Sadiq Khan, master of political caricature, I salute you

Listening to Deputy Prime Minister’s Question Time and also the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s hearing this week, I was tempted to blog about how in a throwback to the worst of New Labour, many Labour MPs seemed to be confusing something being a “civic duty” with it being a legal requirement. After all, it doesn’t say much for your idea of “civic duty” if you think it is synonymous with “legal requirement”.

I didn’t have time to blog about this… but then today Sadiq Khan writes for The Guardian:

The compulsory nature of our interaction with registration officers may seem like a technical detail – but it is this that elevates electoral registration from a voluntary activity to an important civic duty.

No Sadiq, a civic duty is something we do because we believe it is the right thing to do as a good member of our community. Making something a legal requirement doesn’t make it a civic duty, it makes it compulsory. It really is an throwback to the worst regulatory excesses of New Labour of the sort political satirists and caricaturists would struggle to match, to write that something is only a civic duty if the law tells you to do it.

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  • Mark,

    I suggest you dust off your dictionary. A duty is a legal or moral obligation. A civic duty is a duty we are obliged to perform for society. It may be the case that individuals object to certain obligations that are deemed by society to be duties and therefore refuse to do them, but it is not the case that when we choose to perform certain functions for society, out of a personal belief that it is good for society, that we have performed a civic duty.

    Sadiq Khan is absolutely correct in his definition that when a legal obligation is placed upon an act then it becomes a civic duty to abide by that law. This is not to say that there are civic duties that do not have legal obligations attached but that there are does not negate the fact that if there is a legal requirement to perform an act it then that act has become, or been elevated, to a civic duty.

    On the subtext to your article; that it is wrong for electoral registration to be considered a legal duty, this simply wrong headed and represents another example of the liberal tendency to allow a superficial ‘freedom’ to trump an actual liberty. The notion that appearance on the electoral register should be a matter of individual choice as it represents the freedom of an individual from any form of coercion is sophistry in the service of political gerrymandering. The actual liberty in question is the franchise itself. To argue that the freedom to deny oneself the franchise entirely is akin to a voting choice is absurd yet it is the fundamental basis of the argument to leave registration as a individual choice rather than an obligation. No self respecting liberal should allow themselves the shallowness of taking this view. Liberties are complex and should not be determined simply by whether the word ‘choice’ can be attached to an action.

  • Daniel Henry 14th Oct '11 - 3:06pm

    JRC wrote:
    “This is not to say that there are civic duties that do not have legal obligations attached”

    And that’s what Mark was pointing out, that you don’t need to make something a legal requirement in order for it to be a civic duty.

    Seems to me you missed the point he was making.

  • Daniel Henry,

    The point that Mark made was clear, it was to ridicule Sadiq Khan. It fails.

    Mark states: ‘Making something a legal requirement does not make it a civic duty’. Clearly it does. Not making something a legal requirement however does not stop it being a civic duty, which Mark also states at the end of his piece to rebut and ridicule a point that Sadiq Khan never makes. It is my civic duty to report a crime, it is not illegal to fail to do so. It is also my civic duty to pay my taxes, it is illegal to fail to do so. The legality of paying taxes has clearly elevated the contribution of funds from voluntary altruism to civic duty. That the paying of taxes is a civic duty has become true simply by adding a legal obligation. There is no other aspect of paying taxes that is essential to transform it into a civic duty other than legal requirement. Remove legal requirement and it is no longer a civic duty. The same is true of electoral registration.

  • Mark Pack,

    Saying that Sadiq Khan is stating that a civic duty can only be described as such if it is subject to law is flatly opposed to the quote you actually attribute to Sadiq Khan, and the rest of his article. He states that making a specific thing that would otherwise be an individual choice a legal obligation raises it to the status of being a civic duty. This is patently true unless you agree with Stephen W that it is not a civic duty to obey the law. What is also patently true is that the option not to register on the electoral roll stops it being a duty, civic or otherwise. The difference between the government and opposition position is that between having an opt-out of electoral registration and making it obligatory, personal choice or duty. It is the presence of legal sanction in this specific circumstance that changes one to the other. Sadiq Khan is right in this.

