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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Hapless in London!

The hapless Electoral Commission have rejected the idea of lowering the UK voting age to 16. As Will Howells points out, "one of the more ridiculous reasons for this was that 16- and 17-year-olds might (or even would) use their votes less than the average and this would lower turnout. What they would actually be doing would be lowering percentage turnout - the number of people turning out to vote would go up!" It is just as well that the Electoral Commission were not called upon to adjudicate in the Boston Tea Party. They most probably would have argued that taxation without representation was not the issue, instead they may have said that we should concentrate on the strength of the tea.

The question grows more insistent every day - what are the Electoral Commission for? They say that they want to increase turnout but actually they do not have a clue how to do it. Instead they waste money on flaccid advertising campaigns that do not even rate sufficiently high in our consciousness to form a talking point in the pub never mind motivate us to do our democratic duty. They make recommendations to the Government on postal voting, which are ignored and they bombard experienced returning officers with regulations and advice that act more as a hindrance than a help. They cannot even organise a consultation meeting in Wales without contravening the normal rules of party balance. Now they play safe on voting reform for reasons that do not stand up to scrutiny and which are contrary to the conclusions of their own consultation exercise.

It seems that they are very good at talking to people and listening but absolutely useless at producing bold, off-the-wall thinking or at offering radical leadership. You may say that this is not their role and you may be right. They are after all the embodiment of a blairite think-tank. If however, they are not meant to be fulfilling this role then I repeat my question, what are they for? If we want safe, woolly thinking, confusing guidance and political ineptness we can always turn to the Whitehall Mandarins. Why create an expensive and impotent quango to do the same job?

Update: I received a detailed e-mail from Andrew Russell today about this entry. Andrew tells me that he is the academic on the Electoral Commission's project board. He goes on:

"I'm distressed by your blog comments yesterday. The universally accepted definition of turnout is the proportion of the registered electorate (or those of the voting age population) who cast a vote! Therefore turnout is a proportionate figure not an overall statistic. If asked what the turnout in the 2001 General Election was most people would reply 59% rather than 26.4 million votes. I don't know of a single academic who use your definition of the turnout as the total number of votes cast. I had thought that this idea had filtered through to society as a whole but maybe I'm wrong, For a discussion of the rudiments of all things to do with turnout see International IDEA's website."

Well, yes! In percentage terms it will reduce turnout. That has never been in doubt as James Graham points out on his blog. The problem, as James identifies is that this was obvious from the start, that it should not have needed a 12 month review to establish this fact and that if this is the basis on which votes at 16 is to be judged then we might as well pack up now and raise the voting age to 60. At least there is a decent turnout amongst pensioners. The point that I was trying to get across, though I admit I did not do it very well, was that reducing the voting age will increase the numbers participating in elections overall and that must be an important factor. The issue is not turnout it is enfranchisement and empowerment. That the Electoral Commission do not seem to understand that distresses me.

"I too am concerned about the role of the commission in the light of the government's decision to overrule the Commission's recommendations on postal voting in the forthcoming local and European elections. Moreover my concern arises from the suspicion that the government ignored the Commission for reasons of partisan advantage. I will be equally appalled if - through the perception of partisan advantage - political parties decide to ignore the recommendations about the age of electoral majority."

Perhaps I have gone a bit overboard on this postal voting trial. The Electoral Commission, like the Civil Service and other bodies are there to advise. It is up to elected politicians to take decisions, after having weighed up that advice and applied considered judgement. The fact that the Electoral Commission is 'independent' and employs 'experts' does not make it right nor does it mean that its judgement should override all others. Equally, politicians do not make the vast majority of their decisions for "partisan advantage" as is alleged here. Thus if I believe that the Electoral Commission is wrong on votes at 16, as I do, then I will ignore them and I will campaign against them. That is my democratic right and it does not make either of us any more right or wrong. We have a difference of opinion and that is it. There is no partisan advantage in securing votes at 16 for anybody and I am astonished that somebody should think that there would be.

