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Election Turnout

Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 4 June 2003

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11 am

I am delighted to have secured a debate on the important issue of turnout in UK elections. There are serious concerns about voter turnout among all elected Members at all levels and across all political parties; they have expressed those concerns on numerous occasions. Unfortunately, a huge proportion of the electorate do not share those concerns with politicians. That is a matter that we must address if, in the long run,s we are to convince the electorate that low turnout is bad for democracy.

I understand that the Minister attended yesterday's launch of the "Voting for Change" report by the Electoral Commission. The report suggests a number of welcome changes to update election arrangements and make them more accessible and convenient. I hope that, in addition to commenting on the report, she reassures me on the proposals for election pilots in 2004. I will also make other proposals for her consideration.

This is the third parliamentary debate in six months on issues closely related to the subject, but I make no apology for raising it again. I intend to continue the debate, highlight concerns and examine measures taken to address voter turnout and raise public awareness. The Minister will also have an opportunity to share her thoughts with the House.

In recent elections for the Scottish Parliament, turnout dropped to 49 per cent., from 58 per cent. in 1999. In the Welsh Assembly elections, turnout dropped to 38 per cent. from 46 per cent. We could have expected a large turnout to have been generated, owing to the importance of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but that simply did not happen.

We are all aware that very few of the electorate bother to vote. More worryingly, that is becoming a downward trend. That should concern every one of us. At what point do we admit that the democratic legitimacy of councillors, MEPs, MSPs and, dare I say, MPs, has become suspect because too few votes have been cast in their election? I am certain that, with the decline in turnout, that is a question that we shall face time and again.

There are no easy solutions—otherwise, we would have adopted and implemented them before now—but there are common-sense measures, such as the recent proposal to hold the Greater London Authority, European and local authority elections on the same day in 2004. Asking voters to turn out on two separate days would be a disaster—we can only imagine the turnout had we maintained the idea of going out to vote twice.

Of deeper concern is the turnout among various age groups, especially younger voters, who are less likely to vote than other people. Anyone who mans a polling station on election day is amazed at the determination of those of mature years, who, whatever the weather and whatever the circumstances, make a supreme effort to use their vote. I can only assume that the years of experience that they have gathered ensure that they recognise the worth of that vote. That is an attitude that we must instil in the younger population.

There is little consensus on why turnout is declining, although a range of arguments has been put forward. In countries governed by dictatorships—where the electorate have been deprived of a vote—we know that there is a massive turnout when democracy is restored. It is important to recognise that phenomenon, although I am not suggesting for one minute that a dictatorship should be created in this country to increase electoral turnout.

Strong views on particular issues can increase turnout, as demonstrated by the election of independent candidates on single-issue platforms, while lack of trust in the political process, as well as a feeling that policies are much of a sameness and that the vote makes no difference, can reduce it. Politicians scored 18 per cent. in a recent poll on trustworthiness. That is something that we should all, as politicians, be deeply concerned about.

Although it is difficult to see how to tackle the root of the problem of low turnout, I want to make three brief observations. First, those in favour of proportional representation often argue that under such a system every vote would count and none would be wasted, and that a PR system for all elections would increase voter turnout. However, experience does not support that theory. In the 1999 European elections, turnout fell by 50 per cent. Turnout for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections has also declined. That is extremely disappointing and it gives the lie to the notion that PR is a panacea for all the ills of low voter turnout.

Secondly, I welcome the introduction of citizenship education in schools, and I hope that it will reawaken interest in the political system and make young people committed to using their vote. If citizenship is taught in schools, young people can go home and, I hope, persuade their brothers, sisters and parents that they should participate in the electoral process.

Thirdly, all of us who hold elected office have a duty to engage with the electorate, redouble our efforts to encourage people to vote and ensure that we have their trust. In the past few years, trials and studies have been held of different methods of voting that are designed to encourage turnout. The Electoral Commission, created in November 2000, has provided a useful means of consulting on such trials and of suggesting ways to proceed and strengthen the electoral system. I congratulate the commission on its advertising during the recent campaigns in Scotland and Wales, but, like me, it will be very disappointed that turnout was low in those elections despite the intensive campaigning.

