Richard Heller: No funny business, just let us vote no to them all

Comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo
Comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo
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IT really should not be necessary: voting for a clown in a general election because you do not rate any of the other parties on offer. The Italian people have just sent their mainstream politicians a rousing raspberry (the Italian “lampone” sounds even better) with a massive vote for a new protest party led by the bushy-haired satirist Beppe Grillo.

Our country has found a different way to signal its disenchantment with conventional politics, with a sweeping advance for the Apathy Party. Last year Manchester Central seized from Leeds Central the long-standing record for lowest turnout in a contested Parliamentary election: more than 80 per cent of voters stayed away.

Both political systems, ours and the Italians’, have failed to give their voters what they deserve in a true democracy – the right to say “I do not believe in any of these candidates, or parties, or the assembly for which they are standing.”

At the last General Election, a few candidates unselfishly offered themselves for this task, changing their names by deed poll to some variant of “None of the above”. The best known was the boxer, Terry Marsh, who stood in South Basildon and East Thurrock, Essex, as Mr None Of The Above X. He and the other Messrs Above promised not to take their seats as MPs if elected. This of course entailed not claiming any salary or expenses, but in spite of this attractive offer they all lost their deposits.

Antipathetic voters should not have to rely on a few gallant volunteers with £500 to spare (plus £33 for the deed poll). In every British constituency, the ballot paper should include a choice of None of the Above.

Several countries have done this already, or offered some equivalent facility to their voters. In Canada, they can formally “Decline to Vote”: such choices are counted and put on record. Spain offers a Blank ballot and a party has formed to make such votes count in their proportional voting system. Blank candidates have won three seats in village council elections, and carried out their promise not to fill them. Greece has a “None” ballot paper but so far, surprisingly, none of the None candidates has made an electoral non-breakthrough. Bangladesh recently introduced a None option and there is a pro-None campaign in India, the world’s largest democracy.

Communist countries generally offered a None option in their election lists of all-Communist candidates. In Poland in 1989, and in Russia in 1991, a high None vote accelerated the end of Communism.

In the recent American elections, the state of Nevada maintained its unique None option. The state authorities beat down a legal challenge against it by the Republicans, who feared that None voters would do most harm to Mitt Romney and their senate candidate, Dean Heller (no relation). My namesake may have had a point. In 1998 over 8,000 Nevadans voted None in a Senate race which the Democrat, Harry Reid, won by just 428 votes. In 2012 None won 5,770 votes, 0.57 per cent of those cast. They were not enough to affect the Presidential race (a handy win for Barack Obama) or to oust Mr Heller. But None voters had the satisfaction of beating a “serious” Presidential candidate, from the far-right Independent America party founded by the emetic Ezra Taft Benson. Note for lawyers: Mr Benson is dead.

A None-of-the-Above option is worth having simply as a means of democratic expression, but it could and should be given some practical impact. In a list system, such as the European Parliament elections, None would count as an equal vote to one to a party or a candidate. None would fill, or rather not fill, all the seats to which it would be entitled under the quota system.

In elimination systems (such as elected mayors), None would stay in the ballot until elimination or victory. In first-past-the-post None would win by topping the poll. If None won as a mayor or as an MP, the contest might be re-run with new candidates to see if voters like them any better. If None wins again, the office would be left unfilled.

Of course a None-of-the-Above option might result in no national government. Belgium managed perfectly well without one for around two years. Belgium still has compulsory voting. If the Belgians end up with no government after being forced to vote for one, should they not be allowed to choose this option from the beginning and not have to endure months of futile manoeuvring from their politicians?

A None-of-the-Above option would lift the quality of British politics. All parties would be 
under pressure to field better candidates.

They would gain far less from negative campaigning and have 
to find reasons to make electors vote for them instead of keeping out a party they like even less.

Parties would cease to prosper as an outlet for protest votes 
(as the Liberals used to do and Ukip may be doing now). Any party would have to offer 
more than rage against the system.

A None option would be a good safety valve for a disillusioned electorate. Voting for None could stop people voting for something worse.