Home Secretary, on these ballot papers they are really spoiling us!


On the shambles that was the Police and Crime Commissioner elections

I can’t say the earth moved for me in this election campaign. Looking at the horrifically low voter turnout and the number of deliberately spoilt ballot papers – or rather the social media chatter from people who said that they were going to deliberately spoil their ballot papers, the PCC elections were a sign all is not well with our democracy. The challenge for politicians is how to interpret those signs.

I’m not going to go into the full details of what was wrong about the PCC elections in general – simply because Milena Popova has pretty much covered most of it in her blogpost Let’s go spoil some ballots! – Thus I recommend reading that post.

What I want to look at here is how politicians and beyond are taking from these election results, and what happened locally in my neck of the woods in Cambridgeshire.

“Deposit for #pcc elections: £5k. Cost of#pcc elections: £100m. The look in Theresa May’s face re turnout: priceless”

Or words to that effect for everyone that spoilt their ballot paper? Are we on track for the lowest turnout for an election in UK history? Depressing if we are, but given that elections that involve anything to do with politics – for example local government to trade union roles – are low, what does this say about the whole process of voting? While the beauty of casting a vote in a secret ballot is in its simplicity – especially in a first past the post model, is there a better method of seeking the consent of the people?

In my short time on Twitter (coming up to 2 years), this is the first time where I have seen people encouraging others to go out and spoil their ballot papers. My sense is that it won’t be the last either. What will politicians take from the significant and very public rise in the number of spoilt ballot papers? While the percentages may not sound high, the numbers – even on a very low turnout – do. When you hear that the number of spoilt ballot papers is measured in the thousands rather than the tens or hundreds, you know there’s something amiss.

I don’t blame the grassroots activists in political parties

They have to react to the draw that they are given. Being in a political party inevitably means having to make compromises and doing things you don’t necessarily like or agree with. I’m sure there were those in political parties that did not agree with a whole host of aspects of the PCC elections. Campaigning in darkest November for a start. Why would anyone want to have a conversation about politics, holding open their front door to canvassers and door knockers when it is freezing and dark outside? Why would anyone but the hardiest of political activist want to go out in the cold rain in the traffic-clogged streets to persuade people to vote in elections that no one has heard of? So fair play to those that did.

The blame for getting the timing basics all wrong lies in Westminster and Whitehall. Coalition ministers should never have given the green light for a November election – and as professional politicians they all should have known better. Parliament should never have given its consent either – whether by not debating with a following vote, or meekly passing through the legislation that allowed it. Given the amount of money spent versus the turnout, I would like to think that the Home Affairs Select Committee will want to call ministers to explain what happened – and in particular what they would have done differently knowing what they know now.

The infantilisation of politics in the general public’s world

Some of the attributed comments to politicians from all of the three main parties have been utterly depressing. What I’d like to see from senior politicians is an acknowledgement that the low turnout shoots to pieces the legitimacy any victor may claim – irrespective of party. I don’t want to hear politicians blaming the media as if the institution is some insurmountable barrier. I want them to see the bigger picture. Gloria De Piero – former TV presenter and now Labour MP started doing an interesting piece of work, very publicly asking why politicians are hated. In that interview, she separated out the difference between a free-thinking backbench MP and senior politicians bound by conventions of collective responsibility. Not wanting to be seen to be split, this leads to MPs talking in soundbites and lines to take – especially in the broadcast media.

“Well it’s not exactly advertised at the job centre”

That quotation was taken from De Piero’s report linked above. Locally in Cambridgeshire I kept tabs on who was being selected by the main three parties. But that’s what happens when you choose to keep tabs on your local political activists (of whom I’m incredibly grateful that there are enough of them on Twitter).

Having just picked up the results for Cambridgeshire, the (expected) winning candidate Sir Graham Bright for the Conservatives won with only 4.1% of first preference votes (out of all those eligible) and 5.5% of votes (first & second preferences) overall. That’s not a mandate by any means. Turnout was 15.75%. That means over 84% were completely unmoved by what was going on – or that not nearly enough effort was made to inform people that there was an election was going on.

I’ve not met Sir Graham, but the interaction between him and Richard Taylor, one of the very few people in Cambridgeshire to scrutinise in detail what was going on during campaigning, doesn’t fill me with confidence. In fact, none of the candidates filled me with enough confidence to overcome my huge doubts about the principle of having directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners – hence spoiling my ballot paper too. I did not want to legitimise what I felt was a flawed policy. Yet at the same time I wanted to make an active statement (beyond blogging or tweeting) about my viewpoint.

Party Politics is failing

…and the PCC elections provided evidence of more symptoms of this failure. In order to turn things around, senior politicians in my view need to acknowledge that it is failing and recognise that turning it around requires relinquishing power and control that, institutionally they’ve got used to having.

Interacting as I do with people who are members of several political parties – not just the big three, one of the biggest barriers anecdotally is selection processes. There’s something about selection processes that seems to squeeze out the independent free thinkers in favour of parachuted candidates and clones manufactured by party machines. Mark Ferguson’s post about the Labour selection process in Rotherham spoke volumes.

Imagine being a member in a safe Labour constituency, with a retiring MP. Your best opportunity to influence Parliament comes a round only every 20/30 years by selecting the next Labour MP in an open ballot.

