the booths, despite the continual claims that this snap election was the most important in our lifetimes.
It’s clear, then, that there are still barriers to political engagement that we need to bring down. One is education. Thousands, through little fault of their own, barely know the bare minimum about our politicians and our institutions. One remarkable stat claimed that Tim Farron, currently leader of (arguably) the third largest party in the UK, was only known to half of the population. Another barrier is disillusionment. For too many, Westminster is distant and irrelevant — it doesn’t understand them, and they don’t understand it. Politics seems stuck in the nineteenth century.
Louise Haigh, Labour member of Parliament and Shadow Policing Minister, wrote to me recently that:
‘An opt-out electoral register would give everyone the chance to take part in democracy without having to jump through hoops and worry about deadlines’.
Indeed, an Automatic Registration Bill was halted in its tracks as the 2016-16 parliamentary session came to a halt. Imagine if, as in Denmark, each person was added to the electoral register in time for their becoming eligible to vote (with the option to opt-out of it.) We would encourage people to turn out by reducing the hassle involved, and making the process less burdensome. We’d free up councils and local officials to focus on education, and encouragement, rather than having to deal with the massive registration drive as deadline day approaches. Surely, in a particularly divisive period of political history, there is strength behind the idea that a more representative parliament is needed more than ever. Encouraging turnout by breaking down barriers would make this a reality.
‘Democracy is the worst system in the world – except for all the others’.
I quoted the late Winston Churchill in my preamble on launching TalkPolitics’ ’10 Steps to a Better Democracy’ manifesto. I supposed then, that yes, democracy as we know it probably isn’t the best possible system — but it could be. That’s why TalkPolitics has launched our #OptInToOptOut campaign for an Opt-Out electoral system, and that’s why major parliamentarians like Louise Haigh and Caroline Lucas are supporting us.
Progressive, enlightened, and something worth fighting for: our democracy is many things. But really, truly accessible? Not yet.