The Socialist Unity Network

The postal fiasco

John Nicholson, RESPECT national executive (p.c.)

There are two overall political points to make about comprehensive postal voting this year.

The first is to understand where it comes from - New Labour's desire to increase the voting figures in the hope that (particularly in the north west) it would mean the BNP would not get a euro seat. They also hoped it would protect Manchester for Labour and possibly dislodge Liverpool from the Liberals (on the basis that a non-participatory voting system would work in New Labour's favour, being as they now have next-to-no activists willing to work for them (see Eric Illsley MP's comments on this in Yorkshire - along the lines of a party needs members!). The converse of this is that the liberals opposed the postal vote exercise, particularly in the north west, because they thought it would deprive them of Liverpool. (I am not clear what has happened in Birmingham, where I thought there wasn't postal voting, and yet where the Liberals are accusing Labour of malpractice from the highest level in Labour gaining votes?)


the second point is - and we should say this loud and clear - postal voting does not increase participation. It increases (if they are lucky) the voting figure. It reduces electoral activity and reduces the election day to a non-event. It is less interesting even than the Saturday lottery, where at least you see last minute queues to get a ticket (not that I am recommending further directions towards regressive taxation, which is what the lottery represents, just that the election has become even less of an involving experience than it ever was). and it means that the media is more responsible for the election result - people are likely to be influenced by what they read and see on TV (hence the rise of UKIP, and arguably also the BNP will not have suffered, as the liberal press have given them far more uncritical coverage than say respect or even the Greens). For all the reasons that the left has correctly opposed postal ballots in union decisions, we should oppose postal ballots in general and local elections. We should demand - and work practically for - participatory democracy and practical action. These should influence our electioneering, not tactics on how to work round the government, local government and post office bureaucracies.

At this latter level, of the administration of the postal ballot, there are several more points to make. The first is that this year was a nonsense from the start. Local town halls, in fairness to them, were not ready, because the Lords hadn't approved the scheme until literally almost too late. Councils in Manchester and Trafford were unable to give out information to political parties and did not know what to do if they suddenly found themselves having to shut libraries and schools in order to put polling stations there. the school timetables had all been worked out on the basis of postal voting.


Having said this (the one defence local authorities could have) the process adopted and the practical implementation were both a farce. and the cost will be felt by council tax payers across the northern boroughs (yet to be quantified, though some sensible parliamentary questions would not go amiss - or even some sensible local councillor questions). It has been such a farce that most people who have been opinion-polled so far (however unscientifically) agree that it shouldn't be the way to proceed. The initial explanatory leaflets were not easy to read and had little evidence of help for those who don't have English as their first language. The follow-up voting package made an ikea assembly instruction leaflet look like it could actually produce a set of shelves.


People genuinely could not work out which ballot paper to put in which envelope, which envelope had to go in which other envelope, and which bit to leave showing through the window. Instructions to make the "barcode" visible did not assist people who did not know what a "barcode" was. It is impossible (see my anti-prediction prediction for more on this) to generalise what effect this had. Did it increase spoilt returns or just deter returns? Did the combination of euro and local increase the voting or did the absence of information that you could just fill in one form and ignore the other actually decrease the overall level? Whatever the truth of this, the anticipated doubling of voting (that postal systems were supposed to produce) did not deliver. The overall quoted increase of about 13% is not comparing like with like - the euro turnout last time was abysmal, so its not a real comparison on that, and the local turnouts varied (and you would need council by council figures to work out something sensible here). What we do know is that trafford council had a postal ballot at the last local election and scored the "massive" 50% (yes, that's just half the population). This time they got just 40%. So much for increased voting as a justification.


But the most significant allegations are about coercion. The requirement was for a "witness" to sign the (to be separated) part of the ballot paper. now in general understanding in this country, getting a witness (for say a passport) involves someone you dont know too well or who is a responsible member of the community (like a judge!). There was limited explanation that the witness for voting could be anyone. Yes, thats anyone. having said that, there was also the problem that the witness had to put their own name and address down on the form. People not registered at a particular address (or still preferring agencies such as the council tax office not to know what their address is) would prefer not to declare this. Whatever the rights and wrongs or logic of this requirement, the reality is that established local figures (such as MPs, councillors, and community leaders - supporting particular MPs and councillors) were able to sign loads of forms on people's behalf. Don't tell me they didn't influence the way the people voted. Its like giving someone a lift to the polls (remember that way of working?). You could give someone a lift who then, perversely, told you they had voted for the other lot. but you didn't generally find that was the result.

These allegations will run and run. i expect legal challenges, especially where figures were tight. And then there were all the distribution mistakes.  Stockport and Rochdale exceeded themselves in the north west, in printing the wrong forms and sending them to the wrong places. Reprinting will have cost more, as will council staff overtime to deliver leaflets personally to try (and fail) to meet the (legislative) deadline. back to the law again - and the cost to local council tax payers. Bolton managed to cock up one ward (paradoxically the one in which the local swp/respect member had "volunteered" to stand as a local council candidate (this was a result of the turn to local elections, following the turn to not fighting local elections, following the turn to.....). so the council had to rush to set up polling stations after all.


It was a mess.


However, in amidst all the administrative, bureaucratic, financial and sheer lunatic aspects of the postal voting, don't let us forget that these are still not the main point. What we need politically is an open, participatory, democratic system of elections and electioneering - and we should continue to campaign for this, politically, whatever the strength of our analysis of the maladministration of the postal voting system as seen this time. Our criticisms of the latter should not lead to the perverse conclusion that a "better-managed" postal voting service would increase take-up by "election consumers".


June 2004


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