Now imagine having that choice taken from you, either by having the party impose a candidate against your wishes, or by giving you a shortlist that doesn’t really give you a choice at all.

I see why people would be angry.

I’d be angry.

Recall that Dr Tony Wright said at the conference I was at a week ago that 1% of the population are members of a political party, but that 1% effectively decide who can and cannot get the chance to stand for election with a reasonable chance of getting elected. (See here under the sub-heading What of political parties?)

So…now what?

One line of questioning I’d be interested in political parties to look at is:

– Are you interested in party politics? (If so, why, if not why not?)

– What would politicians need to do differently to get you more interested in politics?

– What would political parties need to do differently as organisations in order for you to either become engaged and/or to join?

I don’t think any of the parties or organisations that are interested in politics are in any situation to say “This is what they need to do differently”. This is because as a body politic, a comprehensive co-ordinated and in-depth listening exercise has not yet been done. The results of that listening exercise would then inform who needs to make what changes. Is it a grassroots campaigning issue? Is it how politicians behave? Is it a problem with structures of political parties? Is it something about Westminster and Whitehall structures? Is it something exogenous to political institutions – i.e. the lobbying power of vested interests that skew politics away from the needs of ordinary people? Will there be differences due to things like geography (e.g. rural/urban, north/south), income, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, health etc?

Food for thought.



4 thoughts on “Home Secretary, on these ballot papers they are really spoiling us!

  1. For me, the problem joining a political party is that no political party reflects all my views. Labour usually comes closest, but with sufficient policies I don’t agree with that I wouldn’t comfortably fit as a member – I tend to have a problem with being told what to do, and with keeping my mouth shut about it. The problem with policies has usually come down to the fact I’m a bleeding heart liberal with a defence background – I don’t meet most people’s expectations, being very ‘left wing’ in some areas and very ‘right wing’ in others (though it’s more nuanced than the labels allow), and ‘most people’ are what parties tailor their messages for.

    More recently the problems with policy have hit closer to home; as a disabled person disability benefit policy has become hugely important to me, but when you poke deeply enough at Labour to find their policies, you find they aren’t that different to Tory party policies, and, while the Lib-Dem rank and file have mandated opposition to the cuts, the parliamentary party marches to the ConDem tune. That’s the three mainstream parties ruled out, I don’t live in NI, Wales or Scotland, I’m left with the lunatic left or the rabid right, neither of which are happening, or the Greens, who appeal to some degree, but have foreign and defence policies I just can’t live with. I’ve actually become far more politically active, but in a way that confirms none of the parties are for me.

  2. I broadly agree with what you’re saying, especially about party politics. But one point you’ve made does stick in my throat a bit. I’ve seen it elsewhere too. I know that we don’t usually have elections in November, and there has been a lot of people using this as an explanation/excuse for the low turnout. I have a couple of problems with this.

    Firstly – how pathetically disengaged do you have to be to be put off by the dark/cold. Polling stations are well spread out in the UK and usually don’t involve a massive trek. Even in the dark and cold, it’s hardly the greatest imposition. I see the fact that the electorate can be so easily put off voting as yet another symptom of the malaise you speak of, rather than a valid explanation.

    The same is true, though less so, of activists doing the campaigning. They spend a lot longer outside in the adverse weather, so it is more of a problem, but even so its hardly a catastrophic one.

    The thing that suggests to me this may be a red herring is the US presidential elections. They’re always in November and they always get a good turnout. In a lot of the US October/November weather is worse than in the UK at this time, and yet activists still get out there, people still vote. But then, they’re engaged in that contest….

  3. “how pathetically disengaged do you have to be to be put off by the dark/cold. Polling stations are well spread out in the UK and usually don’t involve a massive trek”

    I’ve just checked, mine is about 1,400m away, that’s further than I can manage in one direction on a good day, never mind both ways on what was a pretty foul day, the polling station it replaces was only 800m away, but all of it on steep hills, again making it impractical for many people to access on foot. There are plenty of people out there with toddlers, or with mobility limitations (and for that matter two wheelchair users I know who did try to vote got to their polling stations to find that they weren’t just inaccessible, but that no thought whatsoever had been given to accessibility, a third didn’t even try because she already knew the building was inaccessible). A non-disabled, politically-active friend didn’t vote because she left for work before the polls opened and got back after they shut, something likely true for a fair proportion of people in the commuter belt.

    If my position on the ballot was ‘I oppose the politicisation of policing,” then what options were open to me to register that opposition? A vote for any candidate legitimised the position. My thought on spoiling my ballot was that there was a very high probability that it would just be discounted as has happened at other elections, but in fact the sheer numbers spoilt with views similar to my own allowed that to register for once, that left me with abstaining in the hope of weakening the legitimacy of the poll, which has also clearly happened. It was the first time I have abstained since 18, and several other friends have confirmed they took a similar position, one abstaining for the first time in 40 years.

    “None of the above” isn’t “pathetically disengaged”, it is, however, a clear message that politics has failed to accomodate the views of the voter.

    1. If you’re put off by location, or knowing of poor accessibility or problems or with the vote itself, that’s totally not pathetically disengaged! I didn’t mean to say that.

      What I was saying was that if you were going to vote but didn’t SIMPLY because it’s November and wet and rainy (as is the implication of a lot of criticism of the timing of the election) then that’s pathetically disengaged.

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