Day after day, the Daily Record, a Scottish national newspaper, highlighted the reasons why people should vote and emphasised the fact that the democratic deficit would be apparent if less than 50 per cent. of voters turned out to vote for the Scottish Parliament. Those who produce that newspaper will also be disappointed, and the turnout problem is one that we must address.

The commission, after undertaking the appropriate consultations, has made two announcements recently. Its proposal on merging the polling days for the 2004 local and European elections into a single super Thursday is sensible, and I also welcome the proposal to trial weekend voting, although some minor points concern me. A previous trial of Saturday voting in Watford showed that because the trial occurred after the main polling day, turnout fell, owing to the electors' perception that the local elections were over. I trust that such issues will be addressed if we consider Saturday voting.

I am keen that trials should be carried out over consecutive elections to establish whether the new methods being tested increase turnout merely on a temporary basis because of their novelty, or whether they provide a long-term solution. The failure of various methods of electronic voting to increase turnout in 2002 provides some reassurance on that aspect, and I would like a more long-term approach to the trials to be taken.

Although I know that the consultation addressed many concerns, I would like to be reassured on a number of points. Before 1974, voting in local elections could occur on any day other than Sunday, including Saturday. I asked staff in the Library to provide me with details of whether Saturday voting had a beneficial effect on turnout and why it was abandoned. I am extremely grateful for their research. They said that such information might be available, but that they were unable to obtain it. I am concerned by that, and I would like the Minister to confirm that, before any proposed piloting of weekend voting, the implications of the pre-1974 system will be thoroughly studied and that appropriate lessons will be learned.

I am apprehensive about whether we are radical enough in our approach to such problems. Although the continual re-running of the Serbian presidential elections must serve as a warning, the Electoral Commission should consider introducing turnout thresholds, even if they are set moderately. I am also intrigued by the proposal put before the House in November 2000 by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) to create a "rewards for democracy commission" to study whether we should give people incentives to vote. Opposition Members decried that proposition, and a vote on it was lost, but in such a serious situation, we must consider all aspects of how we can encourage people to vote. We must try to convince them that voting is worth while and give them some incentive to vote, such as a council tax rebate.

Alternatively, we could take the polling station to the public, particularly the younger generation. Young people could be given the opportunity to vote at places of learning such as universities and further education colleges. We should consider whether the general public could cast votes at, say, railway or underground stations. We must consider taking radical steps to give people the opportunity to vote, and places of entertainment could also be used.

There is also the difficult issue of whether to make voting compulsory. If turnout continues to decline and the democratic deficit becomes an increasingly major problem, compulsion might have to be considered sooner rather than later. That of course raises the question of civil liberties and civil rights. An additional suggestion is that ballot papers should contain a box marked "none of the above". That might encourage people to vote even if they do not like any of the candidates. We must examine the fact that countries such as Luxembourg, Cyprus and Australia have such systems, and that that has not brought about unduly unstable Governments or led to accusations of serious breaches of human rights. Electoral turnout in the UK has reached the point at which we need a proper debate and proper consultation on the issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on once again managing to raise this issue in an Adjournment debate. I and many other colleagues share his concern that the percentage of people who vote has fallen, especially in the Scottish Parliament elections. In my constituency, there was a 52 per cent. turnout, but 2,500 people disappeared off the register because of legislation passed in this House under which householders were removed if they did not return their registration form for two consecutive years. So, although the figures are bad enough as they stand, the percentage turnout would have been even lower if we had not passed legislation to reduce the number of people on the register. I am not saying that that is a good thing, because some people have missed out on the opportunity to vote.

The figure of 2,500 for my hon. Friend's constituency was seen across every constituency in Scotland. He is right that without the removal of people from the register, the percentage turnout would have been much lower. The election figure for Scotland could therefore have been, to a degree, false compared with that for the previous election, which must give rise to concern.

