Andrew Vine: What if using your vote was compulsory?

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Have your say

A PIECE of Parliamentary business will fly by in an almost-empty House of Commons tomorrow, unnoticed by most of the electorate.

That’s a shame, because to any of us who turn out rain or shine to exercise our right to vote, and to those who heed siren voices urging them not to bother, it promises to be a thought-provoking debate, especially in the long haul towards May’s general election.

The debate, under the 10-minute rule, has been granted to the veteran Labour MP for Walsall North, David Winnick, who wants to see voting become a legal obligation.

His proposal is that those who do not intend to vote must inform the authorities in writing, or turn up at a polling station and formally abstain. Should they fail to do either, they would face a fine. A similar scheme operates in Australia, where the penalties are the equivalent of about £30.

There is no chance of Mr Winnick’s proposal becoming law, but he will be heard with much sympathy on all sides for addressing an issue that is increasingly a matter of concern.

It’s possible that one day he will be remembered for starting a debate on making voting compulsory in advance of one of the most unpredictable general elections in modern history being decided on a woefully small turnout.

The opening salvoes of the election campaign have already been fired, and it’s going to feel like a very long war of attrition between now and May 7.

So long, in fact, there is a real possibility that over the next five months many voters are going to become weary of the claim and counter-claim, of mud-slinging and endless dissection of statistics.

In a sense, we’ve been in the middle of an election campaign for at least a year, as the three main parties jockeyed for position, all the while casting apprehensive glances over their shoulders to see Ukip bearing down on them or the SNP in Scotland’s case.

This brings with it the real risk that the public will switch off, and lose sight of the importance of the election at a period when whoever wins will have to steer the country on a very careful course through economic and political uncertainties, particularly the problems besetting Europe and Britain’s place in the EU.

Engaging voters is more than ever necessary, given the unpredictable – and potentially volatile – circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is anybody’s guess what the next government will look like, given that the balance of power could lie with the Liberal Democrats, Ukip or Scottish Nationalists.

Yet engaging them becomes ever more difficult at a time when there is disillusionment at what is perceived to be a professional political class several steps removed from real-life issues that worry voters.

Firing passion in the electorate about issues that matter to everyday lives is the key. This was powerfully demonstrated by the vote on Scottish independence, when the deeply-felt views on both sides brought a turnout of more than 84 per cent.

The vote was not only a triumph for those determined to keep the United Kingdom together. It was a shining day for our democratic process as well because so many were determined to have their say.

It is doubtful that we shall see a turnout anywhere near as high in May, because a general election is not a once-in-a-lifetime event comparable to an independence vote.

Nevertheless, it is vital that everyone entitled to have their say does so, and the time may be coming when something very like Mr Winnick’s proposals have to be introduced if governments are not to face a constant barrage of heckling about their legitimacy after squeaking home on turnouts of less than half those eligible to vote.

Compulsory voting sits uneasily with many. Casting a ballot should be an obligation of conscience, rather than the law, an acknowledgement of our freedom and privilege to have a say in how the country is governed. But we need the electorate to wake up to the importance of voting to drown out the voices that urge us not to bother.

The most strident of these is that of the comedian Russell Brand, whose tiresome railings against capitalism and the mainstream political process would be merely preposterous were it not for the indications that at least a section of younger voters appear to be taking heed of him.

Leaving aside the absurdity of a multi-millionaire entertainer preaching against wealth, Brand’s argument is worthless and empty. He advocates nothingness in place of a democratic process.

Posturing at demonstrations or stage-managing protests at a bank branch do nothing to safeguard the future of the NHS or ensure children get the best education possible. Voting, and making our concerns clear to those we elect, are the most powerful means we have to turn what we want to happen into reality.