Jenny Watson responds to criticism of her speech

On Tuesday evening I blogged about the speech given by Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission, criticising her comments about turnout in British elections:

I was rather surprised at the introduction to your speech earlier today to the UCL Constitution Unit where you painted what seems to me a very misleading picture of what is happening to turnout in British elections.

I appreciate that is a fairly strong criticism, so I hope you won’t mind me justifying it by taking parts of your speech and commenting on them in detail.

You can read my detailed comments in the original blog post. Today I received a response from her, which she’s given me permission to quote:

I’ve just been passed your post on LibDem Voice which I read with interest.

You’re right, of course, that turnout in Wales in the European Parliamentary elections was the second lowest since 1979, not the lowest. Thanks for picking that up. It should have been spotted it at our end, it wasn’t and it has been corrected. We obviously shoudn’t have given the wrong figures.

But I’m disappointed that you seem to have missed the key point I was making – and indeed made more than once in the speech last night – which is that all of us who are committed to the vital importance of democratic politics and elections, and who want to defend democratic politics as a public good can, in my view, take some comfort from fact that the gloomy predictions about turnout made prior to the elections weren’t fulfilled. I said:

this turnout, against such a backdrop, does show a continued faith in democratic politics with people wanting to have their voice heard.

I don’t deny that there are at every election a range of factors which can influence this. As you point out, for example, the combination of a local council election with a General Election clearly makes a big difference. But I simply don’t think that we can always seek to explain or excuse turnout on that basis. The stark fact remains that it is still the case that the UK continues to have lower than average turnout at European Parliament elections. 34% is a lot worse than 43% across Europe as a whole and is something that we shouldn’t just accept. And for turnout to be mostly 40% or below at county council elections simply illustrates the huge challenges we all face as we try to encourage participation in democracy – for our part by ensuring there are no barriers in people’s way when they want to register to vote, and for yours by being active within a political party.

I hope we can agree on my key thesis: that there is no room for complacency, and that we all need to work to rebuild confidence and commitment to the electoral process.

Credit is due for responding within 24 hours, which reflects well on the Electoral Commission compared with some of the other people and bodies that have been criticised on this blog in the past.

As for the gist of the response, I would have rather seen the Commission admit it had painted an inaccurately bleak picture, though I would agree that an accurate picture is still not a happy one.

It will be interesting to see what comments the Commission makes in future on turnout, and whether the Commission (or any journalists) start reporting the good news, such as rising turnout in London. Not only was turnout in 2009 sharply up (when compared on a like-for-like basis, i.e. with 1999 rather than 2004, when there were other elections on the same day) but it was also sharply up last year in the London Mayor and Assembly election.

Two years of sharply rising turnout figures in a row? That’s not a story I’ve yet seen anyone else report.

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  • Ed – quite. The emphasis on electoral turnout is one of the bizarre hangovers from the new Labour experiment where they saw it as some slight on their project that fewer and fewer people were interested in voting for them. So they experimented with compulsory postal voting, text voting and various other gimmicks which simply resulted in large scale electoral fraud by unscrupulous councillors – mainly Labour. End result even fewer bothered to vote.

    Given politics is now far more competitive – turnouts will increase accordingly. Hopefully whoever comes in after Brown will use this as an opportunity to abolish the Electoral Commission, Standards Boards and other bureaucratic paraphernalia of new Labour’s ridiculous tampering with the security and secrecy of the ballot and autonomy of local government.

  • Mark, you could put the opposite charge to you. 1999 was an unusually low turnout in comparison to other European Elections, possibly due to a hangover from the massive Labour victory in 1997 so isn’t necessarily a good comparator either.

    Peter, James is right – the electoral commission weren’t doing a great job anyway and their duties in this area were rolled back a few years ago. Increasing turnout and policing political parties/donations etc. aren’t necessarily easy bedfellows.

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