    Stephen W,

    it is not possible for something to be a duty and at the same time optional. Unless you are using the word optional in its strictest sense and then it is ‘optional’ to break all laws and duties so long as one is prepared to suffer the consequences. Regardless of the thinking of Sadiq Khan, the definition of the word ‘duty’ is that it is an obligation not an option. This fixation with accusations of statism and authoritarianism should not extend to the redefinition of words. As for Sadiq Khan’s liberal bones I would suggest that anyone who considers the optional version of the electoral register to be liberal go back and start trying to understand liberalism. Plastering the notion of ‘choice’ onto the front of enfranchisement does not make denial of the right to vote to individuals a liberal value.

  • Mark Pack is using the well known “red herring” technique to cover up the weakness in the Lib Dem position.

    Sadiq Khan’s basic point has nothing to do with civic duty. It’s simpler than that.

    Khan’s point is that if, as is the current position, you make voter registration compulsory, and you have penalties you can apply to those who do not register, then you make sure that pretty well everybody has a vote. If however you drop that provision and make registration purely voluntary – as the Coalition seem to be planning – then you get rid of millions of voters, mainly the poor, disorganised, young, or badly educated. Since most of the new non-voters would not have voted Tory, you could call that a result. Naturally, Labour’s self-interest is to keep those voters on the electoral roll. But in this case, their interest coincides with the public interest in a decent democracy.

    Mark Pack, a Liberal Democrat (!), is trying to muddy the waters. Surely the Liberal Democrats have not yet stooped so low as to support a weakening of democracy, just because their Tory allies would like that?

  • Peter Chivall 15th Oct '11 - 8:32am

    There appears to be a danger that some people, like Mark, who have become established as influential Liberal Democrats in recent years (possibly since Nick Clegg became leader) have exhibited a confusion between Liberalism and Libertarianism. There has also been an increasing tendency (encouraged by Clegg himself from his first speech as leader) to confuse Liberalism (however defined) and Liberal Democracy, which,as a philosophy is, like the Party, a hybrid. In the extract from our Party’s constitution which is printed on our membership cards, it states ‘inter alia’ that we ‘seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community…’
    Simply because Sadiq Khan appears self-righteous, overbearing and quite possibly has an authoritarian streak, does not deny that using the law to make electoral registration a civic duty for each individual is necessary in order to prevent some individuals from being disenfranchised by virtue of their own ignorance, laziness or conformity to a culture where voting only matters in X-Factor or Big Brother.
    @AlexMcfie I’m therefore pleased that Clegg has made the position clear, but I am also concerned that @Dave Allen and others have the impression that we would support the Conservatives in this. The Conservatives’ position may have the attempted disguise of liberty but is in practice a crude attempt, when taken together with the discouragement of local authorities canvassing non-registered addresses, to bring about the ‘de facto’ disenfranchisement of large numbers of less literate, less motivated citizens, with obvious results.
    We may not like the messenger, but Saddiq Khan’s message is correct.

  • Mark Pack,

    I have clearly explained that your rewriting of the meaning of Sadiq Khan’s statement is incorrect yet you continue to repeat it. To say that something becomes a civic duty if it is a legal requirement is a statement of the bleeding obvious. To say that saying this is evidence of a belief that only legal obligation confers civic duty is sophistry, and very poor sophistry at that. Having read Peter’s post it is clear that he does not think that something is only a civic duty if it is also a legal requirement. This attempt to besmirch an individuals character in place of actual reasoned debate is becoming a little embarrassing. Isn’t it a liberal value to decline the ad hominem dismissal of truth?

    On the substantive issue: making electoral registration optional offers no freedom at all, it is the option to give yourself no option. This is a con that intentionally denies the vote to people whilst having the plausible deniability that it is only their own fault if they have not chosen to register. It is cynical electoral gerrymandering that you seek to gain support for by trying to pull the knee-jerk levers of your party supporters by claiming its opponents to be authoritarian, statist caricatures. New politics?


    Legal obligations are a subset of civic duties. The nature of the two is therefore not separate; everything that is a legal requirement is also a civic duty but not everything that is a civic duty is, or should be, a legal obligation. I hope that clears up the confusion for you.

  • Mark,

    I did see many of the comments in parliament and they were debating whether there should be an opt-out of electoral registration. Thus the debate was about whether registration should be optional rather than obligatory. As I have clearly stated, it is not possible by definition for something to be simultaneously a duty, hence an obligation, and optional, hence not an obligation.

