I will always vote – until the day I’m forced to

Why compulsory voting would be a step in the wrong direction

Since I was eligible to do so, I’ve voted in every ballot that has been available to me. Local elections, general elections and referendums, I haven’t missed one. No matter whether it’s an exciting, tense, close vote, a foregone conclusion or some bog-standard local election that nobody even knows is happening, I’ve trudged down to the polling station and marked my X (or scribbled something rather less tasteful).

It is a freedom that I am grateful for. Many people have fought for, protested for and been punished for this freedom in the past. But the crucial point is that this happened for the freedom to vote.

I’ve never been a fan of the growing shame culture around not voting. By all means encourage and cajole if that’s what you feel is right, and certainly shake people out of laziness or apathy. But if people want to exercise their equal right to not vote, then they should be allowed to do so. This is, for now (and less and less so), a free country. The state should be extremely limited in telling us what we must do. There is a world of difference between legislating what we can’t do and dictating to us what we must do.

My vote has had varying weights – in local and general elections, it makes barely any difference. I have always lived in some of the safest Labour council and constituency seats in the country, but I don’t bemoan this fact. In referendums, where all count equally, my votes against AV or for Leave have had more weight. But in all instances, I’ve offered my view willingly through the ballot box.

Turnout in this country can vary wildly between the different polls. And this is where problems start to emerge; problems to which politicians start to seek solutions that would begin to erode our freedoms.

Any talk of compulsory voting should chill us, and, in my view, must be resisted whenever is is even whispered. Compulsory voting is not designed to help us, the voters. It is purely designed to help politicians. This is why I am always minded to warn those who are heavily invested in one side and who think compulsory voting would benefit their side that this would not be a panacea.

It always seems to be assumed in this debate that everyone cares, everyone is engaged and every knows enough to cast a vote. This is obviously not true. This should never bar anyone from casting a vote, but compulsory voting would force all of these people into the voting booth. Given the completely anti-democratic and anti-universal suffrage reaction to the EU referendum (take votes away form the old, the stupid, the working class, the white, etc.), I’m not sure these people can square their self-drawn circle here.

One of the issues that seems to continually crop up is the high voting engagement of older people against the comparatively low engagement of younger people. This is sometimes completely disproven in the odd vote, but as a general trend it stands up to scrutiny. It also prompts those on the more left/liberal side of the equation to become exasperated in their attempts to ‘get out the youth vote’ – i.e. their core vote. This inevitably starts to lead down the road towards musing on compulsory voting, because they figure that if they can force everyone (i.e young people) to vote, their share will increase and they will sweep to power.

Makes sense. But if that were to ever happen, they would be making us all less free, not more free. I don’t owe politicians a thing, and they should remember that.

You see, what politicians crave more than anything – more than popularity, even more than power itself – is a mandate. Popularity without a mandate is powerless. Power without a mandate is weak. If it looks like the mandate is small, their power starts to wane. And one way (not the only way, but one way) of depriving them of a popular mandate is by staying away. It’s not the way I would choose, but it is legitimate.

Compulsory voting would force the entire nation to give somebody a mandate, and we would have no grounds to delegitimise them. You would be forced to go and cast a vote. Now, I understand that people have tried various ways to get around this – what about if we still allowed spoiled ballots? What if we offered a ‘none of the above’ option? These are not terrible suggestions, but would always have some problems.

Spoiled ballots would have to be discounted in a way similar to the way they are now. They have to be acknowledged, but not counted, which seems a sensible compromise. But why not just let people stay away? I myself spoiled my ballot in the last general election, but that’s because I wanted to go and show my displeasure – that was my choice. Why should I be forced to go and do that if I don’t wish to?

A ‘none of the above’ option is the one thing that could even remotely sway me towards compulsory voting, but again, there are problems – what if this option won? What then? No MP sent to Parliament? The second on the list wins? We vote again? Again, it doesn’t seem to solve the problem that compulsory voting is intended to solve. What about in referendums – should this be an option there as well? Would they be counted? Would they be assumed to be backing the status quo?

