British democracy is based on the principle of representation. Our governments must command the support of a majority of the House of Commons, which, because it is directly elected by universal suffrage, is regarded as representative of the public. But how representative are UK elections really? It is common to identify the glaring flaws in the First-Past-the-Post electoral system; what is less often commented upon, however, is a more immediate issue with the representativeness of our elections: that a large proportion of the electorate does not vote.
Over the six general elections held this millennium, turnout has averaged just under 65%, meaning that around one third of the electorate now regularly fails to participate in the electoral process. At second-order elections, this proportion is even higher: turnout for Scottish Parliament elections has only once broken 60%, turnout in Welsh Parliament elections has never reached even 50%, and turnout for the 2021 local elections in England was barely more than a third. Such figures all represent a historic decline from turnout levels in the twentieth century.
Crucially, this tendency towards non-voting is not evenly distributed amongst the population, but is heavily correlated with demographic factors – above all those of age and class, with the young significantly less likely to vote than the old, and the poor much less likely to vote than the rich. The 2014 European Social Survey found that in Britain under 35s were more than twice as likely to abstain as over 55s, and that those in the bottom income quintile were more than twice as likely to abstain as those in the top. Indeed, these effects compound one another: the survey found that only 11% of over 55s in the top income quintile failed to vote, compared to 73% of under 35s in the bottom quintile. In addition, more recent research on the 2017 and 2019 general elections has found as well as age and class divides, homeowners vote more than renters, graduates more than non-graduates, and white people more than ethnic minorities.
The overall result of such differentials is an electorate that skews notably older, wealthier, whiter, and more educated than the makeup of the population as a whole. UK politics therefore suffers from a marked inequality of political participation. Not only does this call into question the democratic legitimacy of our governments by limiting who they can claim to genuinely speak for, but it also distorts the incentives of our political parties, skewing politics towards those (older, wealthier, more educated) segments of the population who are most likely to cast ballots at elections. The impact of such political distortion is clear to see: in 2013, a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that in the spending review following the 2010 general election, voters on average faced cuts amounting to 12% of their annual household income, while non-voters faced cuts averaging 20% of theirs. More broadly, the impact of the age disparity in voting can be seen in the ongoing transfer of wealth from young to old, with intergenerational analysesof distributional choices by governments in recent years regularly finding older cohorts benefitting disproportionately.
There is a serious risk here of a vicious cycle: as disparities in electoral turnout produce disparities in political and policy outcomes, this can in turn generate resentment, cynicism and disengagement that leads to further disparities in participation. Indeed, not only have turnout gaps between age groups been widening, but recent polling conducted for the conservative think tank Onward has found that young people are increasingly disaffected from democracy itself: 26% of 18-34 year olds now say democracy is a bad way to run a country, while over 60% express support for the idea of “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections”. This ultimately poses a long term challenge to the resilience and sustainability of UK democracy.
In this context, there is a clear case for the introduction of compulsory voting as a simple but effective way to address the problem of unequal electoral participation.
Although never previously used in the UK, compulsory voting is a measure currently in force in 15 democracies worldwide, including the comparable European and Commonwealth countries of Belgium and Australia. In countries where compulsory voting is used, citizens are obliged to cast ballots in national elections, generally on pain of a small fine. Cross-national studies regularly find that such measures are a reliable way to boost turnout, leading to near-universal participation. Elections are therefore more equal, as social disparities in turnout are no longer numerically significant. Importantly, such salutary impacts are not generally dependent on the level of punishment in place for non-voting, meaning compulsory voting would not require harsh coercion to be effective.
Crucially though, compulsory voting has impacts that go well beyond turnout. For a start, by mandating citizens to go to the polls, it provides a useful incentive to them to engage with the political process more broadly. More importantly, by ensuring that all sections of the adult population participate in elections equally, it creates beneficial incentives for political parties. In order to remain electorally viable under compulsory voting, parties would be forced to devote attention to sections of the population presently less likely to vote. In the UK, this would mean parties – and governments – no longer facing strong electoral incentives to tailor their policies specifically to the interests of elderly voters, and being pushed instead to appeal more to younger and more politically disaffected sections of the electorate.
There is therefore reason to believe that the introduction of compulsory voting could produce a virtuous cycle in the UK – one in which near-universal turnout in elections leads to better incentives for political parties. This, in turn, would lead to more responsive and inclusive policy-making, and thus ultimately to greater faith in the democratic process and a more widespread, organic willingness to participate in it. Such hopes for a virtuous cycle are backed up by extensive evidence. In her 2009 book Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting, the political scientist Sarah Birch summarises extensive cross-national evidence showing that in addition to higher turnout, compulsory voting can be shown to produce increased political participation outside of elections, lower inequalities of wealth, and greater trust in democracy.
Of course, some would argue that despite these beneficial impacts, compulsory voting stands at odds with the traditional place of voting in the UK constitution. Voting, they would argue, has always been understood as an individual right, rather than as a civic duty. Such objections however, are misplaced. For a start, there is no contradiction between voting being a right and being a duty. As the political theorist Lisa Hill has argued, voting is such a foundational political right, and one whose exercise is so important to the protection of civic rights more broadly, that it should be understood as a specific form of “duty-right”, as distinguished from more secondary “privilege-rights”.
Moreover, it is in fact in precisely this way that the constitutional significance of voting has often been understood in the UK. No less eminent a constitutionalist than John Stuart Mill insisted, for instance, that voting was not just a right but a “trust”, since it concerned not only the rights of the individual voter but also the rights of others. “The vote”, Mill declared, “is not a thing in which [the elector] has an option; it has no more to do with his personal wishes than the verdict of a juryman. It is strictly a matter of duty; he is bound to give it according to his best and most conscientious opinion of the public good.”
Importantly, this understanding of voting is one widely shared today: polling shows that over 70% of the British public agree with the fundamental proposition that voting is a duty, with fewer than 20% dissenting. It is therefore unsurprising that, in the same polls, more Britons consistently say they support than oppose the introduction of compulsory voting. Even in the absence of much direct advocacy for it, compulsory voting is a reform that chimes with public sentiments and that appears to be popular. Electoral reformers in the UK have a tendency to dismiss the idea of compulsory voting, wrongly seeing it as merely a sticking plaster for disengagement, and as a sideshow to the problems of First-Past-the-Post. The evidence, however, is clear: compulsory voting would be a simple, effective, and realistic means of producing a more representative electorate. Through that, we might achieve more responsive political parties, a more engaged public, and a stronger democratic system overall.
David Klemperer is currently a PhD student in History at Queen Mary University of London. He was previously a Research Fellow at the Constitution Society, and a Research Assistant at the Institute for Government.
The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.