Electoral turnout in the UK has reached the point at which we need a proper debate. Perhaps the Electoral Commission will consider the practicalities and popularity of introducing a "none of the above" scheme. I suggest, with only a little irony, holding a referendum on whether to introduce such a system. Perhaps those voting to defend their right not to vote might find the process relatively painless and, finding that their votes are indeed important, adopt the practice for future elections.

In the interim, I await the Electoral Commission's report, which is due in the autumn, on the 2003 round of trials of postal and other forms of voting. I hope that it provides a useful range of suggestions on how to increase turnout. The system is not yet in crisis but, with some wards registering turnout as low as 10 per cent. and some Scottish constituencies registering under 30 per cent., we must address the problem. It is only a matter of time before there will be a general election turnout of under 50 per cent., and that should deeply concern every one of us.

I welcome the Government's commitment to look at ways of making voting quicker and easier. If they are unwilling at present to take the drastic action of introducing compulsory voting, I urge them at least to consult on more far-reaching options for safeguarding the hard-won right to vote from the threat of apathy. It is important that we connect with the people, that we have a national debate on the question of turnout and that we encourage as many people as possible to reconnect with the political system to support our claim that we have a democratic mandate.

11.16 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on securing this debate, on what I agree is an extremely important issue. Low turnout in elections of all sorts over the past few years is of concern to all democrats. He is right that the facts make unwelcome reading. Turnout can fluctuate from one election to another. Nevertheless, over the past 20 years, the broad trend is clearly a significant fall in turnout, whatever election one considers. There was a particular drop between the general elections of 1997 and 2001 from 70 per cent. to less than 60 per cent. Between those general elections, millions of voters decided not to show. Turnout in European elections has dropped to 24 per cent.; 2 million fewer voters turned out for the local elections in 2002 compared with 1986; and, as my hon. Friend said, turnout for elections to the Scottish Parliament has dropped from 58 per cent. to 49 per cent. We should be concerned about that.

We should also be concerned about a deep-rooted phenomenon over an even longer period: some groups are less likely to vote than others. As my hon. Friend has said, young people have always been less likely to vote, as have those on lower incomes, those who have had less education, and those from some minority ethnic communities. That should be of persistent concern to all those who care about democracy.

Theories on the drop in turnout over the past 20 years are many and varied. Some argue that voter turnout will increase again; others argue that the drop is part of a long-term, sustained trend. Some argue that this is about generational change—that younger voters today compared with those of previous generations are not simply less likely to vote while they are young, but will continue to be less likely to vote as they grow older. Others point to the nature of the current political and media debate. Some argue that there is too much confrontation; others argue that there is not enough. There are debates about the nature of political parties and policies, and about whether election results are perceived to be close.

We cannot wait for those debates to be resolved. We cannot wait until we know exactly the different causes and factors; we must do more immediately to address some of the issues on low turnout. We have to recognise, too, that there is a danger of extremism slipping into any political vacuum that might occur.

There are three challenges: the first is that facing political parties and politicians; the second concerns wider institutions in democracy—whether in schools or in debates across society—and includes citizenship, education and the role of the Electoral Commission, which my hon. Friend raised; and the third concerns voting systems and the removal of barriers that make voting difficult or inconvenient in any way. I shall concentrate first on the third category, as my hon. Friend mentioned such issues in some detail, but if there is time I will return to the others.

My hon. Friend raised a series of issues about voting and made various proposals. It is important to consider a wide range of voting systems and ways of making it easier for people to vote. My personal view is that the voting system will never be a panacea for low turnout; there will always be a wide range of factors involved. Nevertheless, it is right to make it more convenient for people to vote, not only because that clearly has some impact on turnout, but because it should be convenient to vote. It should neither be a hassle for people to exercise their democratic right nor an effort to vote: people are entitled to do those things in a democracy. For those reasons, making voting easier and more convenient is very much the right way to go.

I agree with my hon. Friend on holding the 2004 elections on the same day. People are less likely to turn out twice in the space of five or six weeks than they are to vote in both elections—as well as the Greater London Authority elections—on the same day. The Electoral Commission is conducting a wider review of the timing and dates of elections, so we will await its report before considering the issues for future years.

