This is the transcript of our chair of Trustees, Dr Ed Mayo, appearing on BBC Radio 4’s flagship programme for moral debate, the Moral Maze, on Wednesday 18th February. The subject of the programme was whether it is immoral to be apathetic about politics.
(Section with Ed Mayo begins at 19 mins, 41 secs)
Michael Buerk (MB): Our next witness is Dr Ed Mayo, who is Chairman of Involve, that’s the public participation charity. Well, there wouldn’t be any need for you, would there, if voting was compulsory – you wouldn’t need a charity called Involve. Are you in favour of it?
Ed Mayo (EM): Around 10% of countries worldwide declare that they’ve got compulsory voting systems. When you look into it, actually in most cases it doesn’t quite work like that. In some cases, if you’re registered then you have to vote, so people don’t register. The turnouts are on average around 7% higher. But having a higher turnout doesn’t then mean that a government necessarily has more legitimacy. There’s no evidence that with compulsory voting systems people are more informed; that they take steps to inform themselves more.
MB: So, sorry to cut across you.. you’re not in favour of compulsory voting?
EM: Well it’s a rather complicated answer. Involve’s work is around participatory democracy: it’s about ‘how do we take decisions like this’…
MB: Sorry, are you in favour of compulsory voting or not?
EM: I’m in favour of a public process to decide on questions like that. Some of the other questions we’ve been looking at are ‘should 16 year olds vote?’. Tinkering with the system will not improve our democracy. A more fundamental review in an open way is the opportunity to reboot the system.
Claire Fox (CF): So an organisation like Involve is concerned about disengagement, and increasing participation. But just briefly; why do you think people are disengaged? Is it sensible that they are disengaged? If the political parties have no historical roots in some communities?
EM: I think there are good reasons for disengagement today. You can’t wring your hands and wish our way back to a past where people were deferential and the politicians weren’t in that open scrutiny. Yes I share the concerns around the state of representative democracy. But the work of Involve… we’re a charity that’s been going for around ten year now, its focusing not simply on voting. If we only focus on voting as the way that people are democratically involved – that’s important, but we underplay actually other opportunities to be part of a democracy.
CF: I agree there’s a lot more to democracy than voting. But just on voting: Can we try to understand something about why people have become quite cynical maybe, or sceptical about mainstream politics that we’ve been discussing. Recently millions of people did go out and vote and participated at the European Elections, and then they were told by mainstream politicians that they voted the wrong way. It seems to me that there’s… whenever people talk about populism they say it with a sneer. The fear of the rise of populism. I wanted to know, genuinely, does it matter what people are participating in? And isn’t it up to them? To join in something that they feel is their political contribution?
EM: I think people will always join in where they can see that it will make a difference. I think there’s a number of reasons why… the purview of national governments has become more limited. Where you have a clear choice that really is going to make a difference, as was the case with the Scottish independence referendum then people will turn out.
CF: It’s not just about turn out though is it. Last night there was all this controversy with Channel 4’s UKIP’s first 100 days…This was a kind of, a view of the fact that if millions of people will go out and vote for this political party, there’s going to be riots, racism, zenophobia; the masses are on the rise. If people are talking about a crisis of democracy, then it’s got to be to do with the fact that the political elite has got contempt for the demos. Is that something that you as Involve would be worried about?
EM: I think our work as Involve shows how you can take democracy forward by trusting ordinary people, and the sense of wisdom that they have. The representative democracy that we have is put all of its faith in representatives, and yet its that political class that is now – fairly or unfairly – seen to be self-serving and distrusted. So we’re working on issues like Open Government, which means that decisions are taken in the public eye, rather than behind closed doors; models like participatory budgeting, where the public decides on big decisions about where money goes and how it is spent; citizen’s juries, again, where you are trusting…
MB: Let me interrupt you to bring in Anne McElvoy.
Anne McElvoy (AM): I felt that that could go on for some time! But this very much comes off the back of what you were saying, you have a doubt about representative democracy, you think perhaps we put too much faith in it. Would that be fair?
EM: I think representative democracy has a role, but one just voting for a national government every five years is a very narrow conception of democratic life.
AM: But the question I want to add to that then is: why would you… You do seem to be in favour of making voting compulsory, yet you seem to distrust representative democracy. Is there not a bit of tension there?
