LETTER: An aye to compulsory voting

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The Independent Online
From Mr Peter Hain, MP

Sir: Is it significant that Helen Wilkinson and Geoff Mulgan ("Can we really afford to grow old?", 25 September) advocate compulsory voting quite independently from my own book Ayes to the Left, also published this week?

Compulsory voting would not be an attack on individual freedom. It would place alongside other civic duties and obligations. People are rightly required to pay taxes, go to school or wear seat-belts in vehicles. They have to obey laws and are compelled to behave as responsible citizens. Such duties are not seen as denials of freedom, but an acceptance that to be a member of a civilised society requires the voluntary relinquishing of "rights" which could doubtless be exercised in a state of raw nature. Individualism is subordinated to community and citizenship; but nobody seriously suggests their freedom is thereby threatened, because everyone gains collectively. The same principle should apply to the process of democracy.

Democratic politics is fundamental to society, and the obligation to vote should be part of our civic duties. The Australians do not complain of their rights being denied through their system of compulsory voting and nor should the British. Anyone who wished to abstain would have the right to do so, either through an abstention box in the polling station or through the familiar device of spoiling the ballot paper. Other reforms would make compulsory voting relatively painless. General election day should be made a public holiday. There should be much easier voting arrangements, including access to postal voting for anyone who can give good reason for needing it.

Voter turnout would, of course, increase. This would place a greater premium upon parties to win the argument about policies, rather than simply to concentrate upon turning out their vote. It would also require the main parties to address the needs of groups increasingly alienated from the conventional political system and who tend not to vote as a consequence. Mandatory voting would also require much greater civic and political education in the broadest sense: from guidance on the mechanics of voting (about which there is still surprising ignorance, as anybody who has canvassed young voters can confirm) to information on party politics.

The increasing exclusion of the young and the underclass identified by Wilkinson and Mulgan is a real threat to democracy. Compulsory voting could help overcome that threat.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Hain

MP for Neath (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

25 September