Emma Does Politics

There is such a thing as society. It's called politics.

An open letter to Angela Eagle MP

Dear Angela Eagle,

Thank you for your enlightening talk on Monday (24th February 2014). It is slightly unfortunate that the topic of your presentation didn’t quite tie in with the name of the event (“How We Re-Engage People with Politics“). Given the title of the event, people were bound to expect the ideas presented to be about restoring engagement in processes where people used to be engaged. The most notable such example is voter turnout, which as you noted, has been declining steadily since I can remember, and even since before that.

Instead, we were given a presentation on parliamentary procedures and one idea on how it should be reformed. Unfortunately, I am not the parliamentary procedures geek that Emily (one of the event’s organisers) is. I doubt many (any?) members of the public who attended were, as were were led to believe the topic would be something else. Don’t get me wrong — I learned a great deal from your presentation, but it was very much Parliamentary Procedures 101 for me. I didn’t have the background knowledge necessary that evening to give a fully considered and meaningful response to many of the points you raised. Judging by the questions from the audience, neither  did many others.

However, I do not mean to appear dismissive. I would very much like to engage in a meaningful discussion of the important issue you raised. It has become clear during the life of the current parliament that bills can be sped through parliament without due process with regard to whether a bill can be implemented in a practical manner, and without proper time for review by those who would wish to consider whether the proposed bill is a just and fairly-written bill. I would very much like for you to either publish your notes on Monday’s presentation, or directly send me a copy, so that I may study them and give the well-thought-out responses and queries that I believe you had hoped for that evening.

Bringing this letter round top my favourite topic (implementing “None of the Above” on election ballot papers), I would like to thank you for your time listening to me talk on the subject that evening. You raised a few objections to the idea, such as how we can already spoil our vote, and if we had “NOTA with teeth” it might lead to an unending series of by-elections.

While it is true we can spoil our vote (or indeed, abstain), neither of those truly express a conscious expression of disapproval for the candidates on offer. A spoiled vote is, for official purposes, read as an accidental error, and historically, has resulted in ever-more-precise instructions about the “correct” way to vote. A “spoiled” ballot in which the voter placed a cross too many or too few or not clearly for a single candidate is, in the final analysis, considered no differently from a “spoiled” ballot in which the voter has written a long essay explaining his disapproval of the candidates and/or parties available in his constituency. Even if we were to officially recognise all spoiled ballots as NOTA votes, the resulting statistic would still be viewed with suspicion, since there will undoubtedly be “genuinely spoiled” votes, in which the voter intended to vote for a single candidate but got it wrong. The only way to clearly disambiguate protest votes for NOTA from spoiled ballots is to make NOTA a conscious choice rather than the result of human “error”.

I later explained that genuine NOTA has yet to be implemented anywhere, as the current implementations across the world simply call for the leading “live” candidate to win the seat outright as if the NOTA votes were abstentions. After I outlined my proposal for how “NOTA with teeth” could be implemented (a by-election to be called after one year), you objected to that idea, as it could lead to an unending series of by-elections.

I have two counterpoints to that. In the “real world”, everyone is subject to annual performance reviews anyway. Asking for only those MPs who had a nominal level of mandate granted at the polls (instead of say, all MPs) to prove their worth in an annual review seems quite reasonable when examined in that light. Knowing that their performance will be reviewed at the polls in a year’s time might even incentivise that MP to do a better job (or at least, that is the popular theory among management experts). Second, I would put forward the notion that any MP who is demonstrably less popular than a literal “someone, anyone, other than these guys” vote probably shouldn’t be put forward by their party again in the by-election. Having a NOTA with teeth might motivate parties to put forward candidates who are more acceptable to the general public.

Additionally, NOTA would be of demonstrable advantage to all parties. First, it would increase the voter turnout; people who would vote NOTA currently tend to abstain. The increased voter turnout would serve to increase the perceived legitimacy of the electoral mandate. Second, since NOTA voters are actively engaged in the election process by voting, it is that much easier to convert a NOTA voter to a party voter, something that should be of relevance to any political party. And given the topic of the event on Monday, something that really should have been given proper air-time that day.

Angela Eagle, I look forward to receiving your response at your soonest convenience.

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