The case for weak politicians

A veteran MP is making the case for compulsory voting this week – but politicians need to realise that weak mandates are not always a bad thing.

Too often Westminster types decide what's really needed when it comes to voter engagement is an electorate that shows up on time and votes decisively one way or the other.

That outcome provides just one thing: a powerful government with an absolute mandate to do whatever it likes for five years.

But strength isn't always for the best, as the counter-arguments from two developments this week suggest…

Turnout: We need to know how much voters care

Wednesday sees Labour backbencher David Winnick put forward legislation which would make voting a 'civic obligation' – in which they face small sanctions like fines if they refuse.

His ten-minute rule bill, to be introduced in the Commons this Wednesday, is guaranteed not to go anywhere, but it will reignite the debate about how to improve  the way politics actually works in Britain.

"It won't alter the fact people could remain and probably will remain fairly cynical about politics," Winnick admitted.

"They could find various excuses – some might say parliament doesn't make the slightest difference, when we know that parliament makes all the difference in the world."

Calls for compulsory voting aren't new. The think-tank IPPR produced a report in 2006 arguing that it should be restricted to first-time voters in order to get them hooked on the habit.

Winnick would go further in a bid to achieve turnout rates of 95%-plus: the only way to get out of voting under his plan would be to write to local officials and give them an excuse for not bothering.

It's a long way from the argument made by Russell Brand that voters shouldn't bother showing up at the ballot box at all.

While Brand's logic would take Britain to a very dangerous place, Winnick's would at a stroke remove a useful barometer of public interest in politics.

The British public's mood on the issue swings – if it can be bothered at all – between memories of the soldiers who died so we could exercise our democratic rights and a deep disinterest in anything remotely political.

Invoking dead soldiers ignores an alternative interpretation: that they died exactly so that Brits could not bother to vote if they don't want to. Democracy is needed most when the choices are starkest; it's why turnout rocketed upwards to 85% in last year's Scottish independence referendum. It's also why it slumped at just 15% in the flawed police and crime commissioner elections.

Recent general elections back this up: of the last five elections 1992 was by far the most hotly contested, with nearly 80% of voters bothering to show up at polling stations. That fell in 1997 and slumped to under 60% in 2001, when New Labour's second landslide revealed a country stuck with a government that wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

In 2015, bookmaker Ladbrokes believes, turnout is likely to increase slightly to between 65% and 70%.

"I think it is quite plausible that the Greens, SNP and Ukip between them might be able to attract a few previous non-voters," Matthew Shaddick, Ladbrokes' head of political odds, writes on his blog.

"The fact that the outcome could well be very close should also motivate more people to turn up to the polling stations."

Turnout isn't a problem that needs fixing – it is a way of limiting politicians' mandates. And that is something to be preserved. It's up to ministers to win over voters, not march them to the ballot booth.

MPs' mandate: Better weak than strong

Winnick's debate follows a claim by ComRes' Andrew Hawkins that some MPs could be elected with the backing of just one in six voters.

He's identified four constituencies which could see the elected MP's share of the vote slip to under 25%. If 2010 turnout levels are taken into account, that means only 16% of constituents would have actually elected their member of parliament.

This makes a mockery of the first-past-the-post system, Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society argues.

"When you have multiple parties in contention for some seats, first-past-the-post starts to look less like an electoral system and more like a lottery," she told the Independent.

But falling mandate levels might actually be good news for British democracy, which is stuck with the current electoral system for a generation after the alternative vote referendum defeat in 2011.

That's because having lots of parties competing for a single seats indicates more competition: three- or even four-way marginal constituencies are much, much better for voters than the hundreds of constituencies where the winner is already guaranteed as a virtual shoe-in.

An MP who feels weak in their seat will undoubtedly work harder because their job security is directly dependent on it. Yet again, a weak mandate isn't necessarily a bad thing.

There will be a lot of calls for reform and cries of concern as this long election campaign progresses – but not all of them will be justified. Experts, commentators, the public and MPs should all remember one thing: the only thing worse than a weak politician is an excessively powerful one.