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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Government say means justify the end

The decision by the Labour Government to ignore the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and its devastating critique of the postal voting pilots last June again calls into question the democratic credentials of some Ministers.

The Electoral Commission report on the local and European elections in June highlighted incidents where tens of thousands of ballot papers went astray and printers were unable to cope with the tight timetable. They said that largely unsubstantiated allegations of fraud were compounded by widespread voter confusion, and these problems had undermined public confidence.

Yet the Government still clings to the hope that postal voting will increase turnout and seem prepared to ignore the evidence that their present approach undermines the integrity of the democratic process. It is almost as if the fact that we are an established democracy innoculates us from the sort of fraud and abuse prevalent in other countries. It does not and the Government needs to acknowledge that and act accordingly.

The fact is that turnout was variable around the UK and that increases in the number of people voting was also evident in areas that did not have a postal voting pilot. Oliver Heald, the Conservative shadow constitutional affairs secretary, is absolutely right when he says that: "The government's reckless fiddling with the electoral system has undermined the integrity of Britain's electoral system. There is a risk that the kind of intimidation and fraud that was common in the 18th and early 19th centuries becomes widespread in the future."

It is time that the Government recognised that there is no easy way to increase turnout at elections. Turnout is directly related to confidence in the political system and in the politicians who operate within it. Changing the voting system so as to ensure that the outcome reflects the way that people vote is a start but we also need to find ways to rebuild trust in the politicians themselves. That will not be easy and it could be argued that the relentless scrutiny of a cynical mass media, obsessed with personality, scandal and negativity, makes it almost impossible.

This is not a rant against the media as they have a job to do as well. It is an acknowledgement that in learning to work within the framework the media have created, politicians are losing touch with what is important and are putting image ahead of substance. In ignoring the recommendations of the Electoral Commission the Government is also falling into that trap.

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