SHOULD voting be compulsory in British elections? It is in Australia, where there was a general election yesterday, and a House of Commons committee is sufficiently worried about low turnouts to suggest that similar legislation may be necessary here. Think back 17 months, to the sense of anticipation and release that accompanied last year's general election, and the committee's anxiety seems misplaced. John Major's government was regard- ed as sleazy and out of touch, so voters went to the polls in droves and rewarded New Lab- our with a landslide majority.
Yet the most remarkable feature of last year's poll is that when people finally got their chance to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with a hugely unpopular administration, just over a quarter stayed at home. We don't know whether they had more pressing engagements or simply couldn't be bothered to walk to the nearest polling station. What we do know is that participation in elections is lower in Britain than in any other Western European democracy. The 71 per cent turnout at the May 1997 election contrasts with 83 per cent in Italy, 80 per cent in France and 79 per cent in Germany.
But it is at local level that the figures become catastrophic. In this year's local elections, six out of 10 voters declined to mark a ballot paper. In some areas, turnout dropped to a quarter of those entitled to vote. Does this mean that British voters are lazier than the electorates of other countries? It certainly suggests that a right for which previous generations fought and died has fallen so low on our list of priorities that more than half of us fails to exercise it between general elections.
One explanation is voter fatigue, as though the effort involved in getting to a polling station requires a long period of vote-free convalescence. This is a useful excuse for the Government, which can cite low turnouts as a reason for delaying the introduction of an elected second chamber. But I'm not convinced by it, nor by the list of measures proposed by the Commons home affairs committee to counteract voter apathy, although I don't mind the idea of allowing people to vote on Saturdays or of setting up polling stations in convenient locations like railway stations and shops. (After walking round Blackpool with a supermarket advertisement round my neck, I draw the line at sponsor- ship of ballot papers: "Cast your vote at Sainsbury's and get money-off coupons worth pounds 3!" - not as unlikely as it sounds.)
But the present system is no more onerous for most voters than walking to a postbox or the local pub. The causes of the malaise are far more serious and I do not think we need look much further than the style of politics favoured by our current leaders. I cannot remember living through another period when political debate has been so unfashionable. Ministers talk in soundbites and platitudes, inventing pompous phrases like The Third Way which turn out to mean little more than saying everything three times - "education, education, education".
Parliamentary opposition is non-existent, an omission graphically demonstrated during the passage through the House of Lords of the Government's anti- terror Bill. When it looked as though the Government might lose a crucial vote, their lordships simply decided not to have one. Tony Blair repeats the biggest political lie of all - "There is no alternative" - and exposes the authoritarian underside of the consensus he seeks to impose. What neither Mr Blair nor Paddy Ashdown seems to have considered - and William Hague is too embattled to think about - is the effect of this stultifying homogeneity on the electorate.
People vote because they think they can change things. If we have a government which stifles dissent, and opposition parties whose only strategies are to suck up to New Labour or self-destruct, should we be surprised that voters are disillusioned? Arguments about ideas, however time-consuming and inconvenient, are not an optional extra. Without them, the choice facing electors has about as much significance as deciding where to do the weekend shopping. I voted Labour in 1997 but, if things carry on like this, I may switch to Waitrose at the next election.
IDEOLOGY wanes, superstition waxes. The political vacuum in Britain is being filled with a lot of New Age nonsense, from reflexology to paganism, from colour therapy to feng shui. This last is a mixture of common sense - "windows should ideally be rectangular in shape" - and animism. Its practitioners believe we are surrounded by objects which give off bad energy in the form of "poison arrows". These arrows need straight lines to attack, such as the avenues leading to the White House in Washington and Buckingham Palace in London. Is it any wonder, asks Lillian Too, author of The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui, that "people" in Great Britain are talking about the end of the monarchy and the reform of the House of Lords? So the monarchy's recent problems, far from reflecting its status as an archaic institution, turn out to be just a case of bad feng shui.
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