A recurring talking point of Welsh politics is the country’s political engagement problem, and the stubbornly low turnout figures for Assembly elections. Lack of political awareness, media reporting, education and other factors have combined into a general disconnect between citizens and events in Cardiff Bay.
So the news that 16- and 17-year-olds are to be allowed to vote in Welsh council elections can be welcomed as a cautious step in the right direction. But reforms could be far more radical than this. Scotland allows 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in national elections, for example. More intriguingly, some politicians in Wales have been talking about a move towards compulsory voting.
This is not a new idea. More than 20 countries – including Australia, Belgium and Luxembourg – have a compulsory voting system. Turnout is notably higher in these countries, especially where abstaining has consequences, but there remains much debate as to the broader pros and cons.
But why now for Wales? The recent rise in populism across the UK is just one justification for moving to a system of compulsory votes, as is the disillusionment with politics that has provoked it. The EU referendum in the UK and Trump’s election in the US were partly a rejection of modern professionalised politics.
In addition, as openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett has argued convincingly these events show the issues run deep. A huge raft of people, not only in Wales, have been left behind by deindustrialisation and an increasingly globalised society – and politicians have failed to respond to their hopes for renewal. A duty of participation could be one way to encourage greater responsiveness from Welsh politicans.
Advocates for compulsory voting emphasise that it speaks to the issue of social justice. Requiring people to participate holds out the possibility that the political establishment will pay greater heed to the interests of those who feel that mainstream politics has the least to offer them – and so tend to vote less.
While it is true that there is an onus on politicians to provide more varied political programmes, one can also argue that a duty of participation can be part of the response. But then again, this compulsory voting is not as strict as it might sound. It’s all about emphasising participation not compulsion, and the idea that active abstention (spoiling your vote) in elections is equally legitimate.
Such a radical change, however, requires a raft of measures to ensure a more politically aware and informed electorate – something Wales is lacking right now. Failure to put these in place could encourage further populism, where voters are not equipped to engage critically with political propaganda. So compulsory voting could be used as a cornerstone to prop up the country’s public sphere, and address the appalling state of political education.
Opting for compulsory voting would turn the mainstream, liberal political tradition – which regards the right to vote as voluntary – on its head. But this tradition, with its roots in the philosophy of figures such as John Locke, is not one that Wales should accept uncritically.
Arguably, the Welsh political tradition is not as laissez-faire as this, and in fact shares some similarities with republicanism. This perspective advocates a far more active conception of the citizen who does not merely participate at their leisure, but rather carries a set of civic duties they are expected to fulfil.
Even the ideas of Wales’s leading liberals show some signs of republicanism. The latter passages of Welsh philosopher Richard Price’s Discourse on the love of our country are striking with respect to the burden they place on the patriot and their role as a citizen. Henry Jones, a contemporary of Lloyd George, spoke of the need for “pure citizenship”, and the indivisible relationship between the individual and the state.
The symbiotic relationship envisaged in Jones’s social liberalism is arguably reflected in the people’s relationship with government in Wales today. The nature of this political culture was reflected in the relative ease with which opt out organ donation came into force. The more traditional liberal might well have considered this claim on our bodies to be the state overreaching itself.
There are good historical reasons for this tradition. As a matter of necessity, Welsh society has had to embrace political activism in some form, to penetrate the British state and stake a claim for its benefits. Had 19th and early 20th century Welsh society not given itself wholeheartedly to the political cause, one wonders what its fate might be today.
The same ethos might be said to inform the case for a duty of participation in Wales today: do your duty to yourself, your country and your fellow citizens. Participate in democracy and make yourself heard, because Wales is worse off without you.