Compulsory postal voting is a shameful exercise in electoral manipulation

The Government's motive is not entirely squalid, but it is disingenuous to call what is happening next week an experiment
Click to follow

It is a puzzle. Why is Tony Blair so keen on the "experiment" of forcing a third of the electorate to vote by post in next week's European Parliament elections? Yesterday, the Government missed the legal deadline for getting ballot papers to a tiny proportion of those entitled to them. Ministers must be hoping that the traditional pragmatism of the English courts will save them from this technical breach in the letter of the law - nobody will be prevented from voting by the delay, and it allegedly only affected 1 per cent of those taking part in the all-postal voting schemes.

It is a puzzle. Why is Tony Blair so keen on the "experiment" of forcing a third of the electorate to vote by post in next week's European Parliament elections? Yesterday, the Government missed the legal deadline for getting ballot papers to a tiny proportion of those entitled to them. Ministers must be hoping that the traditional pragmatism of the English courts will save them from this technical breach in the letter of the law - nobody will be prevented from voting by the delay, and it allegedly only affected 1 per cent of those taking part in the all-postal voting schemes.

Most judges would, quite rightly, wave away a legal challenge over such a trivial matter. But it is a symptom of something more important. For reasons that are not immediately obvious, the Government has pushed ahead with what it calls "pilot" schemes for all-postal voting on a scale that has little support. Once anybody starts blaming the printers, you know that they are trying to do too much, too fast, and have not got their act together.

The more you look at the origins of this experiment, the more suspect the Government's motives seem. And I say that as a resolute believer in random error as the driver of politics rather than conspiracy theory.

Most people, of course, did not follow the day-by-day arguments in Westminster over the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. Most of the 14 million people concerned, indeed, had no idea that they would be voting by post in next week's elections until the ballot papers started dropping through their letterboxes - or there were items on the news about why they weren't.

But now that we look back on the way the four regions were selected, the mystery deepens. Back in March this year, while the Prime Minister was on a round trip to Madrid, Tripoli and Brussels that caught the public eye, there was a remarkable struggle going on between the House of Commons and the Lords. It was one of those great legislative tussles that is usually mis-described as parliamentary "ping-pong", as if it were a mere procedural distraction.

The minister concerned described it as "an almost unprecedented constitutional situation", but hardly anyone took any notice, because the two houses seemed to be arguing about the details of a scheme for trying out postal voting. Did someone say dull? We never found out: unless you fell asleep in front of the parliamentary channel and woke up at the right time and stayed watching, a triple hypothetical, you would not have known about it.

But if you go back and look up the Hansard record now, you will still not find out why the Government was so keen to run the experiment in four regions rather than the two recommended by the independent Electoral Commission. All you will find is Christopher Leslie, the junior minister for constitutional affairs, explaining that the Government wanted four and, while the Commission was entitled to advise, it was for the Government, and ultimately the House of Commons, to decide.

Now Leslie is no rogue element. He is not like Peter Hain, for example, who seems to regard his ministerial position as a platform from which to set out a subtly different programme from the Government's. When Tony Blair surveyed the ranks of new Labour MPs in 1997, he asked a colleague, "Isn't that the chap who used to do the photocopying in Gordon's office?" It was: at 24, Christopher Leslie, former assistant to the Shadow Chancellor, was the new MP for Shipley. Leslie is on the inside of New Labour, a ministerial junior to Charlie Falconer, the Prime Minister's most trusted member of the Cabinet.

So when the House of Lords five times rejected Leslie's Bill, and Leslie five times whipped the Commons into sending the Bill back to the Lords until finally getting his way, this was no junior minister pursuing a whim. The Prime Minister wanted all-postal voting in four regions, and next week he gets it. Why?

The most obvious reason is that all-postal voting increases turnout. When all-postal schemes were tried in 59 local council elections last year, turnout rose from 34 per cent to 49 per cent. There are two reasons why this matters next week. The first is that the four regions concerned - the north-west, north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber and East Midlands - are strong Labour territory.

The Iraq war has demotivated the activist base and offended much middle-class support. Those Labour supporters who are more interested in the NHS and schools would go to the polls in a general election to defend the Government, but it is difficult to get them to the polling station for European elections. Five years ago a mere 23 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote -and when the few votes cast were counted, Labour trailed William Hague's unpopular Tory party by 28 per cent to 36 per cent (the UK Independence Party won 7 per cent).

Hence the deployment of every device: "We have ways of making you vote." In many parts of the country, local council elections have been moved to be on the same day as the European elections (five years ago, many people were asked to vote twice in two months). In London, the mayoral elections will bring people out because people do care about public transport and the congestion charge. But in the four regions chosen for the pilots, there are few council elections, and so the "experiment" coincides neatly with the Government's desire to encourage more people to vote.

The Government's motive is not, of course, entirely squalid. But it is disingenuous in the extreme to describe what is happening next week as an experiment. It is manipulation, and should be condemned as such - otherwise why was it necessary to overrule the independent Electoral Commission?

Postal voting is already freely available. The only motive for forcing people to vote by post can be to produce a different outcome from that which would otherwise have occurred.

Nor is this simply a matter of inflating the Labour vote, reprehensible though that is. I believe that there is a deeper motive. I think Tony Blair was deeply affected by the low turnout in the 2001 general election and in recent council and by-elections. He realises how damaging it is to the grand rhetorical claims on which he built New Labour. They were all about turning the party outwards and engaging a disillusioned people in politics.

On a more personal-historical level, it does not fit his self-image as the author of national renewal to have built his monuments on the foundations of cynicism and apathy. That is another reason why he will not mind if Ukip does well - apart from the fact that most of Ukip's votes will come from the Conservatives. Unfortunately, there cannot be a worse cure for the civic irresponsibility of abstention than the belief that the Prime Minister's amour propre depends on as many people as possible next week casting their vote.

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

Comments