Why Vote? Book review

Why Vote? by Jo Phillips and David Seymour is one in a series just published by biteback. Whilst the others promote voting for a particular party, such as the Liberal Democrat title reviwed here, this book is simply about encouraging people to take part in elections. It takes a rather curious approach because, as the book itself explains:

[This book] wants to persuade you to vote but gives dozens of very good reasons why you shouldn’t.

On the positive side, it should give you a few laughs and provide enough trivial information to amaze your friends … What we hope it might do is persuade you to influence how the country is run.

Why Vote book coverIf you’re familiar with my comments on the positive signs there are around about increasing turnout in some elections (such as this) and how the true story about levels of electoral registration is cautiously optimistic, you won’t be surprised to know I grumbled rather at the cliches such as: “Something is going seriously wrong in Britain if growing numbers of citizens feel voting isn’t worth bothering with.”

No. That was the story. But over the last few years turnout has not been falling. In many cases it has risen. Even at the last general election turnout was up – not by much, but it was up not down. In local elections, Mayoral elections and Parliamentary by-elections we have frequently seen rising turnout (when comparing like with like).

But once we get beyond that and – even worse – the comparison of the number of votes in Big Brother with general elections (multiple voting anyone?), the book picks up with a fast paced dash through the history and workings of our democracy, never dull or detailed but providing the sort of basic information that a large number of people don’t actually know – such as that the Prime Minister isn’t simply the person whose party got the most votes across the country – which was what the Jenkins Commission found many people believed.

The book repeatedly pokes fun at the way democracy works, but in an affectionate way rather than an angry way as if it’s bemoaning the way a slightly dotty elderly relative leaves dirty washing around the home. Hence this description of our system:

It has never been as perfect as the theory suggests – it couldn’t be when, by definition, a political system system has to be run by politicians. A recent suggestion that non-politicians should be allowed to get involved is like suggesting that non-drivers should be let loose on the roads or plumbers take over from doctors – or, for that matter, doctors take over from plumbers.

When it comes to the BBC and its love of long documents outlining editorial policies, the book turns Jane Austen:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a broadcasting organisation in possession of a good fortune must be in want of producer guidelines.

The book also takes a well-aimed pot shot at the media’s love of a rogue poll:

Let’s say there are half-a-dozen political polls a month and five of them, in common with the six from the previous month and the six from the month before, show that the Tories have a lead of around 12 points. Then one poll comes up with a Conservative lead of 8 points. Sensation! Tories slump in popularity! Labour closes the gap dramatically! Are the Tories on the skids? Could Labour sneak up and actually win the election? These are the questions on which thousands of words are expended.

The answer can be given in one word though: No. Or at least it is on the evidence of this poll. The near certainty is that this is a rogue survey … But that truth hasn’t prevented not just the paper that commissioned the rogue poll but all the others and the broadcasters merrily, sensationally and learnedly banging on about something that is plainly wrong.

The book misfires on occasion, such as with the string of clichés when poking fun at electoral campaigning, ignoring the evidence and breezily affirming that campaign activities such as knocking up supporters on polling day don’t work.

There are a few slip-ups – such as it is over 4,000 criminal offences introduced under Labour, not new laws, and Parliament has moved on from having a sequence of MPs ask the Prime Minister his engagements for the day (it’s now just the first question). Similarly, whilst the book makes the common claim that the NHS is the third largest employer in the world, after the Chinese Army and the Indian railways, on the figures presented it is actually a smaller employer than Walmart.

What is common across the mistakes – and the misjudgements over falling turnout – is that they are only a small step away from the truth and reflect commonly repeated claims. Perhaps a sign of a book written in a little too much haste with a little skimping on the fact checking?

It all adds up to a rather odd book. For most of its length it pokes fun and aims ridicule at politicians and the political process, with rarely a generous word and often an exaggerated case against them made. Finally, in the last few pages there is an impassioned stretch about how politics affects everyone – and how if you don’t vote you don’t get a say in the decisions which alter so many aspects of your life.

By that stage in the book, will anyone still be listening? But it’s a light and breezy journey through the book. And who can not enjoy a book that talks about the impact of hats on the 1931 New Zealand election? (See page 4.)

You can buy page 4, and indeed the whole book, from Amazon.

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