EM: I wasn’t arguing in favour of compulsory voting, I think my answer to the chair was suitably ambiguous. I’ve been saying that there are a series of big choices and big questions. You are touching on some of those tonight – 16 year olds being given the vote… I work in Manchester in the cooperative sector , we have devo-manc, which is…
AM: Can we just focus on the moral point here? These are all very interesting things – we could make a programme about almost any of them. But the moral point that we are being asked to discuss tonight is whether voting is a moral duty. That seems to be, to your mind, almost irrelevant. Would you say it isn’t moral, it’s just practical – if I get a better by doing what I do (my roundtables; by devolving democracy further) that’s more important than voting.
EM: What we find is actually that when we engage people through participatory techniques then actually they are more likely to vote. It’s not an either/or.
AM: I’m asking you what you think. I know that’s an analytical answer but I’m asking what you think.
EM: Is it a moral duty to vote? Having thought about this in the 48 hours since I was asked to be on this programme, and having had about 50 conversations, I can tell you that people aren’t clear on that issue.
AM: But interested in yours, not the other 49 opinions.
EM: My view is that it is a civic duty to vote. I think if there is a moral duty it’s a moral duty to be involved; to take responsibility for engaging with the wider world. You may take a moral judgement not to vote; you may take a moral judgement to spoil your ballot paper; but it’s a civic duty yes. It’s a bit like giving blood.
AM: It’s civic not moral; just cut to the chase. Is it civic or is it moral?
EM: It’s civic.
AM: Good. Now what about other things. What about state funding or that way that you try to push people to be good by narrowing the range of options for parties to raise funds. Would you support that?
EM: Now I would caution against tinkering with the system, as I say. I think relying on a language of civic duty is a bit of cul-de-sac – we’ve relied on that for decades. We need, I think, a citizens’ constitutional convention – something that is open, deliberative, and can really look at all of these questions…
AM: So you are sceptical about state funding?
EM: State funding is one of those issues that should be in there. It should be in the picture. Money can corrode, and if the heart of the democratic system is one person one vote, then if big business and big money has more of say then people will be sceptical.
AM: It’s strange though isn’t it that Germany still has huge political funding scandals and yet it’s state funded. It’s almost like money finds the politics. We want to have this set of rules about how to be good or how to do better, but it’s very hard actually to get practical morality to work around that.
EM: I’m a great believer in the power of democracy, and I think that we haven’t really tapped the potential of democratic models to be able to bring decisions into the hands of ordinary people. Don’t focus just on votes, but on all of the possibilities that a democratic life can bring.
MB: Dr Mayo, thank you very much indeed.
[Following other witnesses, there was then a reflection after the debate]
MB: Giles, Dr Mayo had all sorts of ambiguities in there about compulsory voting and everything else, which I think he came down against eventually. He made a fairly valid point I think about democracy being more than just casting a vote.
Giles Fraser (GF): I was a bit lost with all of this. There was a lot of, sort of like, meetings and flip charts that would be involved.
Matthew Taylor (MT): We’d all have to spend all our time – all our time on these…
GF: I’m afraid that was the kind of politics that doesn’t inspire me particularly. I may have got that wrong. It wasn’t the sort of big vision politics that I’d feel.
CF: I wouldn’t at the beginning myself feel to be absolutely friendly to this endless tanguaulary that he seemed to want. But you know perfectly functioning democracies and pleasant places like Switzerland do get along very well with this kind of politics.
GF: It can’t be your moral duty to have to do that though.
CF: I thought that his point on why do we fetishise the vote was actually quite a good point. There are many other points of democracy that are important.
MB: But he made a distinction, Claire, didn’t he, between a duty to vote which he regarded as a civic duty but he also had a moral duty (that he didn’t really define) which was a wider responsibility to the wider world.
CF: But again, the emphasis is always looking at us and our responsibilities. I did want to turn it around a bit which was that I think that democracy is seriously under threat and is being attacked. But I think it’s being attacked by things like judicial activism – the judges taking too much power. The demos not having enough power. When the demos go out and vote people telling them they’ve voted the wrong way. Things like ‘Nudge’ that say ‘don’t let them do things rationally – let them do things that we want them to do’. That kind of contempt for the democratic process that seeping in daily. And then we actually say, how can we make democracy work better? We’ll go to an Involve seminar, and tell people about why they should vote. I just think there’s a danger in this programme of mis-assessing what is morally corrupting democracy.
(41 mins, 20).
MT: I thought Ed Mayo and James Calcutt shared something actually. They both shared a view that they wished things were different, but they resisted any of the kind of material ways that you might actually get to a different system. They both wanted an ideal world where we all voted and we all went to meetings and it was all great. But where not suggesting actual concrete reforms. And I think that’s a problem. We are saying we want democracy to change, but we don’t seem to be willing to will the means.
Image Credit: The BIG Maze, Victoria Pickering