Guestpost: Susan Dalgety on how Scotland could be like Malawi if it copied Australia

This week, the blog will be focusing on some of the wider issues raised by last week’s local elections – the voting system, the impact of apparent Alphabetis, the low representation of women (and others).  To kick us off, a fantastic guest post on low turnout and compulsory voting from Susan Dalgety.  

Susan is an independent communications adviser, focusing on public policy campaigns, gender and international development. She was a Labour councillor in Edinburgh (1992 – 99) and Jack McConnell’s chief press officer during much of his time as First Minister. 

I was following the 2012 council election results on Twitter last Friday as I simultaneously proofed a project proposal for training women candidates for Malawi’s 2014 local elections.

I don’t need my crystal ball to predict that the turnout in Malawi in two years time will be much higher than Scotland’s was on 3 May, with less than 40 per cent of Scots exercising their hard won right to vote. Let’s not even mention the dire 32 per cent average that our English neighbours managed.

Last time Malawians went to the polls in 2009, the turn out was 76 per cent. Stop and think about that for a moment.

Most of Malawi’s 14 million population don’t have a bike, let alone a car. Women and girls spend much of their day walking miles to collect water. And there is no long and proud tradition of multi-party democracy, as there is here in Scotland. Malawi’s first democratic elections were less than twenty years ago.

Yet more than three quarters of the adult population played their part in their 2009 elections– and there is nothing to suggest that the turnout for the 2014 elections will be any less.

By contrast, in last year’s Scottish Parliament elections, only half of eligible Scots (50.4 per cent) managed to drag themselves along to the polling station – probably moaning every inch of the way about the weather, that they were missing Corrie, that all politicians are the same, so why bother.

But at least they made the effort. What about the other half who couldn’t be bothered?

A healthy dose of voter cynicism is essential in any functioning democracy, and as a non-driver a rainy day does make voting that bit more miserable, but seriously folks, voting is our civic duty.

How hard can it be to turn up once every few years to play your part in choosing the people who will oversee the economy, run the health service, manage schools, collect our household rubbish – and send our young men and women to war.

Opting out of voting is opting out of adult life. The women of Malawi understand that. Even as they are squeezing dirty water out of the ground to make porridge for their children, they know that the democratic process will – eventually – bring them piped water and sewage drains. Voting will change their life.

And it changes our lives too. Remember Thatcher? The “new dawn” of 1 May, 1997? As for the #indyref – a vote there has the potential to change history.

So how do we get people back to the ballot box? No point in depending on the political parties – they have failed. They have, largely, given up on the people who need a bit more persuasion to vote, preferring instead to concentrate on getting out their “core” vote.

We need to make voting compulsory. Just like paying council tax, sending children to school and buying a TV licence. We might only ever watch Sky Sport on our iPads, but 95 per cent of us stump up £142.50 a year to pay for the BBC, largely without complaining.

Imagine if election turnout was 95 percent.

Well it can be – it is in Australia where failure to vote is subject to a fine. Since the national introduction of compulsory voting in 1924, turnout has been over 90 per cent at every election.

In exchange, voting is made as easy as possible. Elections are held on a Saturday, postal ballots are widespread and you can vote in any state polling place if you are away from home.

And compulsory voting doesn’t oblige people to support candidates or parties – spoiling a ballot paper is always an option as the wag from Edinburgh’s Morningside showed last week. “I hate you all” this disgruntled citizen scrawled across his – or her ballot paper. But at least he – or she – took part.

The positives of compulsory voting far outweigh the negatives.

Our parliaments and council chambers will truly reflect the will of the people – for better or worse.

Ministers and council executives will have to be much more thoughtful about policy and much better at service delivery.

And political parties can campaign on the issues rather than simply worrying about getting people out to vote.

So what are we waiting for – we have nothing to lose but our apathy.