What about in a general election where there are constituencies with only one serious candidate? The entire population of that area would be practically forced to give a mandate to that person, with no choice not to. Spoiled ballots wouldn’t count, and ‘none of the above’ would produce the same issues highlighted above. Traditionally, the Commons Speaker stands unopposed by the major parties- what if I don’t like him? I either have to vote for Greens or UKIP? I don’t think so.

When Jo Cox was murdered, the Labour candidate stood unopposed by any major party. This was, of course, a totally unique situation, rightly engineered out of compassion and respect, but that respect would have been soured by, essentially, a forced vote for the replacement or going for a far-right alternative. As somebody who votes for the candidate above the party or the party leader, that would have caused me a major issue.

Forcing people to go to the ballot box would also be a violation of freedom of speech – the state would be making me send a message that I may not wish to send. This cannot be tolerable in a free society, surely? I should be able to choose what I say and when and where I say it, unless restricted by law (and these instances should be extremely minimal, if at all) – I should not be compelled to do or say anything I don’t wish to do or say, and certainly not by the state. It is authoritarian and a breach of the relationship between state and citizen.

If it ever came to it in this country, which seems unlikely, I would campaign vigorously against it. I’m all for encouraging people to vote, but active non-participation is a choice that many people make, and this shouldn’t be curtailed.

As I say – I have always voted. But as soon as someone tells me that I have to, I won’t.

The best thing about the EU? GDPR

The General Data Protection Regulation is an important step in the right direction

In that ridiculous, stupid, constitutionally redundant, binary, idiotic Cameron referendum, I voted Leave. I’m no fan of the EU or its institutions, but that was never to say that everything it does is wrong. I firmly believe that the UK should leave it, and I have never wavered on that enough to change my mind, but there are doubtless some good things about it.

I’ve no intention to rerun the arguments, or provide a defence of my position here – I did all that at the time and it’s become intensely boring. Being attacked for it is no fun, especially from the side of the political divide that is supposed to be nice, tolerant and espousing a ‘kinder, gentler politics’. But that’s what happens. You learn to live with it.

This post is to praise one of the truly great things the EU has pursued – the ‘General Data Protection Regulation‘, or ‘GDPR’.

GDPR has been variously described as ‘the Data Protection Act on steroids‘, ‘severe‘ and ‘the biggest change to the regulatory landscape of data privacy’. It is a behemoth of a piece of legislation and has put the proverbial willies up everyone who does anything with personal data.

Ironically, the one thing that I think is great about the EU is the one thing that my lefty, Remainer friends are much more flustered about. It hasn’t gone down too well in my industry, where it is causing quite the headache for all involved or affected. It means a huge change in thinking, a completely different approach to data collection and retention and, most importantly of all, puts control of personal data firmly back in the hands of individuals.

To give a quick overview to what is an enormous, technically complex law, it allows individuals to gain control over their data and what happens with it. It may sound dry and boring, but I can assure you, it is an important step in the right direction.

Here is a list of some of the key points:

  • It applies to all companies processing the personal data of data subjects residing in the European Union, regardless of the company’s location.
  • Under GDPR, organisations in breach of GDPR can be fined up to 4% of annual global turnover or €20million (whichever is greater).
  • Consent must be clear and distinguishable from other matters and provided in an intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language. It must be as easy to withdraw consent as it is to give it.​
  • Breach notification will become mandatory in all member states where a data breach is likely to “result in a risk for the rights and freedoms of individuals”. This must be done within 72 hours of first having become aware of the breach.
  • Data subjects will have the right to obtain from the data controller confirmation as to whether or not personal data concerning them is being processed, where and for what purpose. Further, the controller shall provide a copy of the personal data, free of charge, in an electronic format.
  • The right to be forgotten – this entitles the data subject to have the data controller erase his/her personal data, cease further dissemination of the data, and potentially have third parties halt processing of the data.

