Mr Hoon is also correct when he identifies a particular problem with the disengagement of young people from party politics. This will inevitably, as Mr Hoon puts it, "threaten the long-term legitimacy of the political system". Yet he has come up with a thoroughly wrongheaded solution to the problem. In a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research yesterday, he made the case for voting to be made compulsory. According to Mr Hoon, the higher turnout would inspire more political participation across society.
The most striking aspect of Mr Hoon's proposal is how authoritarian it is. Does he really imagine that Britons will welcome being compelled - under pain of a financial penalty - to visit the polling booths? Mr Hoon points out that compulsory voting exists abroad. This is true, but in Belgium, where they have such a system, repeat offenders incur fines and may even be removed from the electoral register. In Greece, not voting makes it tricky to get a passport or a driver's licence. Is Mr Hoon really saying that Britain should import this sort of ad-hoc state discrimination to Britain?
We also strongly dispute the suggestion that compulsory voting is "the most obvious way to bring those who feel alienated into the political process and the best means to enhance civic participation". As The Independent's Campaign for Democracy has shown, incorporating some form of proportional representation into British elections would be much more effective in achieving this very goal. If so many millions of Britons were not embedded in "safe" constituencies, they would be much more inclined to vote. If the constitution of the House of Commons bore more of a resemblance to the way people actually cast their votes, apathy would surely suffer a considerable setback. And the reaction to Live8 demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to inspire the young with a political message.
Mr Hoon says that the need for compulsory voting is his personal view, not government policy. But it fits suspiciously well with the illiberal instincts of a government that sees great merit in ID cards. This is a proposal with nothing to recommend it. If Mr Hoon is serious about finding a way to reconnect people with the political system, let him take a closer look at proportional representation.
- More about:
- Young People