17 November 2012

Public convenience

So after the death, the post-mortem. As the results of the PCCs elections emerged today, the sheer scale of the embarrassment became apparent to even the most ardent government supporter. The Electoral Commission promised to investigate the worst election turnout in the post-war period. Highlights included one polling station where literally no-one voted and, nearer to home, 10 times the usual number of spoiled ballots (ahem) in the neighbouring county of Suffolk. Opponents blamed a lack of information and publicity, those sympathetic to the cause suggested the weather. The government adopted its favourite passive-aggressive tactic of blaming a lack of understanding by the electorate, like with the earlier NHS reforms, further cementing an unfortunate reputation for condescension.

But even for an opponent of the measures like me, I can see this is not an isolated case, but part of a trend that worries a lot of people. Although we expect minor ballots, like yesterday's, to attract low numbers, long term trends show falling levels of participation in even General Elections, which usually attract the highest numbers of voters:
So what does this mean? Are fewer of us interested in politics than previous generations? Have politicians so betrayed our trust that we are punishing them by not turning up at the polls? Or is this symptomatic of loosening social ties - where there is no sense of duty to vote, and no social embarrassment in not voting? Actually, I think it's much simpler than that - elections haven't caught up with our entitlement to choice.

Choice, as a political concept, has been a watchword of the Right for at least 30 years, and is now grudgingly embraced by the Left when the occasion suits. At its worst, it's an excuse for dismantling public services, whether through ideological zeal or economic necessity. At its best it allows us to demand more from the world around us, and often the world responds to that need. I can remember when, in order to get a telephone, you had to register with British Telecom, rent a phone from them, and then wait 6 weeks before they bothered to come around to connect you. That seems as alien from today's world as motor cars must have been to the mid-Victorians.

The diversification of services, growth of choice, and speed of technological change has not only revolutionised our lives, it has fragmented what were once collective experiences. If the War represented a Year Zero in collective experience - rationing, mobilisation, isolation - then the 70 years since have been an ever-widening funnel of disparate and diverse possibilities in an integrated world. People talk with glassy-eyed fondness of the days when 25 million Britons would watch Morecambe and Wise at Christmas, conveniently forgetting that this was largely because there were only 3 TV channels to watch. Even in my youth, in playground reenactments, I could pretty much guarantee my friends would have watched the same TV show the night before. Now, it could be from any one of hundreds of channels, assuming they watched anything at all, and weren't on an XBox, Facebook or uploading themselves singing onto YouTube.

And yet, come election time, we expect everyone to suddenly act like a homogenous group: to do the same thing on the same day in a way that would be familiar to their grandparents. While we have crawled with the times to allow postal voting for those cheeky enough to go on holiday during an election, it is a remarkably old-fashioned demand to make of generations who have been told they can have what they want, when they want. Pause the TV, buy it online, listen to it whenever you want, speak instantly with your friends any time of day. It's not that people don't take an interest any more, but that, frankly, it's not that convenient, and we've been told choice is not just good, it's practically a human right.

But it's more than thinking up radical solutions, like voting with your iPhone, or gamifying voter participation. People don't just expect the world to work to their pace, there is more competition for their time. Or, to put it simply, there's more stuff to do these days than 30 years ago. Politicians who worry about these trends think in terms of making politics "fun" and "exciting", as if anyone other than policy wonks has ever felt that way about it, even in the 1960s. But 50 years ago, there was less to distract you, less to do. The pubs closed every time you felt thirsty, you might as well go and vote. Now, we can do all the same things people did then as well as everything else that's been invented since - basejumping, web-surfing, battle reenactments, 24-hour drinking, gambling, TV on demand, skateboarding, night-time shopping, Gangnam-style dancing. You can do stuff whenever you want - it is utterly amazing and thrilling. Except vote. You've got to queue in the pissing-down rain, to mark a scrap of paper with a scratchy pencil on a string at the local church hall on one day of the year, outside of work, childcare, parent-care or anything else you might do. Frankly, given the choice between a session of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 or picking between three charmless greasers you'll never see for four years, I'm surprised they even get 50%.

15 November 2012

You have the right to remain silent

Tomorrow, literally dozens of people up and down the country will be voting for the first time to choose a local Police Commissioner. In keeping with the spirit of electoral firsts, I'm going to do two things that I've never done before as well.

The first is to tell you how you how I'm voting. Although you may guess my political affiliations, so far in twenty years, I have never actually told anyone how I vote in public elections, not even my wife. As we are patronisingly told every year, people died so we could vote (an argument that I have never found particularly convincing: people have died for a whole host of causes, some barmy, some noble, but the fact that someone threw herself under the King's horse doesn't make me beholden to her whims). More importantly, campaigners for popular suffrage also championed secret ballots just as passionately, to prevent the circumventing of the democratic process, which I think is worth respecting just as much when I turn out to cast my mark at the polling station.

The second thing I shall be doing for the first time is spoiling my ballot paper, as a signal of my opinion about the new Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). There is no popular mandate for this policy - it was bunged into the post-election Coalition agreement as a makeweight for Nick Clegg being allowed to use the loo in Downing Street. A fact that is borne out by the record low turnout expected across the land, as Dave's Big Society gesture attracts the smallest of crowds. I am using the only mechanism I have to register my displeasure at the whole unappetising spectacle.

