Image curtsy of Francisco Osorio from Flickr Creative Commons
Forcing young people to vote is wrong. Yet the centre-left think tank, the institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), is now advocating that very position following the release of their latest report. The 'Political inequality: Why British democracy must be reformed and revitalised'http://ippr.org/read/political-inequality-why-british-democracy-must-be-reformed-and-revitalised report argues that Britain is facing a democratic deficit with 18-24 year olds turning out in fewer and fewer numbers, in 2010, only 44% of them turned out to vote in the general election. The report suggests that even fewer young people from lower income background made up this 44%.
There's no doubt that British democracy is living in a period of terminal crisis, which is interlinked with the overall decay of Western civilisation and crisis of Capitalism. The gap between the people and their elected officials has never been greater and increasingly, Britain does not look like a democracy, but rather resembles a plutocracy or rule by small wealthy elite. At least this is the perception and within politics- perception has a horrible habit of becoming reality. However, the real reason for the decline in British democracy is the insistence that a process of democracy is the definition of it.
Voting is a function that serves to enable our system of government to work, but it has little to do with the meaning of democracy, indeed a number of autocratic regimes use voting and elections to legitimise the continuation of autocracy. The very meaning of democracy is rule of the people and coupled with this is our liberal tradition of individual liberty, which includes freedom of consciousness, thought, movement, speech and association. Some people refuse to vote on the grounds of their own political consciousness, indeed not voting is a very political act, and to introduce forced voting is to violate the core democratic principle of individual liberty. The system is not more important than the idea, new systems can be designed, but without the idea no system can continue nor can any new system be designed.
Forced voting is to democracy what forced marriage is to marriage. There are some merits to forcing two people to wed in matrimony, its often used to bring two families together and in many societies this improves the survival chances of both families- and when group survival is at stake- who cares what the two individuals want? Well, we do, forced marriage is illegal in the United Kingdom because of our commitment to the principle that an individual has the right to freely chose how they wish to live and with whom-is a fundamental human right. In principle forced voting is not much different from forced marriage and like cases of forced marriage, not to go through with voting would incur a punishment. And to what end?
The truth is that disengagement with politics does not exist, everything in life is political and everyone is a politician. Have you ever said something nice to someone in order to get them to do you a favour? If yes, you might be Machiavellian. Have you ever tried to arrange a meet up between friends? A career in diplomacy might be for you. Politics is a system that enables us to deal with other people, if you were the only person left in the world, there would be no politics. If someone else comes into your world, even if it's only one person, then politics would automatically come into existence. When you are in the streets, when you take the bus, when you're on the road, you are engaging in politics because you are dealing with other people.
When political commentators talk about young people's disengagement from politics, what they actually mean is young people's disengagement with our system of governance- not with politics itself. The reason this disengagement with our system existence is because those who are at the head of our system have poor knowledge and political intelligence on the lives, thoughts and realities of the under 25's. They use phrases like 'young people's issues' and terms like it- the truth is that young people are the most diverse age group within society. Each individual has a different politics; a university student studying politics has a different experience of politics than a medical student does. And they both have a difference experience of politics from someone who does not go to university. Rather than speaking to these different political experiences, they are being lumped together and even then they are treated as an afterthought.
Forcing them to vote in the hope that it will make them engage more with the system, is much like forcing someone to marry in the hope that they'll eventually fall in love with their imposed spouse, quite possible but very unlikely. On the contrary, it's more likely to foster resentment and make them feel that their rights are not as important under our current system. This could also make them more willing to topple our system of governance, which is something that both politicians and political commentators might want to consider. It doesn't have to be this way, but what we need is an act of real imagination and that starts by listening to the under 25s'.