Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-48)



  Q40  Mr Weir: We have touched on this question of turn-out, and there should be a concern about what appears to be a trend of lowering turn-outs in each election, particularly amongst younger people. Part of this is about coterminosity, but I wonder what innovations you think would increase turn-out, particularly amongst younger people.

  Dr Barrie: I do not think gimmicks are the answer. I do not think e-voting or things like that are necessarily the answer. You have to make people see politics as of relevance to them. You have to make them see that their vote counts. Again, if you go to a properly proportional system like STV, you can persuade people that their vote is more relevant countrywide. I would be very suspicious, and I think we have a unique triumvirate here agreeing. The three of us are all putting in submissions to an Electoral Commission against the all-postal pilot for the European elections for Scotland. There are all sorts of reasons for that. If you look at the last English by-election, in Lewisham, held under an all-postal ballot, the turn-out was 24%. In other words, the novelty is wearing off, and I do not think any of these gimmicks are of any use. You must interest people in the political process. Also, you should have the vote at 16.

  Councillor McInnes: I agree with the first part of Derek's answer. I do not think gimmicks work. I think clarity is very important, that people can easily see that they are electing a local representative. It falls upon all of us—and perhaps we are failing as political parties in getting issues that are relevant, not just people feeling that their vote counts but that we are dealing with issues that they really care about and thereby encouraging them to make that effort to walk to the polling station and vote. I do not think all-postal ballots and e-voting would make a significant difference.

  Mr Thoms: In terms of engaging young people in politics in general, making it relevant is important, but actually the Children and Young People's Unit and the Youth Reporting Network produced a report last month that had very clear messages to parliamentarians, to government and to the media about how to engage with young people, about how to make them feel more interested in politics, and therefore to make the determination that they are going to vote. I think there should be greater choice around how people can vote. I am in favour of looking at ways that increase the accessibility of voting. A lot of the technological side of how voting can be done needs to be changed. A lot of electoral administration systems need to be changed. People should have much more flexibility about where they can vote, and how they can cast that vote. We are still very much in the dark ages in terms of an electoral administration system. If people felt that their vote actually counted, and they cast a vote to create an additional member, to have that choice about who they eventually they want to have as their member, or preferably to be single transferable vote that they create a range of people to elect from a constituency, that would engender far more interest in turning out to vote because it will actually count.

  Mrs Quinn: I am not absolutely sure that the method of voting, whether it is e-voting, postal or whatever, will encourage more young people to get involved. It is more to do with engagement, it is more to do with issues, it is more about them feeling that what is going on in their lives is important, and I think a lot of it is down to us as political parties to try and make sure that we engage as many young people as we can in the political process. Also, it is down to elected representatives and politicians to engage young people more in what we do, but in doing so, treat them with respect and not do gimmicky things because it is cool—those are the sort of words my daughter uses at the moment.

  Q41  Mr Sarwar: With this multi-ward system for council elections, we are going to have one system for electing our councillors, another system for electing Members of the Scottish Parliament, a third system for Westminster and a fourth system for the European Parliament. How is it going to help? Do you not think it will confuse people more than before. I have experienced during the Scottish Parliament election and the council elections that there are a lot of confused people who do not know how to vote. Do you think it will make it even more difficult for people?

  Councillor McInnes: Yes. I would disagree with what Grant said. I do not think lots of young people were keen to go and vote at the Scottish Parliamentary elections because it had a proportional aspect in it. Fewer voted than voted in the 2001 Westminster first past the post election. That is because they felt it was relevant to them, and they felt more engaged with Westminster perhaps, and the prime minister and who the prime minister was. So I think it comes back to issues, and I do not think that playing around with the voting method is actually going to affect turn-out, other than making it more confusing as to who you are going to elect and putting people off making the effort to go and vote.

  Mrs Quinn: In terms of turn-out, there are two issues. There is a growing cynicism and disengagement in politics and the political process, and we need to try and find ways to change that. I have not seen evidence that actually indicates that the method by which a person will vote is one of the reasons why turn-out has decreased. We have seen over a number of years that turn-out at elections is reducing, and it is no just a Scotland issue; it is becoming worldwide.

  Q42  Mr Duncan: Several of you have pointed, quite rightly, to the fact that you have to come forward with policies and issues that young people will engage with, but would you agree that electoral systems are also an important part of firing up turn-out? We talked earlier on about marginal constituencies where people are fired up to make a decision, but in the Scottish Parliament context, I wonder whether you agree with me that there is a perceived view that the way that PR has been set up, however we go through this electoral process, we are going to end up with an executive of roughly the same composition as we have now. Importantly, at constituency level, vis-a-vis EMs, very often you get a constituency member being overturned by the first on the list of EMs, so effectively constituents are faced with the same two personalities in a constituency but they are still both elected, and many of them say to me, "What was the point of going through that process anyway?"

  Dr Barrie: Currently, three of the first four were all elected. You have to go back to the system which makes all MSPs equal, and that is the single transferable vote. Going back to Mr Sarwar's question, I would simplify the electoral system by having STV for everything. But do not misjudge the voters; they are not quite as confused as you think. An awful lot of people deliberately give their second vote to the greens, because the greens campaign very strongly for that second vote, and people saw it as a second preference and so voted green. I would judge how people understand systems better after the London elections this year, because they are going to have the list for London and for Europe, they are going to have first past the post for the Local Government Assembly constituency member, they are going to have the additional member system for the top-up for the LGA and they are going to have you vote one of two for the Mayor of London, so four different systems all on the one day. My view would be, if Londoners can cope with it, Scots can probably cope with it as well.

