A question for the voluntary voting brigade, based on the outcome of British general election. Labour looks set to win – but on the lowest share of the national vote for a victorious party ever. This ties in with a strong think piece on the probable election outcome by Peter Riddell in yesterday’s Times.

Riddell forecast a Labour majority “in the 80 to 100 range”. The exit polls suggest it will be lower, which makes these comments even more interesting:

A Labour triumph? Mr Blair will be the first Labour leader to win three terms in a row. But it is a qualified triumph. If Populus, and most of the other polls this morning, are right, then Labour will have won with the lowest share of the vote for a government with an overall Commons majority — and on a turnout not much above, and possibly less than, the 59% of 2001. The closest parallels are 1922 and October 1974, but in both cases the turnout was 73%. So Mr Blair is likely to have won the support of well under a quarter of the total electorate. This would raise questions of legitimacy…

Indeed. There are issues unique to Britain involved here – first past the post voting and an electoral malapportionment that effectively means it takes 22,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP and just 16,000 for Labour to win a seat. But there’s still a very big question for advocates of voluntary voting.

People who don’t bother to vote mightn’t be interested in politics – mightn’t. But the government still governs in their name. What’s the lowest acceptable turnout for a government to be legitimate? The question becomes even more pertinent when you look at why people choose not to vote.

If there’s a low turnout in the UK, it will be because of the “plague on both your houses” factor. The Conservatives have effectively matched Labour’s plans for health and education, offered almost no tax cuts and topped Labour spending promises on pensions, But they failed to offer any genuine alternative and failed to present a fundamental critique of long-term prospects under Labour. That’s what happened in Australia last year. It was big taxing, big spending all round. Who’d turn out to vote for that?

There’s something vaguely unsettling about compulsory voting – but surely the idea of a government with the “mandate” Riddell describes is far more disconcerting – particularly given the way in which the checks and balances of parliament have been all but destroyed by the executive.

Peter Fray

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