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The freedoms of choice in a democracy must include the freedom not to choose. Some people might always wish a plague on all our houses and it would be wrong to force them to participate. Others might wish not to express their choice from time to time when they do not feel that the options available are good enough, and we cannot force them to participate. We need to avoid the arrogant assumption that whatever we and the political parties offer to the electorate at any time is obviously good enough for them to make a choice: sometimes, for some of them, it will not be.
My hon. Friend's Bill risks sending the unfortunate message to the electorate that we are saying, "We are offering you a choice. If you don't like it and it is not good enough for you, we are afraid that we shall still make you choose from among the options."
My hon. Friend suggests a way out in his proposal to allow space for a registered abstention on the ballot paper, but that is not a sufficient solution because an abstention expressed on the ballot paper may be no different from one recorded by staying at home.
My hon. Friend runs the risk of forcing many resentful voters to the ballot box. I fear that it would not be long before minority parties, extreme parties or fringe parties saw an opportunity to place themselves on the ballot and perhaps garner many votes that they would not otherwise have received from resentful voters who do not wish to be at the ballot box and who choose not to mark the abstention slot.
My hon. Friend should think about what it is in our system that imposes discipline on our political parties. Abstentions send a message to us from the electorate, and we are right to be concerned about that. We became used to participation in the 70 to 80 per cent. range, but it suddenly dropped to 59 per cent. at the last general election. The complacent view is that that does not matter because it reflects electoral contentment. I think that that is wrong.
If that unsettles us, instead of forcing people to the ballot box we should think about what choice we offer the electorate, how we communicate it and the nature of elective politics in the 21st century, because that would be the system responding to the message that the electorate are sending us via their abstention. It is an indirect response, but it is a response, and it will come about only if we consider the message and not obscure it by hiding it under forced participation. If there is an issue to address, as my hon. Friend believes there is, we need to confront it, not conceal it.
We also need to think about the process of democracy. Most of the responses that need to be produced to deal with my hon. Friend's concerns should be in the policies that parties offer the electorate and the way in which they communicate them to the electorate. Some of the answer lies in the electoral process. All votes are not of equal value in our electoral system and about 15 million of our voters are partially disfranchised by living in constituencies where parties of their first choice have no chance of winning. That in itself is a disincentive to participation. I do not suggest that changing the voting system will address all the issues that my hon. Friend raises, but it will go some way towards doing that and it forms part of the solution.
Finally, there is the matter of rights and duties. We speak in the House of the right to vote; and that is what it isa right. It has been fought for, as my hon. Friend said, and as a democratic people we rejoice when others win that right and escape after years of tyranny. He was also correct when he said that with rights come responsibility, but as a true democracy we should hesitate before we forcibly turn those rights into an obligation and introduce sanctions to prevent the exercise of free choice.
We need to be more humble in the face of the message that the electorate are sending by their level of participation, less arrogant about the virtues of the choice that our political parties offer and far more careful about turning a right based on freedom into an obligation to the state. We should smarten up our act as politicians and improve our democracy, but I urge the House to reject compulsory voting.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gareth R. Thomas, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. Paul Marsden, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle, David Winnick, Linda Perham, Mr. Tom Watson, Mark Tami, Mr. Tony Colman and Martin Linton.
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 to make voting compulsory in all Parliamentary elections; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 18 January, and to be printed [Bill 58].
Earlier this afternoon, we heard from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about the steps that he has taken to deliver a stable economic framework and thus to ensure that the United Kingdom is better placed than any other major industrial economy to withstand difficult times in the world economy. On the basis of that foundation of economic stability, our priority is now to deliver a high-skill, high-productivity economy. Productivity is not about working people into the ground; it is about skilled people in high-performance workplaces, where employers and employees work together in an effective partnership.
Nobody, not even a Member of this House, should have to choose between being a good parent and being an effective worker. We all know that stress in the workplace is on the increase, and that stress is bad for children, for parents and for business. Modern organisations with good workplaces have already recognised that family-friendly working makes sense. Good businesses recognise the link between effective employment relations and success in the marketplace. However, there are still too many workplaces that seem to be run by managers who believe that every worker has a wife at home, and who assume that the only way to organise a job is in the way it has always been done.
Getting all our workplaces to adapt to the reality of modern families is a huge cultural change. The Conservatives, of course, believe that such changes should be left to the market, but if we left matters to the spread of best practice through a voluntary approach, it would take 20 years to secure the changes that we want, and parents and employers simply cannot afford to wait that long. By setting new legal standards, as we will do in the Bill, we will put family-friendly working on the agenda of every workplace and bring these changes forward by a generation.
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have already reformed the national insurance contributions system to promote the employment of workers at the bottom end of the labour market. I am sure that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will want to focus on the interaction between the contributions threshold and the system of employment protection when the Bill goes into Committee.
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): The Bill is bedevilled by a split definition, which defines someone as an employee, but not a worker. My right hon. Friend will be aware that that is a fundamental point in industrial legislation. How will progress be made on that and other aspects of labour law? When will the review take place? Will my right hon. Friend give a guarantee that, where change is necessary, legislation will be introduced during this Parliament?