This week I spoke in a debate in Parliament on Missing Voters.
I began by pointing out that political parties tend to focus on the number of votes that they might get, and we pay too little attention to the number of votes that could be cast but which are not cast, even by people who are registered.
Read on for the full text of my speech.
Of course, there are recognised barriers to voting, including literacy problems, lack of access to information technology, ill health, homelessness and work and family commitments.
However, given the importance of people voting in any democracy that is worthy of the name, we have to push that lack of engagement up the agenda and acknowledge that although we here enjoy a fairly advanced level of democracy, there is much that can be done to progress it. For example, we have to ask how democratic we actually are when large numbers of our population are not taking part in the operation of our democracy. What are we doing—or failing to do—to get the missing millions back? The changes to voter registration on which the motion focuses are clearly having a negative impact on the number of voters who are registered in Scotland, and that negative impact must be addressed.
Some of us in the chamber might well have experienced—or know someone who has experienced—a problem with the new system. I know people who, after completing the verification process, have received a letter demanding that they do so and telling them that they are not yet registered. Some of those people were concerned individuals who wanted to know that they were registered and therefore insisted on written confirmation that they were on the register, which, although understandable, resulted in time-consuming and expensive work.
I want to use the short time that remains to cover some broader issues relating to non-participation in our democratic process. Perhaps in his closing speech the minister might tell us more about why some companies are given access to the register for marketing purposes—I know that that is a concern for many people—how much money is raised through such practices and where that money goes. It might be helpful if some of that money were to be ring fenced to increase voter turnout or to improve registration, because we have to start to bring down the numbers who are not registered and the numbers who are registered but who simply choose not to vote. Why do people feel that voting is a waste of time? Is it because they become disillusioned when they have taken part in umpteen consultations and their views have been rejected out of hand?
The turnout in the 2011 elections to the Scottish Parliament was just over 50 per cent, so almost 2 million Scots who could have voted chose not to. That is right: they chose not to. We take the freedom to vote for granted, but it has been very hard won by many people. How might Scotland change if those non-voters were to exercise their democratic right—if we could do more to convince them that voting is worth while? We need to look at sharing power downwards and outwards. The size of areas and the population numbers that are considered local in Scotland would be regarded as regional and would be a level above local government in most other European nations.
Perhaps our winner-takes-all political culture is an unappealing turn-off for many people. It is a system that values conflict. We have roaring and cheering in this very chamber, and an adversarial Punch and Judy show. In no other walk of life would that be even considered.
The German constitution forbids national Government interference in regional government matters; Angela Merkel could not suggest a council tax freeze, for example. Regardless of what we think about the impact of that freeze, it means that power is taken away from local people.
We have an unelected House of Lords and an outdated and divisive electoral system that forces politicians to ignore huge parts of the population. We need a democracy that encourages a culture in which we collaborate with people and include everyone. To a great extent, the referendum demonstrated that the millions who do not vote in local, national and UK elections are interested and are more than engaged when they believe that they have the power to change things.
It is important that we as a Parliament take all the action that we can take to ensure that individual registration is properly resourced and administered, and that no one loses their right to vote. Let us do all that we can. This is not a party-political issue. We have to encourage everyone in Scotland to participate in our democratic process.