That’s right – these guys aren’t messing around.

As I mentioned before, most people working in my industry (digital) are in a right flap about this. There are so many practices that are either going to have to stop, or be changed radically. Retro-fitting of websites, apps and online portals with new tools to ensure compliance with GDPR is happening at the moment (and if it isn’t, they’ll be in trouble).

But to be honest, whilst everyone loses their heads, I’m absolutely loving it. This is what needs to start happening. It has been 4 years in the making and, in my opinion, it’s all been worth it. Yes, we’re all going to have to make some changes. But these changes are intended to level the playing field and tip the balance back away from large, powerful, secretive (not any of my clients, obviously), companies and towards individuals. We simply cannot continue the way we have been – technological advancement has outstripped legislation at a pace that has allowed all of us to be swept up by it all, without adequate protection.

We have just had the result of a Guardian investigation that has provided revelations into ‘Cambridge Analytica’ – it’s still going, and it looks like it will be one of the biggest scandals the digital world has ever seen. This should make people wake up and realise just what happens with their data. That old adage ‘if you’re getting something for free, then you’re the product’ has never been more true. We’ve all known that our data is being used, but the extent of it should worry us.

Credit where it is due – the EU deserves a lot of praise for this legislation. It is comprehensive, meaningful and serious. It will be in force before we officially withdraw from the Union, and frankly it won’t make much difference anyway as the regulations cover any data held about EU citizens. America and Japan will have to abide by this as much as we do if they’re holding or processing personal data about EU citizens.

If you think it sounds draconian, consider this – you will be put in the driving seat, and large companies are scared of it. That alone should give you an indication that we’re finally heading in the right direction.

The police must never be routinely armed with guns

Who is reassured by automatic weapons on a residential street? We must resist this folly.

There are some traditions and routines in life that become so ingrained in one’s head that auto-pilot takes over and we switch off. The commute to work, doing the big shop on Saturday morning and, for me anyway, going to the football. We know the rhythms and the routes, we know which traffic lights we prefer on the way to the office and we know that the houmous in the Old Swan Tesco is in a slightly different place to where it is in the Allerton Tesco (although having said that, Old Swan Tesco are in the process of moving everything around. Allerton it will have to be.)

My family’s ‘going to Anfield’ ritual is as old as I am, my parents having been season ticket holders for decades, and my brother and I joining as soon as we were old enough that we could keep up the pace to walk the route. It’s the same every game. Leave the house around an hour before kick off, park the car 45 minutes before kick off, walk down together on the left hand side, cross over the road in front of the stadium, stop for a couple of minutes on the corner of the Kop and the Kemlin/Centenery/Dalglish, make our predictions, then go our separate ways into the stadium – Dad and brother into the Kop, me into the Kemlin/Centenery/Dalglish. Into the second turnstile (never the first, or any other), up the stairs, across to my block and out to my seat.

I could do this with my eyes closed – it’s barely changed in the 20+ years I’ve been doing it. Sure, the turnstiles are automatic now, but I still go through the same one. There’s only the three of us that go now. But other than that, only something extraordinary could throw me off.

And that’s exactly what happened at the Boxing Day match last year. Liverpool were playing Swansea, so it ought to have been a low security kind of affair. United, Everton, Chelsea – these are games where you expect slightly more police and maybe some police horses, but other than that, it’s generally a few smiling officers posted around the ground in hi-vis jackets, overseeing some semblance of order. This is not what greeted us as we crossed the road in front of the stadium.

On this occasion, I was shaken out of my routine by the sight of two heavily armed police officers standing in the middle of the road. They were both carrying machine guns and looked decked out for war. They were still smiling – everything about the personality of the image was still the same, but the outfit was one of menace and aggression. These weapons were not equipped in a  passive way, there in case of emergency – they were being held, trigger in the right hand, left hand under the barrel. Ready to shoot.

