Martin Hannan: Our democracy is biggest loser

So how was it for you? Did you get your revenge for the trams by spoiling your ballot paper? Did you let the big parties know what you thought of them by voting for the Greens or Professor Pongoo?

Tuesday, 8th May 2012, 1:00 pm

Or did you just sit at home or go to the pub and simply exercise your democratic right not to vote?

The council elections last week worked out more or less as I predicted.

National issues seem to have motivated most voters – the evidence of that being the virtual annihilation of the Liberal Democrats everywhere, and especially in Edinburgh – with the blame for the trams very much a secondary issue here in the Capital, as Jenny Dawe admitted.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

I would have liked my party, the SNP, to sweep the boards, of course, though the Unionist parties’ crowing about the party’s failure to do so is simply ludicrous – which party has most councillors in Scotland, up by many dozens from ten years ago? How is that a defeat?

No outright victory for the SNP or Labour, then, but the most depressing thing to see was the low turnout figures in many parts of Scotland, with some wards recording way less than 30 per cent voting.

It wasn’t as bad as predicted by many experts, and the overall 42.6 per cent turnout in Edinburgh was only just below the 44 per cent figure recorded the last time council elections were held on their own, but across Scotland, no party, not even mine, can claim at this moment to have the support of the majority of the populace because of the low turnouts.

With 141,552 votes cast in Edinburgh, the number of rejected votes at 1868 tells its own story – many clearly thick people were still using an X instead of numbering their preferences, while a few others just didn’t want to vote for any party associated with the trams.

Some pundits have tried to explain away the low turnouts as a protest vote in themselves, while others said it was due to the “complexity” of the ballot paper and the loss of the “exciting” overnight counts.

I don’t think so. I think what happened last week was an example of voter apathy and the disconnection between the people of Scotland and the political process itself.

A great many people are just fed up with politicians and politics, and young people in particular seem to have switched off from taking part in the democratic process.

I do not know all of the reasons for this disaffection, but of this I am sure – the expenses row at Westminster has soured a great many people for life, and it will be a long time before many people reconnect to politics, if they ever do.

That is a great pity because just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do the powerful exploit the spaces left when people fail to engage with their political leaders.

The real loser last week was democracy and that is a serious problem for Scotland going forward. For people who are so disenchanted with the political process that they won’t take a few minutes to vote in a vital local council election may not feel it is worth the trouble to take part in the referendum in 2014.

Both sides, Yes and No, need to address this issue now. The decision this nation will take in 2014 is too hugely important not to involve all the people. For it to be a meaningful result, there will need to be a decent turnout – say 80 per cent or more, given that the electoral register is always about ten per cent wrong due to people not signing up to vote, moving home or being away on the day.

We need to look at all of the reasons why the turnout was so low and something needs to be done to start getting young people in particular engaged in our democracy. If that means the introduction of compulsory voting then so be it.

Compulsory voting with improved access to polling, say through e-mailed votes, would increase turnouts massively, while those who are disgusted with our politicians would simply hand in a blank ballot as happens in countries such as Australia, where compulsory voting has been the norm for 80 years. It is a fine judgement – is it more democratic to ensure people vote, or is it more democratic to allow people not to vote?

Having looked at all the arguments, I have to say I now favour compulsory voting, mainly because we really need every voter in Scotland to take part in the forthcoming referendum which really must settle the established will of the Scottish people for a generation.

The nasty secret why politicians largely don’t favour a compulsory system is that far too many people stay off the electoral register and avoid voting because they have council tax or poll tax debts, some dating back more than 20 years. Compulsory electoral registration and compulsory voting would at least snare those cheats.

Reducing the voting age to 16 and compulsory voting would also mean that no-one could ever say they were not asked about the future of Scotland. It would also mean that every person would play at least some part in Scottish society.

It’s an idea that really needs to be considered.