    It is difficult to see what aspect of electoral registration could be called upon to make someone feel duty bound to do it by a community. One thing that does make it a civic duty is to make it a legal obligation. Thus making it a legal obligation does, in and of itself, transform it into a civic duty. Making it optional does, in and of itself stop it being a civic duty. Removing an existing law does remove a civic duty from it. I did not see or hear anyone stating that only by making something a legal obligation does it become a civic duty and the quote you cite says nothing of that sort either. The debate was from the other end of the argument, i.e. does something stop being a civic duty if an existing legal obligation is removed and an opt-out applied? Quite clearly it does.

    From your response to the consultation I see that you agree that it should remain obligatory to register so my understanding of the motivation for your misrepresentation of Sadiq Khan is wrong so I retract it. You appear to agree with what I saw and heard Sadiq Khan saying, including his wariness about the effect of making attendance on a jury optional if electoral registration is optional.

    If it is your view that electoral registration is a civic duty regardless of the legal requirement then please explain what moral and social pressures you suggest exist in order to push individuals to carry out their obligation. Whilst I believe it to be in an individual’s self interest to register and have the right to vote and also believe it to be a social good that all eligible voters be registered, I struggle to see what part of this renders it a civic duty in the way that, for example, it is our civic duty to report a crime.

    In some circumstances it is the case that applying a legal obligation is the determining factor in rendering something a civic duty. It is a civic duty to drive at a safe speed. However, it is not true that this speed has a specific number attached. So a 70mph speed limit on a dual carriageway only becomes a civic duty because it is illegal to exceed it. (In my van it is my civic duty not to exceed 50mph as the stopping distance is double that of a Ferrari travelling at 90mph.) The only civic duty involved in staying below 70mph therefore is the duty not to break the law.

    It is your contention that electoral registration is a civic duty regardless of whether it is required by law. There is nothing intrinsic to electoral registration to make this statement true. However, it is true that by removing an existing legal obligation and making it optional it ceases by definition to be a civic duty, as is the case whenever anything is legalised and made optional. Even if they are wrong and it is as you say a civic duty regardless of whether it is a legal requirement it would still be true to say that if government applied an opt-out and abolished the legal duty it would cease to be a civic duty. And, even if they have been saying that it is a civic duty only because it is a legal duty this is not a demonstration that they believe that only those things with legal obligations attached are civic duties.

  • Oranjepan,

    There is no contradiction in my original two statements. A duty is always an obligation, it is in the definition of the word. Legal obligations are a subset of civic duties just as legal obligations and civic duties are subsets of obligations. You do yourself no justice by omitting the words legal and civic from my original statement.

    You say I am arguing ‘all leaves are green’. I obviously am not. By omitting ‘legal’ from my argument about legal obligations you change my specific, particular and correct argument into a general and provably false argument, one that I am not putting. Sophistry or misunderstanding?

    There is at present a legal obligation to register. You are wrong to say that the introduction of such a law is the basis of the debate. The proposal is not to legally sanction failure to register but to make registration optional, it presently is not optional. Even if there were no sanction in place the proposal is to stop electoral registration being considered a civic obligation, the proposal is to make it optional. If something is considered optional it cannot simultaneously be considered a duty, if it is not a duty it cannot be a civic duty, civic duties are after all, a subset of duties. The better, existing, government that you speak of is the one that includes the stick.

  • Stephen W,

    You’re quite right, where I have written ‘legal obligation’ I should have written ‘just legal obligation’. It is true that an unjust law should not confer civic duty, although I think Rawls argued that it should always do so in a just state.

    Contrary to your assertion I have gone to some length to distinguish between moral duty, civic duty and legal duty. However just to demonstrate that I do have such an understanding; I think it is a moral duty to truthfully represent the words of others and argue the content therein. If one misrepresents the words of another for some reason one is duty bound to admit it and correct the error. An example of this in action is where I retracted my assumption of Mark Pack’s motivation for his misrepresentation. I would call this a moral duty but not necessarily a civic duty and would abhor the thought that it should be a legal duty.

  • @JRC

    A duty may only be a moral rather than a legal obligation. Liberals believe that morality is separate from the law.

