Voting (Civic Obligation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:43 pm on 14 January 2015.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North 1:43, 14 January 2015

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a civic obligation either to vote or to state an intention to abstain from voting;
and for connected purposes.

It is appropriate that I should be asking permission to introduce this measure following the exchanges on terrorism, because our democracy will flourish long after the terrorists and their objectives have been decisively defeated.

Despite what I am going to say, my proposed measure will inevitably be described as compulsory voting. As I shall point out, it is not my intention to force anyone to vote in an election; if there was such a proposal, I would vote against it. I have, however, long advocated, with others, legislation for a civic obligation—a duty, if you like—to vote at least in a general election. However, if my Bill became law, if anyone had no wish to vote, so be it—all they would need do is let the electoral authorities know beforehand, and provide information about where they live, proof and so on, or turn up on the day and tell the clerk at the polling station that they do not intend to vote, and that would be the end of it. There would be no martyrs, and no one would need to go to prison because they do not want to vote—of course, many people sadly went to prison in this country and elsewhere because they wanted the right to vote.

The excellent report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend Mr Allen, outlines the decline in voting over the years. I shall provide one or two facts about the last election. More people did not vote then than voted for any one political party contesting the election. If we add that figure to the number not correctly registered, it adds up to more than voted for the two main parties in the election, and certainly more than voted for the two parties forming the coalition. That should be a matter of serious concern to the House, whether or not my proposal is accepted.

The decline in voting should be a matter of concern to politicians and the country as a whole. If we want our democracy to flourish and strengthen, surely common sense dictates that we should do what we can to get far more people participating in elections. I have been speaking about general elections, but far fewer people of course vote in local elections. The turnout in the 2001 general election was just over 59%. Four years later, it rose to 61%, and last time, it increased to 65%, meaning that a large one third did not vote. In 2001, there were 66 constituencies in which turnout was under 50%. Four years later, that figure was 37. As we know, there is a gap between older people and 18 to 24-year-olds. At the last election, when the total turnout was 65%, only 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted. There has also been a decline in the number of women voting.

I notice reports that the Conservative party wants to change the law on union elections to ensure that at least 40% of those eligible have to vote for industrial action in order for that action to be valid. One might ask how many Conservative MPs were elected by less than 40% of the electorate. I will tell hon. Members: 86%. So no lectures please from the Tories about people voting in union elections!

It is sometimes argued that such a proposal as mine would be an infringement of civil liberties, but why? Do we not all have obligations? We all have to pay—fortunately—national and local taxes and, if we drive, road tax. We cannot opt out, and we do not want anyone to opt out. Is that an infringement of civil liberties? Children must be sent to school. They may be educated at home, if it satisfies the local authorities, but in the main children must go to school, and if parents do not send their children to school, they will be rightly fined. We cannot drive a vehicle without taking a test. Is that an infringement of civil liberties? I am pleased to say—because I voted for it—that smoking is now banned in public places, including pubs and clubs. Is that an infringement of civil liberties? As the Home Secretary said in exchanges a few moments ago, we cannot possess weapons without authorisation from the police. Why should a civic obligation to vote, with the option to abstain, be attacked on the grounds that our liberties are somehow being undermined?

In a number of democratic countries—not many, but they include Belgium and Luxembourg—there is a duty to vote. I leave aside dictatorships, of course. In Australia, turnout in elections for the House of Representatives is 95%. Many years ago, in the last election there before the law was changed where everyone had a duty to vote—there is a small fine if people do not vote—that turnout was under 60%. However, in the first contest under the law that I would like to see applied in Britain, the turnout was 91%— and it has never gone below 90%. I am not aware that Amnesty International or any other human rights group has put Australia on its list of authoritarian states. There are many aspects of Australian politics today that I and my hon. Friends do not like, but the fact of the matter is that it is a democracy, just like ours. Why should anyone take the view that my suggestion is unnecessary and arbitrary?

Would it work here? I accept that if the law were changed, it is possible that many people might say, “No, we are not interested; we will not obey the law”. I think it unlikely, and if it happened, we would obviously have to change the law again, but why not give it a try? Why not use every opportunity to ensure that when we sit in this place, we have the satisfaction of knowing that the overwhelming majority of the people, whichever way they voted, did vote in the general election. I strongly believe that the House of Commons should give serious consideration to what I am proposing. I hope that in due course—I hope I will live long enough to see it—such a change in the law will happen.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr David Winnick, Mr Graham Allen, Mr Ronnie Campbell, Mr Jim Cunningham, Geraint Davies, Mr Brian H. Donohoe, Mike Gapes, Meg Hillier, Jim McGovern, Grahame M. Morris and Mr Dave Watts present the Bill.

Mr David Winnick accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March, and to be printed (Bill 153).