Saturday, 6 June 2009

Low Turnout? My Vote Counts For More

I have been keeping an eye on the BBC website but so far cannot see the outcomes of the European Parliament elections. They have the council votes, but very few councils had elections yesterday and none in my area. I suppose it has to do with just how many votes there are in any given constituency. The European Parliament constituencies in the UK vary between Northern Ireland with 1.7 million people (of course not all of whom are adults and/or eligible to vote) up to the South-East England region (London is its own region) with 8 million people. Around 80% of the population in the UK is over 18 (the figure is rising as the birth rate falls) so a constituency has potentially 1.3-6.4 million voters, but the turnout for European elections in the UK is often only 35%, but even so that means up to 450,000-2.2 million ballots to count.

You find out some strange facts, i.e. that Gibraltar (on the South coast of Spain) forms part of the South-West constituency of England. The UK has 78 MEPs like Italy and France; Germany, the most populous country in the EU, has 99; Spain and Poland are on the third tier with 54 seats.

We have now moved over to the d'Hondt method which means that you vote for a party list rather than being able to rate all the parties on the ballot paper as used to be the case with the STV (Single Transferable Vote) system we used to have. For British people used to putting a single cross on a ballot paper this might seem more comfortable, but it does mean a lot of the more marginal parties and especially independents will no longer get support and given that South-East England had a Green MEP, this may change. In addition, not all candidates are the same even if they are on the same party list. Given that between 3-10 MEPs will be returned from your constituency, it seems a bit bad that we cannot express our opinion on different individuals from a party. I know that the more votes the party gets the more candidates off their list become MEPs, but you might want their 6th listed candidate in place of the 1st listed. Of course in the past you just got to rate the party, but in my mind we are still not yet there with the best system for these elections with multiple candidate constituencies. People complain that proportional representation systems are too complex for UK voters, but given how few of us vote now, that should be no worry as it is only the 'expert' voters who turn out and we are a pretty sophisticated bunch.

In the UK for local and national elections ballot papers are small, but for European elections, in my constituency having 22 parties listed they are a long roll of paper that is too large to fit into the average polling booth in the UK. At least in the polling station I visited they had modern ballot boxes not those black painted metal ones that seem to have been used for decades and have slots too narrow to fit European election ballot papers in. One polling station I visited in London in the 1990s had a specially designed plunger to get the papers in.

I am an unashamed pro-European. Though I am sympathetic to the Socialist Labour Party, I dislike their anti-European stance. Arthur Scargill's claim that the EU is a capitalist club is terribly out of date and entirely misses the good that EU social and labour legislation has done for the ordinary people of the UK in the face of harsh opposition from UK employers. Scargill should take a leaf out of Tony Benn's book and campaign for true democracy in the EU. Currently the European Parliament is pretty toothless. Policy is made by the Council of Ministers made up of the national prime ministers and policy is carried out and regulation is enforced by the European Commission, an unelected civil service body. This kind of structure if applied to an individual country with such a strong executive would be seen as less than semi-democratic. The Parliament should have more powers and certainly be moving the legislative agenda. It does occasionally bring the Commission to account but probably not often enough. We need European Parliament select committees on the basis of the UK model. The ironic thing about the Commission overseeing regulation (which generally stems from EU legislation) is that the British whine about these regulations more than any other nation in the EU and yet whereas France, Italy and Germany quite often ignore the regulations the British government (whether Conservative or Labour) has the strongest record of enforcing the regulations. They let the Commission take the blame for their own adherence to the enforcement!

Sorry, this posting is rambling all over the place. My main point which I always say to the polling station staff is that when turnout is poor then my vote is more powerful. If in the South-East constituency only 2.2 million people vote then my vote contributes a 2.2 millionth but if all the electorate showed it would be 3-4 times less powerful. In local elections this effect has a greater impact though can be neutralised by the first past the post issue, but not if I back the winning candidate. Most wards for UK council elections have about 5000 people in them, and again taking 80% as eligible to vote, this comes to 4000 potential voters. When I lived in East London the population density was so high you could see 3 ward polling stations along a single main street. Anyway, if, for example the winning candidate wins with 1000 votes then my vote is 1/1000th, but if s/he wins by only getting 300 votes or less, which often happens, then my vote counts as 1/300th of the outcome. It is a minor point, but what I am saying is, if you do not vote you put more power into the hands of those who do and these might be people whose view on the world jars with your own.

People often complain that their vote is only a grain in a sandpit, if they represent only 1/2.2 millionth, what is the point? Well, of course each of those who actually elect the winner are similarly only 1/2.2 millionth. Democracy is still a pretty rare commodity in the world, ask anyone from China. People should vote if for nothing else, for the people who fought to have democracy in the UK and stop it being suppressed by the Nazis. Not bothering snubs those people. If you do not like the candidates, stand yourself. You have no right to moan about the political system, and more importantly, the policies it puts into action, if you have exempted yourself from the process. I do not advocate moving to the Australian system in which you get fined if you do not vote, but I do say to people, do not so easily deliver power into the hands who want you to be disinterested. Remember, you might strongly disagree with my perspective on things and yet by not voting you are giving my vote far more power.

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