    I believe it is a moral obligation / civic duty to vote and to stand for election if none of the candidates deserve your vote. However I would never support moves to legislate along those lines, it’s unworkable and an affront to people who believe you have the right to withhold your vote. I respect that belief in the same way I respect the beliefs of other religions.

    This is a very similar situation to making voter registration voluntary, we may believe it a civic duty to register, as we may believe it is a civil duty to vote, but the right not to register is no different from the right not to vote.

  • Charles,

    To choose not to register to vote is to choose not to have the right to vote. It is not true that it is a liberal value that an individual can be denied their rights even if this denial is through voluntary action. It is true that they have the right not to exercise a right but not to infringe or restrict their rights. There are many situations in which it is considered the duty of society to ensure that an individual cannot legally deny themselves rights. For example, up until the turn of the 20th century it was possible to contract yourself into servitude for several years at a time. This was to in effect sell yourself into slavery. It was a voluntary act but was rightfully outlawed.

    Aside from an individuals right to vote society has an interest in every individual being registered regardless of their vote. Juries are selected from the electoral register. Constituency boundaries are calculated from the information they hold. Without as full an electoral roll as possible society would function in a much diminished way and the possibility for a genuine representative democracy may cease to exist. So if you are correct that there is nothing more intrinsic to voter registration to make it a civic duty in and of itself than there is in casting ones vote then in order to elevate it to a civic duty would that not require a legal obligation?

  • Oranjepan,

    I used the analogy with the legal sanction against contracting oneself into servitude to illustrate a circumstance in which laws that restrict a right are also considered liberal. You are correct in your assertion that the law protects freedoms by providing for the enforcement of rights. It is unclear how the existing law that requires registration can be said to enforce an individual right. It is also unclear where the civic duty lies in performing an act that is only, on its surface, enabling oneself to access a freedom. What I have argued is that to remove that legal obligation would remove the civic duty from the act of registration. I have also argued, albeit less convincingly, that it may also be true that if such a law did not already exist it would be right to institute one. This is a more nuanced debate because it is at the heart of whether a law which enforces an individual action rather than restricts an individual action can be considered a legitimate way to protect an individual’s freedom. What is clear though is that if such a law does exist in a just society it confers a civic duty to abide by it.

    I should have said rather than: ‘to choose not to register is to choose not to have the right to vote’ that ‘to choose not to register is to choose not to have the freedom to vote’, but either way you are correct in your differentiation of freedom and rights. I think your distinction between the freedom to not register and the right to vote is rather more troublesome. They are co-dependent, if you exercise your choice not to register then you cannot exercise a choice in the election of your government, if you exercise your vote you have been obliged to register.

    I have not proposed at any point to encourage additional measures, punitive or otherwise, those measures already exist. The pertinent argument in this case is what would be the impact of removing them. That impact would be to change the nature of the act from one of civic duty to individual choice. It would also be to remove a great deal of people from the electoral register. This impacts on the ability of the state to organise a legitimate democracy and impacts on the freedom of each individual who for one reason or another fails to register. It is incumbent on government to protect the existing freedoms to the best possible standards, in this case that means either maintaining the conditions that produce the most comprehensive electoral register and maximising the reach of the franchise or improving the coverage of the franchise. Removing the obligation to register would result in a failure in this duty. As it is widely believed to be the case that the majority of those who would fail to register would be those unlikely to be Liberal Democrat or Conservative voters it is apparent that, whether intentional or not, the electorate will be gerrymandered.

    There is nothing that I have said at any point which could reasonably be taken to mean that I reject moral duties. I have also exercised that moral duty by responding respectfully to the content of every point made to me. Disagreement is an exercise in respecting that moral duty. Misrepresentation in order to appear victorious is not.

    Your accusation that I fetishise the subject and neglect the object is also wrong but you are right to caution against, it is a danger in instituting such laws. I have pointed out that society does have an interest in ensuring that there is a complete register of the electorate. I have also pointed out that this may confer a civic duty on an individual to register. However, if it does not and the only relevance of voter registration is individual and personal, then in a just society adding a legal obligation would also confer a civic duty that otherwise would not exist. Stating that society has an interest is not equivalent to raising that collective interest above individual interests or of valuing the national interest above basic human values. However, neither is this to say that community interests are not sufficient to oblige individual actions. Any civic duty is one in which the interests of the community take precedence over the choices of the individual. Am I to take it that your arguments imply that civic duty is illiberal?

