Voter engagement in the UK - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

8  Conclusion

187. A significant reason for low levels of engagement with elections in the UK is broader dissatisfaction with the UK's political culture. This cannot be resolved by moving elections to the weekend, or making it possible for people to vote on their mobile phone. Many witnesses have argued that, although certain specific proposals will have a positive effect on registration rates and levels of voter turnout, the broader question of voter engagement requires a deeper and more long-term response.[421] Will Brett, Head of Media at the Electoral Reform Society, told us:

    We need a combination of public policy, institutional reform and cultural change, all driven by a relentless focus on what will re-engage the public in politics.[422]

Similarly, the Association of Electoral Administrators believed that:

    voter turnout is largely a political matter and that logistical or administrative changes are unlikely to have a significant effect on increasing turnout.[423]

Unlock Democracy stated:

    Low turnout is fundamentally a political, not an administrative problem. If voters do not believe that their vote will make a difference, or that there is a genuine choice, they will continue to shun the ballot box. The remedy for low turnout must be a serious programme of political reform designed to reconnect politics with the electorate.[424]

Sheffield for Democracy stated that there was no "silver bullet" solution to the current issues around voter engagement and broader political engagement, but that the central issue was one of trust—in the electoral system, in parties and in politicians.[425]

188. The recent referendum on independence for Scotland, where turnout was 84.6%,[426] showed that there is clearly scope for greater levels of participation at the polls. The Electoral Commission noted the significance of the referendum in a written submission to us, which stated: "as we have seen in Scotland, when voters are enthused by an issue or campaign, they retain the capacity to turnout and engage in the electoral process in record numbers."[427] This is a lesson that needs to be applied to other elections if voter engagement is to improve.

189. When we spoke to the Minister for the Constitution about what needed to be done to improve voter engagement, he told us:

    In my view, government, politicians, electoral administrators and civil society all have a role to play in engaging people in our democracy. As the Government specifically, I see the responsibility as ensuring that the structures and mechanisms are in place to enable people to participate in the democratic process. We are committed to ensuring that everyone who is eligible to do so has the opportunity to register to vote. [428]

He went on to say:

    There is no one quick fix. If there was we would have implemented this already. That is why our plan to engage voters involves politicians and civil society organisations but also involves organisations like UK Youth and Scotland Youth who have a national reach and can engage young people, not to mention some other innovative organisations like Bite the Ballot who we have been working with. So there is no quick fix to this. You are absolutely right to say that in a democracy as old as ours we should be expecting higher levels of voter engagement and participation, and it is incumbent on all of us to make sure that we help deal with it.[429]

190. We have outlined a number of proposals that we believe could have a positive effect on voter engagement, in terms of both registration rates and turnout at elections, but there is no single change that will suddenly re-engage the electorate. The problem of low voter engagement is to a large extent a manifestation of broader political disengagement and dissatisfaction with politics in the UK. The recent referendum on independence for Scotland, where 84.5% of the registered electorate turned out, shows that people will vote if they are engaged and believe their vote will contribute to making a difference, but substantial cultural and structural changes are necessary to convince the public that registering to vote and participating at other elections is worthwhile. This work must go hand in hand with renewing the public's faith in the UK's political institutions. This is a task that requires the support of political parties, individual politicians, electoral administrators and the Government. On the broader issues there may also be scope for the establishment of a new forum—such as a Commission for Democracy—specifically to address these issues over the long term.

191. Political parties, individual politicians and the Government must take action to re-engage the electorate. We call on each political party to include plans in its manifesto for the 2015 general election for improving voter engagement—in terms of voter registration and turnout—as well as how they will work to rebuild the trust of the public in politics more broadly. Specific proposals that should be considered for inclusion in party manifestos include:

·  The civic and legal duty of all citizens to register to vote

·  Registering to vote closer up to or on the day of an election

·  Online voting

·  Extended or weekend voting, or a public holiday for voting

·  Compulsory voting

·  All-postal voting

·  Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds

192. With the date of the next, and future elections, set out in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, it is possible for the Government and other political parties to consider what plans they wish to make in this area and consult with the Civil Service on them so they are ready for implementation immediately after the general election.

193. Throughout this inquiry we have made a particular effort to take into account the views of the public, and the evidence we have received from individual members of the public. It is now for the public to dictate to the parties what changes they expect to be implemented after the next general election. This should be done throughout the election period and—crucially—at the ballot box.

421   Written evidence from Professor Matt Flinders [VUK 06] Back

422   Q107 [Will Brett] Back

423   Written evidence from the Association of Electoral Administrators [VUK 32] Back

424   Written evidence from Unlock Democracy [VUK 18] Back

425   Written evidence from Sheffield for Democracy [VUK 93] Back

426   Scottish independence referendum, Electoral Management Board for Scotland Back

427   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [VUK 156] Back

428   Q793 [Sam Gyimah MP] Back

429   Q805 [Sam Gyimah MP] Back

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Prepared 14 November 2014