The only elections that we have in Scotland next year are those to the European Parliament. Few pilot schemes on voting opportunities have been carried out in Scotland, although a council by-election in the Scottish borders was conducted wholly by postal ballot and the percentage turnout doubled. Does my hon. Friend agree that, keeping in mind the fact that Scotland counts as only one constituency in the European Parliament elections, we should consider a 100 per cent. postal ballot for Scots next year?

I am keen to consider that—and a wide range of options—for the 2004 elections. Holding elections on the same day complicates pilot voting schemes, and means that we need to consider such issues across the regions where there will be both European and local government elections. The position is simpler in Scotland, where no local authority elections are taking place. We are keen to continue with the programme of pilots on both postal voting and e-voting, and need to consider the implications of the 2004 combined elections. Work is under way between the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to set out the possible options, after which we will need a wide debate about how to take them forward.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South that some issues concerning all-postal voting pilots are interesting. The average turnout in recent elections in areas adopting all-postal ballots increased from 33 per cent. to just under 50 per cent., and there was a substantial increase in some individual local authorities. We need to take those findings seriously because, clearly, large numbers of people wanted to use that postal vote and were prepared to vote when a ballot was sent to their homes, but were not prepared to vote if it meant going to the local school, or wherever the polling station might have been.

We should not underestimate how inconvenient traditional methods of voting can be for some groups of people. People may lead a busy life with complicated shift patterns, they may have to be away from home suddenly on a particular day or they may have to get back from work to put their small children to bed. Once the children are in bed, the parent may think, "It's polling day. How am I going to get out to vote? There's nobody in the house, there's no babysitter and the neighbours are not in." So, people just do not vote. Making voting more convenient for a certain part of the electorate is important because it would make a significant difference to voter turnout.

Interestingly, postal voting has been much more successful so far than some e-voting pilot schemes. People often talk about the importance of using new technology. We should explore new technology and the uses that text messaging and e-voting could have, but it is interesting that a technology that has been around for hundreds of years—the postal system—should have proved the most effective way to make voting more convenient. Over the long term of five to 10 years, some more high-tech methods will have a greater impact, even if they do not do so immediately or in the short term, as people get used to the new voting methods.

My hon. Friend also mentioned weekend voting, and I agree that the Watford example is interesting. It shows that holding the election on the weekend after everyone else in the country voted meant that many people in Watford felt that their election had been and gone, probably because they saw the results of those other elections in the newspapers. That is why we need more trials of weekend voting. We are considering trials for by-elections over the next few years and the potential for larger-scale weekend-voting pilots.

My hon. Friend made an important point about people's experience before 1974, and I will examine the evidence from those experiences. One has to go back a long way to obtain any evidence of weekend voting in general elections. I know of only one occasion, which was a Saturday in the years just after the first world war. The intention behind achieving more convenient voting is to fit it around modern-day lifestyles, but we must be cautious and remember that there have been substantial changes to patterns of daily and weekly life since the last instances of weekend voting.

My hon. Friend also raised the more radical options of incentives to vote and compulsory voting. I have always been cautious about compulsory voting, and people have a right to choose not to vote. I recognise that there are other ways of exercising that right, but we are not keen to consider compulsory voting. If people do not think that any of the candidates are worth voting for, they have the right to choose not to vote. Equally, over the long term, we will have to consider a range of issues and options, depending on turnout over the next five to 10 years.

On incentives to vote, I confess that I have not considered that option in any detail. Again, I am uneasy about its implications, but I am happy further to discuss my hon. Friend's ideas with him. He also made some interesting suggestions about voting in different locations. There are some interesting issues here and, with the success of postal and other forms of voting, the prospect of voting in different locations becomes more possible.

Yesterday's Electoral Commission report is about ensuring that, whatever system is used, we can be confident that it is secure and that the ballot has proper integrity. Furthermore, people must think and, importantly, believe that the system has integrity. Our electoral system must be secure and those who vote must feel that it is legitimate, because, ultimately, that underpins a democratic society. Therefore, it is hugely important for the long-term health of our democracy.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.