British Politics: The Apathy Or The Ecstasy
published in PUNCH 23 January 2002
Politicians right across the political spectrum are fretting themselves silly over the latest drug menace. It is far more dangerous than Ecstasy, although its effects are totally different.
Where Ecstasy gives artificial exhilaration and energy at any party, Apathy induces complete passivity and indifference to any party. It has become widespread among all age groups and social classes: in the June 2001 election there were over 18 million registered Apathetics known to the authorities and countless more too apathetic even to register.
The initial effects of Apathy are pleasurable: by blanking out politics Apathy leaves the user more relaxed and less irritated and with a heightened consciousness of other more enjoyable experiences. Habitual users have no sense of shame and stop pretending to be normal voters; instead they take pride in their Apathy and urge others to join them. Hardened cases lose all contact with political reality: some Apathetics are actually unaware of the existence of Stephen Byers or Michael Howard.
Apathy can be fatal – to politicians. That is why they want to ban it.
Gareth R Thomas, backbench Labour MP for Harrow West, has introduced a righteous little bill to make voting compulsory. As in Australia and Belgium, people would be fined for not voting. Personally I would pay a heavy fine to avoid voting for any current Australian or Belgian politician, but over there the fines have stamped on apathy. Both countries have election turnouts of over 90 per cent.
In fairness to goodie-goodie Mr Thomas, his bill would allow voters to abstain in person by ticking a special box in the ballot paper. It is a good move, but it does not meet the central challenge of Apathy.
As with all drugs in wide use, Apathy should be legalized and Apathetics should be encouraged to play a full part in society. For this, we need a political system to Make Apathy Count.
Besides personal abstention, voters should be given a chance to vote negatively and cast their vote AGAINST one candidate of their choice.
At the polling station electors would ask for the FOR ballot paper, or the ABSTENTION form or the AGAINST ballot paper. Postal voters would be offered the same choice by the returning officer. To help counting, the papers would be coloured differently. Electors would put a mark against one candidate, to count as a plus or a minus vote, while the abstention would count as zero. (In another democratic reform each ballot paper would have space for comments of up to six words, such as “Hooray for endogenous neo-classical growth” or “Anyone but that smarmy, lying toerag”: instead of declaring them spoilt the returning officer would publish them.)
On election night each candidate’s votes would be sorted into two piles, FOR and AGAINST, and the abstentions counted separately. The returning officer would declare the winner on “goal difference”: FOR minus AGAINST.
Some people will object that this system could lead to joke candidates being elected. Indeed it might, but perhaps the electors would prefer to have Raving Loonies in the House of Commons instead of the present crop of Raving Toadies. But if joke candidates were really considered a problem, the system could provide a safeguard: no one gets elected without a minimum number of votes FOR. This would also be a defence against candidates from organized cults or nice-but-dim candidates who inspire no negative feelings.
Quite possibly no candidate at all might get a positive goal difference (or the required quota of votes FOR). In that case there would be a by-election, where the parties could offer better candidates and a better campaign.
If the by-election failed to produce a candidate with a positive majority (or the necessary quota) the seat would be declared vacant for the remainder of that Parliament. The salary and expenses which would have gone to an MP would be put to alternative use in the constituency, such as a new cycle track or saving an interesting tree.
Even after a stack of by-elections it is conceivable that no MPs would get elected at all, or that there would not be enough to occupy a majority of the available seats.
In those circumstances no party would have the right to form a government, either on its own or in combination with others. Instead, a caretaker administration of civil servants would run the country for the next four years. Those MPs who were elected could take up grievances, ask questions, scrutinize the administration and volunteer ideas and advice. So too could the House of Lords (one with real “people’s peers”, chosen by lottery from volunteers, not a quango full of cronies and placepersons).
Under the caretaker government, there would be no new laws or regulations, no new taxes or handouts, no new treaties, no new alliances, no new wars, no new “initiatives”, or “task forces”, no new Departments or quangos, no spin doctors.
If the British people enjoyed those four years of non-government they could use negative voting to get them repeated. If they pined for politicians and parties they could vote positively to restore them.
Critics of negative voting will argue that it gives too much power to apathetics and cynics. Quite the contrary. A negative franchise would improve the entire character of British politics. It would end the squalid phenomenon of tactical voting, where people vote for a party they do not believe in to keep out one which they despise. Since no one would get elected without a “positive majority” it would force all parties and all candidates to think of good reasons for voting for them instead of demonising their opponents. Indeed, it would force them to show the electors that it was worth having a Parliament and an active government for the next four or five years.
Unlike Mr Thomas’s Bill, negative voting would allow disenchanted voters to do more than simply abdicate from the political system. It would let them send a powerful message that they want something better than what is on offer at election time. Negative voting could turn Apathy into Ecstasy.