The reason why I am distressed at the Electoral Commission's impotence on postal voting is because I believe that in this instance they were right, their arguments were sound and that Government should have listened. I believe that events will prove that proceeding with additional postal vote trials against the Commission's advice will not secure any partisan advantage for Labour. On the contrary I think it will work against them in the North West. In any case I do not believe that Labour Ministers felt that this decision would secure them such an advantage. It seems to me that they were set on a course of action and they were not going to let inconvenient independent bodies get in their way.

"As an academic with a proven track record of publications on youth issues and electoral participation I was asked to sit on the Commission's project board 15 months ago. The report that emerged yesterday is the considered outcome of the most serious attempt to engage with the issues of the age of electoral majority in the history of Britain.

Your assertion that the Commission's recommendations are made for "reasons that do not stand up to scrutiny and which are contrary to the conclusions of their own consultation exercise" is simply wrong in every regard. The report deals at length with all of the arguments presented to us in favour of votes at 16 but after full consideration it was decided that the case could not be made at present."

As James Graham states the four main reasons for opposing votes at 16 do not compute. They are narrowly based arguments which fail to address the key points put across by those arguing for this change. International comparisons are meaningless, whilst the idea of a maturity test is just ludicrous. I know some very articulate, intelligent and mature 16 year olds who would put others, twice their age, to shame on such a test. Are we now to say that you have to justify the quality of your participation in the electoral process before you are allowed a vote?

I have already dealt with voter turnout so this leaves the research. Having questioned my assertion that the Electoral Commision's conclusions contradict their own consultation exercise, Andrew Russell says:

"I'm glad you recognise that the Commission's consultation process was a success and that we remain good at "talking to people and listening". According to the most representative (and independent) poll of those aged 15 and over ever conducted 78% were against lowering the voting age to 16 (including 54% of those aged between 15 and 19). Perhaps some of those in favour of changing the eligibility for voting should do some more listening of their own."

It seems that the decision not to recommend votes at 16 was taken on the basis of an opinion poll. In other words, as I said in my original post, the Electoral Commission prefer to be led rather than to lead. An opinion poll is a snapshot at a point in time. It proves very little other than a group of people had a common view when they were asked for it. It does not test the arguments, it does not address the issues of enfranchisement or empowerment and it does not take into account the views of other stakeholders in the process, those who already have a vote.

Andrew is right when he says that politicians who are advocating this change need to listen too. We do, but we also seek to persuade because that is what democracy is about. I have talked to a number of 16 and 17 year olds about this campaign and when the issues are discussed and rationalised I find that many of them are persuaded. The biggest concern is the responsibility that comes with the vote. The most common question is "What if I get it wrong?" My answer is that as life is full of such decisions then they will inevitably get some of them wrong. The only thing to do is to put it right next time. Perhaps the Electoral Commission could take that advice on board as well.

Finally, I should justify my own comment. The opinion poll was not the only consultation carried out by the Electoral Commission. They also sought written submissions and had 7,500. The majority of these were in favour of lowering the voting age to 16. As I said, their conclusions were contrary to their own consultation exercise.

Update 2: James Graham points out that the opinion poll on which the Electoral Commission based its decision not to recommend voting at 16 questioned just 234 15-18 year olds. Hardly a representative sample and certainly not authorative. If this is "the most representative (and independent) poll of those aged 15 and over ever conducted" then the Electoral Commission need to go back to the drawing board.

Thanks for replying to my mail to Peter yesterday. As I said to Alex Folkes yesterday I think there is more consensus between us than it might otherwise seem, although as Alex pointed out to me finally I felt unable to back Votes at 16 and that is a fundamental difference. Ultimately I may have been guilty of some sloppy thinking yesterday (it tends to happen to me when I wake up to find myself labelled part of an establishment cover-up) and I want to expand on a few thoughts.

1) Peter made a wide point about the purpose of the Electoral Commission, saying that a precedent had been set for ignoring their recommendations. I replied that I felt this had been done on the issue of postal votes in the forthcoming Euro and Local elections for perceived partisan advantage. I continue to believe that this was the case, although I must point out that I played no part in those recommendations and am not speaking for the Commission in any regard. The scheme was expanded from 2 to 4 regions - all of which are broadly part of Labour's heartland and to regions where it might be felt useful to have dry-runs for the all-postal referendums for regional assemblies in the north of England; it might also be thought that a higher turnout in these elections might hamper the electoral chances of the BNP in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside in particular. Regardless of whether they turn out to be correct, I strongly suspect that, some (or all) of these partisan considerations played a role in the extension of the pilot schemes from 2 to 4 regions.