  Q43  Mr MacDougall: Nobody has mentioned education yet, but is there a role for education? Can that be beefed up in some way? Can that make a difference? The point has been made, but I would not be under any illusion, because if you compare the Westminster turn-out with the Scottish Parliament turn-out, you ignore the reduction in the Scottish Parliament turn-out from the referendum about whether to have a Scottish Parliament and the enthusiasm there. I think there is a general loss of confidence in the public, not just in Scotland, or indeed in the UK, but in the world of politics, and it is how you restore the importance of democracy in young people's minds at the same time as we are trying to convince other countries why democracy is important. It flies in the face of that if our figures are going down and we are telling everybody else how wonderful it is. Does education have a role in this process?

  Mrs Quinn: Very much. My interest in politics and the political process came through the Modern Studies, which was one of the subjects I just loved; I could not get enough information in relation to it. Children are being taught more and more about environmental issues, which I was not taught about. If through our education process we can try and have some awareness raising and talk to young people about the importance of the democratic process, I think that would be superb.

  Q44  Mr Carmichael: If, as you all seem to agree, the important thing is for politicians to fire up the imagination of the electorate and go out there and grab them and shake them and have their attention undivided, is it possible, do you think, that we have wasted the last hour and ten minutes? Have we contributed to that process?

  Mr Thoms: If you change the electoral system to allow more people to vote, and make their vote count through the single transferable vote, then yes, you will change the nature of it. The current systems, particularly for constituency seats, which predominate in the Scottish Parliament as much as in Westminster, leave it to the party chiefs. Look at marginal seats. Increased turn-out is not just because their vote counts, but because parties put resources into those seats, so there is a dialogue taking place, people talking to you on the street. Quite often people will say in that constituency they will receive more contact from political parties than maybe an adjacent seat would ever hear from a politician because it is not regarded as winnable by any one other party. That is the system which we have created in this country, and it is no wonder people feel distant from the political process, that they do not feel they can influence it in any way, and therefore their vote does not really matter. These are the results that happen all the time and nothing really changes.

  Q45  Mr Weir: I agree with what Derek said about gimmicks. It does occur to me there is also a question of choice, and we should not say we have to fire up the electorate because we have all to some extent failed to do so. Should we not be looking at different choices and offering a range of voting options to try and increase the turn-out, whether it is all postal or all e-voting or whatever, but give a range of choices to people how they vote to encourage them to vote?

  Councillor McInnes: I think we have moved forward a great deal in postal voting, for example, and I think the fact that it is now very easy to get an absent vote is a good thing and something a lot more Scots are using than have ever done before. It is something all the parties have tapped into and been flexible enough to use and to encourage people to get absent votes. That is a good example, but the choice is still there and I think choice is always good. That is why we have very serious concerns about the European elections, because it is removing choice. A lot of people carry out their civic duty by going to vote, that is something that is very important to them, and it is part of the democracy in this country.

  David Hamilton: I was wondering about the European elections. Is it not by a voting system which you are espousing? I know it is not STV, but it is also a system where people vote for the slate and they vote for the party. It lacks individuals. That to me is a major issue which has been reported by at least three of the parties sitting there. It disconnects.

  Mr Carmichael: That is nonsense.

  Q46  David Hamilton: The position surely must be that we must find a mechanism which can be agreed to by all, and that system should be based on the fact that there is a constituency link or a ward link with the electorate, because it is the electorate we are talking about. My question is this: should we have compulsory voting? Do you agree with that?

  Dr Barrie: I do not agree with compulsory voting at all. If you were to introduce it, you would have to do what the late David Penhaligon said: you would have to put "none of the bastards" at the bottom as a choice.

  Mr Thoms: The European elections are not conducted by single transferable vote. It is multi-member, first past the post. It is true that if you have compulsory voting, you should have the option "none of the above". Things like that should be at least piloted and tested. Part of this discussion should be looking more at what the Government has been looking at, which I welcome; it is looking at how to change our electoral systems. We keep talking about turn-out because that is the hot topic of the day, without actually focusing on what we are doing to change the infrastructure for how elections are carried out in this country. If we made changes there, we might have more people coming out. It takes a bit of effort and it takes resources, and at the moment it is just not happening.

  Mrs Quinn: I think there should be a choice in terms of how people vote, though I disagree with individuals here in relation to the European election. Without being contentious, look at the number of people that vote on a Saturday night for Pop Idol; all they have to do is pick up the phone. It is one system and a lot of people use that to vote. If it is the case that people are not coming out to vote, we need to find a way to get them engaged and involved.

  Q47  Chairman: What about compulsory voting?

  Mrs Quinn: I do not think so.

  Councillor McInnes: No.

  Dr Barrie: Can I add a point on the European system? What is wrong with it is that it is a closed list and it is the parties who decide the order on it. A system that would be much better is an open list, where the voters not only picked the party but they picked the people within their own party—let them choose between, let us say, a euro-sceptic conservative and a euro-phobic conservative, if there is any such thing left.

  Q48  Mr Lyons: Going back to the issue of engaging with young people, how serious are you about extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds? Where do you stand on that?

  Dr Barrie: If you are old enough to fight for your country and old enough to marry, then you are old enough to vote.

  Councillor McInnes: It is not something we have really considered.

  Mr Thoms: We are totally committed to reducing the voting age to 16, and also to reducing the age of people standing as candidates. Turn-out is not just about young people; the middle aged group 45-54 was the biggest drop in turn-out in this election in Scotland.

  Mrs Quinn: We do not have a view at the moment about the reduction in the voting age.

  Chairman: Can I thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for your full and frank answers today. If there is anything you wish to add, please feel free to do so now. Thank you for your attendance, and your evidence will be very helpful to us when we come to compile our report.

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