Not only do most people not know what the new Commissioners are supposed to be doing, they don't know what they are replacing. At present, Police Authorities are responsible for all the powers the PCCs will inherit: Budget setting, hire & firing of the Chief Constable, determining local criminal justice priorities. These bodies are composed of local councillors, magistrates, criminal justice experts and appointed representatives from among the general public. This amalgam of expert and lay opinion, elected and unelected will now be replaced by a single party hack with one eye on the TV news and the other on the ballot box. This is not some great revolution in crime fighting - new dynamism sweeping away red tape and getting More Bobbies Back On The Beat (TM). It is taking exactly the same powers currently in the hands of an expert body, and giving them to a failed politician. It's the concentration of considerable power with very few checks apart the quadrennial trip to the electorate.

It has all the hallmarks of an eye-catching Big Idea for the Big Society - Tory party Thought Architects no doubt imagined Mom & Pop candidates standing to give a voice to the man on the Clapham Omnibus, without a thought as to how they might fund an election across a wide area without party backing. The means the reality is, of course, the overwhelming majority of candidates belong to political parties, and are standing on party platforms - exactly the opposite of what was intended. And in the absence of any other criteria, name recognition will count for much. To cap it all, multi-party contests will be using the ever-baffling Supplementary Vote system to ensure everyone's second choice is elected.

This unwelcome and unnecessary politicisation of the police is the classic example of a solution in search of a problem - something beloved of all politicians down the ages. Because no-one has actually been able to say exactly what problem the new PCCs were supposed to be solving. Crime has been consistently falling for twenty years, police continue, overall, to retain high levels of popular support and respect. Even the high-profile problems there have been - from the Hillsborough cover-up to cash-for-information to journalists - have been symptomatic of either front line cultural or management failings. Not the sort of thing individual Police Commissioners are best placed to tackle.

So why stop at the police? Why not heads of PCTs, Traffic Wardens, dinnerladies and dustmen. Why shouldn't we be given the chance to pick every public servant, repeatedly, on a never-ending conveyor-belt of choice? Maybe one day, if we prove ourselves capable of keeping up with the exponential growth of elections, we could even get to choose our Head of State? But Dave would probably think that ridiculous.

11 November 2012

Voting: it all ads up.

Democracy is, in its crudest form, a numbers game, and while many this week were focusing on the number 270, as the total number of electoral college votes the US Presidential candidates had to reach, some were pointing to some other numbers. Two billion, for example - the amount in dollars spent by both candidates to achieve the same outcome on 6 November as there had been on 4 November. One of the things Mitt Romney and I have in common is the fact that neither of us is the US President, but the difference is, I haven't just spent millions of dollars not to achieve that. Makes me feel a bit better about not winning the lottery.

This may seem like a lot of money - a point has been made repeatedly across the world's media - but is it really? It's the same amount of money the USA spends in Afghanistan every week. It's the same amount shrugged off in May by JP Morgan as a loss by another rogue trader. Most interestingly of all, it's the same amount of money the US government spent NOT building a large hadron collider in Texas before CERN came along - because they took the idea of a "God Particle" literally, and then changed their minds when they realised what it meant. Frankly, if it cost any less than $2bn to elect the most powerful man in the world, I'd be thinking we weren't taking it all that seriously.

The number that tells me it was being taken seriously was 1,000,000. This was the number of TV ads run by both sides. If this were to be run on a continuous loop 24-hours a day, it would take almost a year to run them all. A million ads maybe doesn't seem a lot across such a big place as the US, but when you consider the overwhelming majority were probably run across half a dozen battleground  "swing states", that's a year of pretty horrific television for a large minority of the people. Personally, I'd find the idea of living in Florida bad enough in itself, without Mitt Romney interrupting Mad Men every five minutes to tell me Paul Ryan can bench press 300 lbs. I suppose the reason Romney attacked PBS was because it was the one place he couldn't buy airtime.

On our own shores, nearly as much passion and interest has been shown in next week's elections for regional police commissioners. If by 'passion' you mean 'indifference' and interest, you mean 'ennui'. In The 'States, the idea of publicly elected policemen is the norm, of course, along with judges, school commissioners and the local rat catcher, and they sensibly put all the choices on the same Presidential ballot. Here we've decided it's such an amazing opportunity to spend £75,000,000 of public money we don't have, we're going to give it an election all of its own - to almost universal indifference. Turnout next week is expected to be between 10 and 15% of the eligible electoral role. Considering we cannot even choose our own Head of State or upper chamber of the Legislature, you'd think we'd jump at the chance to pick our local top coppers.

Maybe this problem, along with the overall decline in voter turnout at General and Local Elections, stems from the fact that, unlike in the USA, candidates cannot advertise on TV, except under highly restricted conditions. Maybe the government could enact legislation that would trigger the right to advertise on TV at the next elections, if turnout at these ballots falls below, say, 40%. The threat of allowing televisual political spam could, I believe, act as a powerful incentive to drive up voter participation levels in future elections. Instead of fining non-voters, like they do in Australia, we'd threaten to subject everyone to more politicians. Before long, self-formed neighbourhood citizens groups would march the streets with burning torches to drive the under-motivated to the polling stations. Which would at least give the new Police Commissioners something to do.