Given the reasons why the Commission originally recommended that the North-West NOT be part of the pilot schemes I think the modification of these recommendations was regrettable.

Of course the Commission's findings on any issue are not (nor should they be) binding on government. I think Peter's basic "after all, what are they for?" inquiry will become more widespread if this trend continues. I want to state explicitly that I accept that not everyone who backs the arguments for lowering the minimum age of voting does so for political advantage. I think that in the context of my mail to Peter my argument seemed valid but when reproduced on James' blog I did realise I was sounding far too pompous. Nevertheless, there is a precedent for enfranchising younger voters on the basis that it might not be disadvantageous to certain ruling parties. The Crossman diaries make it clear that electoral advantage was at the forefront of Wilson's thinking in 1969 (although some of the cabinet were worried that votes would be lost to the Nationalists in Wales and especially Scotland). In fact one of the most gratifying (but possibly irrelevant) elements of this slice of political history is that almost every ruling party that has widened the franchise in this way has lost power at the first opportunity - from Wilson in 1970 to the SPD in at land level in Germany in the mid 1990s.

2) Such a reputation as I have has been made by claiming that the current obsession with electoral turnout (percentage wise) is a side issue to wider issues about voter engagement. I think if you read the research report "Voter Engagement and Young people" you will see this thread throughout the publication.

Further p. 49 of the AEM report makes this point explicitly:- "Of course, turnout is merely a health-check for democracy. Poor rates of electoral turnout - the focus of much media attention in the media - are a symptom rather than a cause of society losing interest in the structures of representative democracy. Accordingly attention should be focused on improving the relationship between electors and elected rather than on simply on increasing the proportions people who vote in elections."

So I'm amazed to have been criticized for an apparent narrow focus on turnout in the report. The report did pay it particular attention simply because so many of the submissions used turnout as their chief modus operandi in supporting or rejecting a change in the law. In fact I don't think there is a single issue presented to the Commission that is not explored in some detail in the report. I stand by the assertion that it represents the most comprehensive review of the age of electoral majority in Britain.

3) The Commission's report did not suggest maturity tests but again felt it needed to engage with the general topic since so many of the pro (and especially anti) change submissions laboured the point.

4) I think it's disingenuous to point to the booster sample of 15-19 year olds and say that it's the sole piece of evidence used for the reports ultimate findings. As I said to Alex yesterday, "there are good methodological grounds for supposing that the booster sample of 15-19 year olds in the poll of 1267 respondents are representative of that sub-section of the population. Whereas with the best will in the world self-submitters would tend to come disproportionately from those particularly exercised one way or the other. The submissions were not ignored and there were several impressive arguments on both sides".

I am unaware of any political opinion poll that has had this type of "young people" booster before but would be grateful if you point out a more representative sample to me. If used in isolation I agree this poll would be insufficient evidence on which to base a set of results but my point here is that it was not. I would point out that public opinion on the age of candidature seemed out of step with the Commission's recommendation but after analysing the case for and against change the recommendation to lower the minimum age of candidature was made

In conclusion, I suppose what I'm saying is this. Feel free to disagree with the recommendations of the report, feel free to lobby for change regardless of the report but please concede that it was the genuine consequence of a comprehensive (rather than narrow) consideration of all the evidence presented and obtained. I don't think questioning the professional integrity of those involved in the report is helpful. All evidence was considered and commented upon in the report, and yet some of the criticism that I've seen since beggars belief.

I probably ought to retire from further public pronouncements at this point; not least because I feel that I'm dangerously close to losing one of the key audiences for the forthcoming Liberal Democrat book (Neither Left Nor Right - the Liberal Democrats and the Electorate - Manchester University Press). I will continue to read both of your blogs.

Andrew Russell 21 April 2004
For those academics who have e-mailed me to say that I should read the full report please note that I did before initiating this post.
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