23 thoughts on “Guestpost: Susan Dalgety on how Scotland could be like Malawi if it copied Australia

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  5. I think Susan has raised a brilliant issue about resposibility in a civic society -witness over 82% of citizens voting in the French elections – a true example of citizenship of people living in a Republic and puting republican ideals into practice -oh I forgot you dont live in a republic do you? Ah well

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  9. Compulsory voting is a superficial response to a much more fundamental problem. I wonder how enthusiastic Malawians will be in 50 years time? BTW the 2012 Edelman Australian Trust Barometer found that 60% of Australians do not trust government leaders to tell the truth and business was trusted more than Government.

  10. I’m not sure I’d go for this but I can understand why some people think we should. I personally think that when some constituencies return turn-outs of (well under) 50% the result there should be declared null and void and they simply shouldn’t have representation. I’m sure that would inspire the Parties to get the votes out.

    Glasgow is one of the worst areas in this respect and as I said on an earlier thread too many of them were paying more attention to the Gerbil murder trial in recent weeks than to politics.

    • Don’t worry, Jo. If you actually took the vote from some of the dilettantes who continually bore us about why they don’t want to vote they would soon strike another dramatic pose in the opposite corner.
      Having spent most of my free time and most of my disposable income for much of my adult life pounding streets, knocking doors, delivering leaflets, putting up posters (and taking them down – when you’ve just been beaten, not a lot of fun) going to meetings, standing outside polling stations, running jumble sales etc etc etc may I say that any half-arsed notion that voting and politics does nothing is vividly contradicted by the fact that Scotland stands on the brink of voting itself independent.

      The slide in voting figures is largely due to the continuous malevolent testament of the media and the tabloid press which routinely describes all elected politicians as self-serving free loaders when in fact the majority of them, of all parties, are perfectly decent people doing an honest job according to their lights.
      And the unpaid, volunteer political activist is the salt of the earth.
      And I’d rather sit at a party with Tory, Labour, LibDem etc activists than some of the ****ers pontificating here.

      • Dave I admire your commitment. I would never not vote no matter how disillusioned I become and especially right now. With those of us out there actually working and paying our way faced with rising costs from transport (to get to and from work) to food and domestic fuel bills I can only see the situation worsening. The Herald claims today that unemployment in Scotland will worsen still between now and 2015. Part of me wondered was this just another attempt to scare people away from going after independence.

        Then again, if we get it, what sort of benefits system will we have? Will the usual sorts continue to be catered for in the paying of their rents by the rest of us and their other benefits? I don’t mean the genuinely unemployed here incidentally and I don’t mean women leading households where marriages/partnerships have broken up because that happens. I mean all the chancers with one wean and more where there has never been a father present ever and the taxpayer has provided the house and the benefits to support them. Some of those families are into the third generation of that sort of no-father-present culture. There are swathes of areas out there where that is the norm.

        I welcome plans to reduce Corportation Tax because that will bring investment and create jobs but I worry that income tax levels in an independent Scotland will need to rise significantly to fund many of the hangers on who have never done a day’s work in their lives. For as soon as anyone suggests higher taxes people will think, “No chance, I’m staying in the Union!” You will find Dave that many of the hangers on are the very ones who “canny be arsed” going to vote. Why should they? Many are doing very nicely thanks. And those of us who want something better for Scotland can only look at these people and shake our heads. It makes me very angry.

  11. Sounds good in principle, but doubtful that it would work in practice.

    For starters, what happens to those people who either decide not to vote or perhaps call in a “sickie”? Do you jail them? Fine them? Humiliate them publicly by calling them a Lib Dem voter? (sorry, couldn’t resist).

    Joanne is right. Give people a reason to vote. Parties should be made to work for their votes, by getting out and knocking on doors, rather than simply for photocalls.

    • I’m hearing what everyone is saying here with some dismay. Democracy is, after all, a two way process. It’s rather convenient for us all to blame the parties for low turn-outs and not giving us anything to vote for ergo we don’t vote and sit back and demand they change their ways.