To my knowledge, there was no threat. No reason for these weapons to be deployed. I have written to the Police and Crime Commissioner and my MP to ask why these shocking, unpleasant guns were required for a Boxing Day match against a non-rival, but received no reply. Frankly, even if we were playing United, this would have been serious overkill. What are you going to do, shoot someone if they start fighting over a song about Gerrard?

What possible use could these assault weapons have been in anything that might have taken place at a football match? What would have happened if some unrest or low level violence had taken place within range of these two men? Their hands were on a gun. How could they have dealt with a couple of morons swinging fists at one another? “Excuse me mate, can you just hold this while I go and break that up? Safety’s off, try not to pull the trigger.”

The excuse often given in these situations is that they are there to ‘reassure the public’. Reassure me of what? I can assure you, I was far from reassured. Seeing an automatic weapon on a residential street in a populated city is one of the most alarming sights I’ve seen in a long time. Had there been a threat of terrorism, a serious indication of violence made against the stadium or the surrounding area, it may have been understandable, but there was nothing of the sort. So while we are all assuming this is a routine match, seeing armed police is the opposite of reassuring – it makes you think there has been a threat and we haven’t been told about it. Follow that link above – plenty of research negates this silly view.

It put me in mind of our family holiday to America in 2005. Flying into JFK airport in New York, we were greeted with the sight of police everywhere, all with pistols holstered on their hips. There was no heightened threat level, no expected incident – this was the norm. I asked my mum why they all had guns, and she replied “that’s just the way it is here”. Well, fine. but that had better not make its way over here.

I remember when we had some friends over from America. We were discussing over dinner and games the differences between our two countries. My wife hadn’t really realised just what a different country the US is to Britain, and so she was enjoying the back and forth. At one point I piped up to her, “I bet these guys wouldn’t believe you if you told them our police don’t have guns” – their faces dropped and they froze. “WHAT? How on earth can you feel safe if the police don’t have guns?”. It was a real lesson in mindsets and culture.

My worry is that we are being buttered up for some move towards arming the police as a routine measure. Getting these out and visible bit by bit so that when it is announced, we’re already sort of used to it. This must be resisted.

Salami slicing is always the best way to advance policy. It is quiet and sneaky, and makes objections sound petty and silly. “It’s not like we’re going for full on arming, just an armed section of the police.” “Oh well only some police are armed”, “Only some forces have been allocated funds for training” “Only at airports and stadiums”, “Well just those who have to go to more dangerous areas”… But this is exactly why we need to register objections when we encounter these situations. Because before we know it, the sight of guns will become more commonplace. If you laugh at the NRA’s suggestion that ‘a good guy with a gun is the answer to a bad guy with a gun’, then consider your support for armed police very carefully.

We have to realise that it is a ratchet. Once these things are given out to police officers like handcuffs and helmets, there will be no going back. This will not be something we can reverse. Once guns are in common use, they will be seen as ‘required’.

It’s strange to see friends who couldn’t be more against guns in America argue for UK police to be armed. Can you not see that this is how it ratchets up? If people feel targeted by the police, and those officers start walking (well, let’s be honest, driving) around the neighbourhood with guns strapped to their sides, what do you think those people are going to do next? It doesn’t take much imagination.

Frankly, I don’t believe there should even be an armed division of the police. It is a civilian force. If you want to shoot guns, join the army. If there is a terrorist incident, send the army. But I realise this is not a popular opinion, and I don’t want to divert and dilute my argument too much here – I’m really more interested in patrol policing than reactive policing at this point.

I may come back to this subject at another time, but for now, I will be taking note of any moves to advance this policy and would welcome any correspondence from others if you spot it happening.

My son is currently 9 months old. Before I know it, he’ll be scampering at my side, running excitedly between his father, his uncle and his granddad as we beat that hallowed path towards our historic stadium. If he has to see what I saw, but on a regular basis, we will be living in a different country. And that would be a real shame.