    The subsidiary inference you take is simply wrong. A legal obligation to register to vote does not imply a legal duty to vote and a legal duty to vote does not imply a duty to vote in a particular way. I have argued that the legal requirement to enrol on the electoral register should be maintained I would also argue that compulsory voting is unjust. If Sadiq Khan believes that it is a crime not to vote then I disagree with him.

  • Oranjepan,

    I agree with much of what you have said. Although much of it sidesteps the arguments I have made earlier.

    I do not agree though that choice is the practical expression of freedom. In specific circumstances choice can be a singular practical expression of freedom but it is not ‘the’ practical expression of freedom.

    Just to clarify some points: I do not have a position on the likely voting intentions of those who would have failed to register. It is widely believed that there is more likelihood that the poor and ill informed would be less likely to register to vote. If a decision is taken to introduce an opt-out under such a belief then this does amount to an intention to gerrymander even if it does not achieve its end or if the belief is false. There is a significant difference between those who have not chosen to vote and those who have failed to register to vote.

    I do not think it is incumbent on government to maximise turnout or compel people to vote. Turnout is not relevant to the legitimacy of an election if the choice to vote is equally available to all and the ability of those seeking election to attract votes is on an equal footing. It is as you say incumbent on those who seek to be elected to maximise their turnout. It is the responsibility of government, to as full an extent as possible, ensure that those who are entitled to the franchise have the means to legitimately register a vote. If every eligible individual has the freedom to vote, which requires registration, and all of those seeking election have freely been able to seek their vote without any impediment or privilege to either voting or campaigning then democratic elections are legitimate on the casting of a single vote. Those who have every opportunity to vote but still refuse, have no legitimate complaint about the result.

    If you are not registered on the electoral roll you can, by definition, be neither a voter or a non-voter. This is to my mind the crux of our disagreement. You are using registration to vote and the act of voting as interchangeable. They are not. Freedom to opt out of registration if exercised denies one the freedom to vote or to have your refusal to vote registered. However, it also denies that opportunity to those who have failed to register for other reasons and it is those people whose freedom is at stake. In a situation where the law states that it is your obligation to register to vote, the removal of that law can only result in there being a higher likelihood of people being unregistered. The relevant question is not; should we institute such a law, but whether we should remove it. It would be a shame if all of that effort to encourage people to vote was expended only for them to get to the polling booth and find that the little brown envelope they binned a few months earlier had contained their right to vote.

    The comment that Sadiq Khan was quoted as having made was that the presence of a legal obligation to register to vote elevated that specific action into a civic duty. No more, no less. That he might believe in compulsory voting is an extrapolation you have made. He may do. I don’t know. But, if he does he would have plenty of company, not all of it bad, it was certainly widely debated in the run up to the AV vote. In his position that the legal sanction against failure to register should be left in place he also has plenty of company, Mark Pack for one. Likewise the assertion that he stated that only a legal obligation could be considered a civic duty is an extrapolation made by Mark Pack.

    As we have demonstrated, there are nuances to this debate. If the point is argued from a position of there being no existing law the terms of the argument are significantly different from when there is an existing law. My position has been that in this particular circumstance it is true that the freedom from obligation to register is a subordinate freedom to the ability to vote and that as such does not qualify as a legitimate freedom to encourage. My position is also that registration should be seen as an obligation and that it may be true that this only becomes an obligation by having it legally prescribed. it is certainly true that if it becomes optional it is no longer an obligation. This does not imply that I only see civic duties as being those that are legal obligations any more than the fact that adherence to legal speed limits is a civic duty implies that only legal obligations are civic duties. It is nonetheless true that speed limits are only civic duties because they are legally prescribed.

  • Oranjepan,

    On choice as the expression of freedom, you are right, I have been guilty of a little mental extrapolation myself. A better expression of my view would be to say that freedom is not guaranteed only by the universal availability of choice.

  • Cheers Oranjepan,

    It’s been a good’un. One parting shot though: I agree entirely that there is a gap in communication that needs filling by those commentators, like Mark Pack, who do us all a favour when they do it accurately. It is precisely because of this that I took particular issue with the flawed basis of his personal attack on an individual. This particular article manipulated and spun language in order to personally ridicule another person. I feel that when we see this we should all protest, whether we are in agreement with the victim of it or not.

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