Saturday, 4 May 2013

Let's pay the people to vote

Another election; another poor turnout. 

In this week's county council elections the turnout was barely above 30%, not that we should be surprised. Four years earlier when the same seats were contested the turnout was again only 39.2%. In the local elections of 2011 the turnout was 42.6%. In fact the only recent local election with a turnout of over 50% was in 2010 when it coincided with the general election, and yet even for that general election the turnout was a fairly pitiful 65.1%. While this was an improvement on the 59.4% in 2001 and the 61.4% in 2005, it is still a long way short of the 77.7% in 1992. 

These figures should be worrying for Labour because it is the Labour Party that suffers disproportionately from differential turnout. At the last general election the average turnout in consistencies that returned Labour MPs was about 61%. For those electing Tories it was over 68%, and in one Conservative-held seat (Kenilworth and Southam) the turnout was a staggering 81%. Overall this means that approximately 10% more people vote in Tory-held seats than in Labour-held ones. This goes some way to explain why the Tories need a greater number of national votes to gain a parliamentary majority, and why with 24.6% more votes than Labour in 2010 they only won 19% more seats. 

It is partly this issue of differential turnout that allows the Tories to (falsely) portray the electoral system as being biased in favour of Labour, and thus to provide cover for their attempts to gerrymander the electoral system with policies like the recent one to equalize constituency sizes in terms of voter numbers. Of course their approach conveniently overlooks the other issue that damages Labour: the problem of voter non-registration in many urban areas. As a result there could be as many as an extra 10% of potential voters missing from the electoral roll in these predominantly Labour constituencies.

Taken in combination with the differential turnout problem, these figures suggest that the Labour vote may be over 20% below what it should be, which means that even at the 2010 election Labour's total vote should have matched that of the Tories at around 10.5 million votes, ceteris paribus. The question is, how many extra seats would this have yielded for Labour? I suspect not many as most of these missing votes are in safe Labour seats. Of course that suggests that the 19% extra seats that the Tories won in 2010 is entirely down to an electoral system that actually favours them, not one that penalizes them. So the big question is: how can this problem be rectified? 

So far most of the media analysis has concentrated on issues centred around political apathy. There are many causes for this malaise. The electoral system is clearly one. The combination of a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and a large number of safe seats clearly makes many voters feel that their vote is worthless. 

Another problem is of course the lack of voter/consumer choice. With elections dominated by swing voters in marginal seats there is a tendency for all three parties to converge on the "centre ground" and to steal each other's policies. As a result most of the potential remedies have focused on changes to the electoral system, of which the AV referendum was a prime example. 

Other solutions have focused on improving the ease of voting. Thus strategies for increasing the number of postal votes have been proposed, as well as making polling day a bank holiday or putting it on a weekend. So far, however, no-one really appears to have considered financial incentives, with the possible exception of implementing some form of lottery. Why? 

Perhaps because it seems to resemble a form or bribery reminiscent of the rotten boroughs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Yet politicians bribing the electorate is nothing new, old, or unusually. The tax cuts, privatizations and council house sell-offs under Thatcher in the 1980s were little more than bribes to a certain section of the electorate. In that sense they were truly insidious because they were selective and divisive rather than universal. They only benefited those with large incomes, spare cash or current tenure of council properties. Those who fell outside these groups were left out of the feeding frenzy. Doubtless some would argue that such a measure would run counter to the provisions of the Ballot Act of 1872, but if the "bribe" is merely conditional on voting and not on voting for a particular candidate or party, would that still be so? 

Of course the principal reason why paying people to vote has probably not been considered is the cost. To make it attractive enough to the potential voter each would need to be offered over £100. Yet with around 45 million potential voters the total cost could then be over £4.5bn. If this was only applied to general elections, though, it would still only equate to £900m per annum. That is peanuts for the UK government. Yet there is another solution that would cost nothing in nominal term. Use the shares the government already owns in the privatized banks. The total government stake in RBS and Lloyds TSB is currently valued (according to their FTSE-listed share price) at over £30bn. That is enough to fund a voter giveaway at the next six general elections. 

Earlier this year Lloyds TSB claimed it was close to being ready for privatization. Now RBS is saying the same. However it is highly likely that any share sale would need to be staggered over a number of years in order to get the best price. 

Nor is the idea of giving these shares away a new idea. This is an idea that was originally proposed by some LibDems a couple of years ago. Then in February there were reports that George Osborne may consider giving bank shares away to all taxpayers (does that include poor pensioners and the unemployed?) It is therefore only an additional small step to suggest that such a gift should be conditional in some way. So why not make it conditional on a citizen exercising their democratic right, nay duty, at the ballot box? Let us call it the citizen's dividend. 

It should be clear that while all may benefit from this idea, the Labour Party and Labour voters will benefit the most. A typical Labour voter is more likely to be incentivized to register on the electoral roll and to subsequently vote by a cash windfall of £100-£200 than is a merchant banker living in Surrey. And when they vote they are more likely to vote Labour in order to ensure that the policy would not be discontinued. If the Tories and LibDems copied Labour's policy then they would still lose out because of the greater benefit to Labour in terms of differential turnout. If they fail to support the idea then they risk the loss of even more votes to Labour. And then there are the economic benefits. Most of the shares will be sold on receipt, and the proceeds spend. The result will be an urgently needed fiscal stimulus for the economy, while the universality of the share allocation will help reduce inequality. So where is the political downside?

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