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17 November 2014

Will making voting easier work?

Will making voting easier work?

Last week a parliamentary committee suggested making election day a bank holiday, and raised the possibility of compulsory voting and lowering the voting age across the UK – as happened for the Scottish referendum in September. These were all proposals to tackle the low level of political engagement from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in their latest report launched to coincide with Parliament Week.

There is a wide consensus that voter engagement is in a perilous state and something drastic is needed to address the low level of participation, especially among young voters. Fifty years ago, more than 76 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the 1964 General Election. This dropped to an all-time low of 38 per cent in 2005, but recovered to 52 in 2010 – an increase far larger than the higher turnout for the population as a whole.

Parliament Week kicked off with the Youth Parliament taking over the House of Commons on Friday, 14 November. It draws together more than 100 events aimed at increasing awareness of politics and providing opportunities for the public to get involved.

Grace Rowley, the public engagement project manager for the Houses of Parliament, said in an interview with The Huffington Post: "I know that Parliament can sometimes seem a slightly remote place, so I hope that this week we can help to demystify what happens here and encourage people to find out more about how it affects their lives and how they can participate in our democracy."

The intentions of Parliament Week are noble, and hard to argue with. I hope that by bringing more people into contact with more of what parliament does, their understanding can increase and it can contribute to a better awareness of how politics affects as all. Likewise, I think the suggestions to improve voting turnout are worthy of consideration, and not just because I like the idea of an extra day of holiday.

But if this is what reinvigorating politics looks like, it is pretty pathetic. I'm open minded about lowering the voting age – if it gets people into the habit of voting earlier then that's a good thing;I'm slightly against making voting compulsory and I haven't given much thought to many of the other proposals. These are changes that could make voting more accessible, but that is a far more modest target. Voting is already not that hard, polling stations are generally accessible for most and party volunteers are usually willing to provide lifts for those who struggle.

What voters need are not easier ways to cast a vote, but better reasons to cast it in the first place. We need political leadership that inspires and motivates, not technical answers to problems of marginal importance. In fact, I'm not sure voting should be easier than it is now. Voting is important, it's something to think about, take time over, and commit to. Voting should be the start of our political engagement and not the end. Improving public engagement in politics needs to grasp the magnitude of the task and start with radical measures. Measures that address the root of the problem: people don't vote because they don't trust politicians.

Efforts to improve engagement in politics can neither be simply focused on improving trust in politics, we have to improve the quality of the political leadership that we are asking people to place their trust in. At the moment politicians, from all the parties, do not have the credibility to deserve the trust of voters. If the only changes made are making it easier for people to choose between politicians they'd rather ignore, then this will fail.

The change that needs to happen is men and women of integrity entering politics. People with a passion and a commitment, and a determination to serve the country. The renewal of politics will come through people and not through promotional programmes or prescriptive policies. And the Church has a role to play in this – it can be the incubator for leadership but should never imprison it. The leadership developed in the Church is too good to stay there, it is needed in the world around us and it is needed more than ever in parliament.

To find out more about the Evangelical Alliance's Public Leadership work please visit www.thepublicleader.com