Democracy?

Nov. 17th, 2012 12:45 pm
liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
I voted in the farce of a PCC election. I voted "properly" and did not spoil, though I had no enthusiasm for either of the two candidates standing in Staffordshire. One Conservative party apparatchik whose views about pretty much everything were random waffle with no substance, and one Labour party apparatchik whose views about pretty much everything were that the Tories are bad. There were no independents and nobody with meaningful police experience, but I suppose on the plus side there were no racists or hanging-and-flogging authoritarians.

I got the very strong impression that the election was deliberately set up to engineer a low turnout, which is just weird; I can not see whose interests are served by creating a new elected post which only a fifth of the non-London parts of the country bother voting for. The weird timing, the near silence in the media about it, the lack of any sensible electoral information, and what was available was on a website that didn't become available until very late in the day, with no attempt to reach people (eg older and poorer voters) who aren't online.

I voted at my usual polling station, a fairly big secondary school. And in contrast to previous elections, the "polling station" was tucked away in a little backroom, very hard to find, with poor signage. I ended up asking at the main reception desk, who directed me to a back entrance which isn't even on the road listed as the address of the polling station in official electoral material, doesn't clearly look as if it's a way into the school grounds, and involved crossing a netball court and wandering around a weird little pathway half blocked off by tape. The room was labelled as being wheelchair accessible, but it was the sort of place that you can get a wheelchair into if you really have to but only with great difficulty. Narrow doorway, with a bump to get over (a small one, it's true, but even a small bump can be a pain for many wheelchair users), leading to an awkward small space filled with filing cabinets and piles of stuff to manoeuvre in to access a second doorway. They did have a wide booth with a low table, yes, but I really wouldn't call that accessible.

I'm able-bodied, I had plenty of time, I don't mind asking strangers for directions, and I'd already made a firm commitment to vote. If any of those had been lacking, I might well have been put off. Why did I commit myself to voting, when so many of my friends are passionately against it? Well, basically I'm of the mindset that one ought to vote, even when the electoral system is messed up; there are better ways to register protests at a badly run election or a lack of meaningful choice of candidates than simply not showing up. But there was a second factor in this case: I was seeing a strong trend for liberal types whose politics I basically agree with to encourage non-attendance or ballot spoiling, while illiberal types (statists, authoritarians and criminal-haters, racists and nationalists) were banging the drum for people to vote for them. For example: the excellent Milena Popova calls for spoiling ballots, while people like Luke Akehurst on the Labour List were calling for die-hard Labour supporters to vote to register a protest against the Government. That led me to think that a low turn-out (or lots of spoiled ballots) was going to play into the hands of interests I really do not want controlling the police.

As it turns out, my area, Staffordshire, achieved the dubious honour of the lowest turnout in all of England and Wales: under 12% of the electorate. The Tory lizard with the waffly but basically pro-government views just about defeated the Labour lizard with the slightly less waffly pro-Opposition views, less than 4 percentage points between them. This partly reflects the fact that national politics has basically given up on this region; they very visibly weren't even trying with this election, and the candidates available have really no ideas about how to improving policing in the area, only about whether the Conservatives or Labour should be in charge in Westminster.

I'm annoyed because having these elections at all feels like a fairly significant change in democratic procedures, which clearly isn't supported by the general public and has been imposed on us for reasons that are opaque to me. One theory is to set up fall-guys to take the blame for cuts and privatization, which seems at least plausible, but not very democratic even though it includes a new opportunity to vote. I mean, the proposal to change to the AV system required a national referendum, with huge, well-funded campaigns against the change which then ultimately failed. But suddenly having an elected commissioner instead of the current police authorities, that didn't even need a consultation, or even an information campaign to tell the public about the change, let alone a full referendum. Not to mention that this election used a kind of hybrid "supplementary vote" system, a change from the First Past the Post which apparently has popular support for national level. And the idea of voting by "regions" like this is another novelty; here, for example, it combined rural Staffordshire, which is deeply true-blue Tory, with urban Stoke-on-Trent which has always been the safest of safe Labour seats. That seems to me like a form of gerrymandering, really, and as far as I can see the outcome was essentially random, based on a slightly less ludicrously low turnout from the countryside than from the town rather than any actual preference.

So I am definitely in sympathy with the ballot-spoiling crowd. The only crumb of comfort is that the turnout was so low that it is going to prompt an inquiry by the Electoral Commission. But however that turns out the whole business is still a waste of considerable amounts of public money, when desperately needed resources are facing cuts because of the recession. So I am not a happy voter right now.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-11-18 12:56 am (UTC)
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)
From: [personal profile] lilacsigil
The only crumb of comfort is that the turnout was so low that it is going to prompt an inquiry by the Electoral Commission.

I was wondering from posts by other British people if this was a possibility. Good.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-11-18 04:43 pm (UTC)
chickenfeet: (thatcher)
From: [personal profile] chickenfeet
It seems that right wing parties across the English speaking world are trying to lower voter turn out. The Repugs in the US are notorious and the Tories running a November election with no useful information available looks tactically equivalent. There have also been widespread but unproved allegations about the Conservatives in the last Canadian federal election. They are accused of using robo-calling to direct people to the wrong polling stations.

I think maybe now the Cold war is over the Right doesn't see the need for democracy as an anti-communist tactic.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-11-18 09:20 pm (UTC)
lovingboth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lovingboth
Elections for mayors (something that I am very dubious about, having the experience of one in Lewisham) use the same 'two rounds' system.

The reason the two areas were added together is that they all have the same police force.

The whole thing was some Tory's pet policy. It got into the manifesto, and here we are... having done it as cheaply as possible and with the inevitable impact on turnout.

low turnout

Date: 2012-11-21 12:46 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The reason I think a low turn out is a more effective, in this case, as an electoral tool than spoiling ballots is that the aim is to undermine the legitimacy of the election. An election is illegitimate at least if the people returned could never be the people who are more or less the choice of the people (more or less because you can't properly weight for preference). That sufficient (but I suspect not necessary) condition can be met in at least two ways: because some people are systematically excluded from power, and because nobody could be the choice of the people. I think that both might apply here (although I did in fact spoil my ballot). By not funding the campaigns and election (democracy is too expensive in a time of austerity), people lacked the information to make a choice. This makes it hard to have a proper opinion about the right candidate. People didn't want elected commissioners. Nobody could be the right choice. (I spoilt my ballot because I am v. much in favour of elected commissioners, although not party political ones, and I didn't like the independent. I hadn't thought of the second problem).

Now, spoiling a ballot has two drawbacks qua protest in the UK. The first, which is universal, is that it says 'I don't mind the system, but I have no strong preference - even of the form 'anyone but...'. The second is that in the UK they don't show up in the headline figures. The 30% for Ms. Tory is 30% of the non-spoiled papers, not 30% of the ballots in the box. You can work out the real figures, but you have to do it yourself. In effect, you can't abstain except by staying home.

The thing to remember is that voting is a tool for democratic power. It is not democracy. Not turning up is a tool, as is spoiling the paper. In general, even here, voting is the most powerful because enough people will vote. A really low turnout is also powerful, more so when the election is flawed. People are not apathetic (even if they express no interest). They are disenfranchised. And even our politicians aren't so shameless, yet, that they can claim legitimacy on a tiny turn out. Spoiling a ballot is gesture politics. Gesture politics is pretty pointless, and used by the powers that be to hold onto power.

YAB

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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