Jeremy Lewis: Meaningless ballots encourage apathy
THE headline in yesterday's Post asks the question: "Was flagship policy to reconnect public with police a £75m flop?"
Of course it was. As soon as the proposal for elected police commissioners was put to the public, two words sprang to the minds of the wise: window and dressing.
However, much as I know a populist stunt when I sniff one, I argued in November that it was better to consider participating in the commissioner elections than to ignore them without thought.
I duly cast my vote as part of a Notts polling day turn-out that, at 16.7 per cent, was bigger than I'd expected – and I have no complaints about the outcome.
As far as I can judge, Mr Paddy Tipping, the former MP, is making the most of his unnecessary office.
The Post reported yesterday that he had helped secure a deal with bus companies to allow unaccompanied women to travel on late-night services even if they have no money.
A commendable initiative, although one that surely could equally easily have been achieved through the much- more-representative police authority that existed before the commissioners came in.
Mr Tipping – and good luck to him – should not be distressed to learn that only 11 per cent of British people can name their newly-elected commissioner.
Nobody could ever accuse the general public of political curiosity, and I dare say you'd get a similar percentage if you asked folk to name the leader of their district council; perhaps only a slightly bigger percentage if you asked them to name their MP.
The Electoral Commission is carrying out a review of the autumn elections, talking both to candidates and voters to learn lessons for the future.
Some problems have been highlighted by the Electoral Reform Society, which has complained about the scheduling of the poll in November – cold days and long nights, not conducive to after-work strolls to the polling station, apparently – as well as confusion over candidate eligibility and the lack of budget for free mailshots.
Personally I doubt if elections in May (the month originally chosen for last year's polls) and a leaflet free-for-all would have made much difference. Local government elections held in May invariably yield embarrassing percentages and we all know what happens to leaflets when they hit the doormat.
My biggest worry is that some will use the national average turn-out in the police commissioner elections – just 15% – to revive the very poor argument that voting should be compulsory, as it is in Australia and several Latin American countries.
A compulsory vote is a lot less democratic than it sounds. You cannot compel enthusiasm or enforce a judgment that is well-informed, and you could argue that it is better to have a vote that is small but heartfelt than large and free of thought.
Which is why I argued that people should have considered participating last November, for abstention is still a legitimate political act.
But better still not to have elections that are completely unnecessary.