      Democracy belongs to us not the parties. They and their approach to managerial politics and to maximising the ability to get their vote out – and no one elses- is part of the problem. But that is because we have allowed the parties to boss how elections are run and the terms upon which they are.

      Some years ago, I spoke at an Electoral Commission event which was looking at how to improve turnout and how we reformed the running of elections. I proposed that we start again, we could no longer improve our franchise by little plasters here and there but had to start again with a blank sheet that looked to the future and built in electronic voting etc. Every electoral administrator, returning officer, assessor etc agreed and offered other ideas about how to do it. Then all four parties made their contribution and every single one of them wanted to go back to voting in person, at poll places, by people registered once etc. Ie they wanted to contain and manage democracy to suit them rather than the people.

      And we are letting them do so by passively waiting for them to do something about our inertia, apathy etc. Only we can change the state of our democracy and if we won’t do so willingly, then compulsory voting is one of a range of things that would compel us to take on board our responsibilities here.

      • Exactly.
        As I said in a post already I have no idea why in this day and age my vote isn’t immediately registered as I make it which would allow the developing result to be publicly available. I can see no reason why this shouldn’t be the case

      • I’m not against the idea in principle. I always vote, even if the choices are unpalatable.

        But to get people to vote is difficult, especially since what you expected is not what you get – and that applies to some SNP policies as well.

        What changes when there is a new party in power? So far with the SNP we’ve had a council tax freeze and an improved NHS. But apart from that what has really changed for the normal voter? Nothing to be honest. We even have the SNP copying Westminster parties with cosying up to Murdoch.

        The politicians are responsible for the apathy among voters, and the expenses scandal made things worse. Nor is the SNP immune, with Alex Neil making a tidy profit “within the rules”.

        The behaviour of politicians has to change first, then we might see more interest in voting.

  12. I chose not to vote as my democratic option. I could have gone to the polling station to spoil my ballot but I took a leaf out of the candidates handbook. Only one candidate knocked on my door. The others sent leaflets of varying degrees of quality. One candidate couldn’t even be bothered to do that.

    None of the candidates were offering policies that I was able to support. None of the parties were putting up enough candidates to win control of the council. Why should I encourage them?

    This was the first time that I have not voted since 1968. I was disappointed that there was nothing worth voting for. That is the real problem. There will be no difference in Edinburgh because I did not vote. The SNP and Labour will still argue black is white. The LibDems will still say that they are an alternative. The Conservatives will still say they are listening. The Greens will still say that we must change our lifestyles.

    Nothing has changed since 1968 except I have become bored with them all.

    Perhaps instead of compulsory voting we should have compulsory representation of the wishes of the electorate instead of the “party line”.

  13. Nonsense! Make me vote and I’ll wreck the ballot. Give me something to vote for, politics that involves me rather than a few wee parties wi not as much as a fag paper of difference between them and clearly an intent to line their own pockets and those of their mates at oor expense.

    And make a difference. Has our vote ever once made a difference to foreign policy? Did we vote for 100 year PFI contracts? Did we vote for mass unemployment and austerity? Do keep up. Take a wee peek at what Bercow has to say in the Guardian.

    Stick tae communicating hen. But first, let somebody else tell ye the message after some analysis rather then the knee jerk easy answers that jist wullnae work cos they’ve niver anything tae dae wi the problem ye didnae bother tae ascertain.

  14. Sorry…compulsory

  15. I have always said compulsary voting should be brought in, and votes for 16-17 yr olds.
    Why not get your dad on a guestpost about his time in local government.(He was a good man)

  16. i agree entirely – and more so

    As I pushed my voting slip into that box on Thursday i wondered why I wasn’t pushing it into a scanner that would immediately register my vote and preferences. That way a running total of the state of play could be available continuously. Imagine the political activity of an evening if this was the case with teams huirtling about trying to get all of their support out to the polls.

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