A question of duty?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 25th November 2011

The BBC’s article on Individual Electoral Registration the other day asked the question ‘Is there such thing as a Civic Duty?’, but avoided considering the wider implications of the nature of a ‘Social Contract’ and what it means for our society.

From Socrates to Hobbes and onto Rousseau (who interestingly died from his injuries after colliding with a Great Dane on the street of Paris, that’s a dog not Kierkegaard) political philosophers of left and right have explained that we come together in society to receive common goods and that in return we have certain duties to that society – that every citizen takes on an implied ‘Social Contract’.

I would be surprised if in UK mainstream politics today there is anybody who does not agree that we have duties to each other and through the state as part of that collective responsibility. We might argue about the levels of taxation and what should be provided by the state but few would disagree that individuals should pay some taxes so that collectively – ‘civilly’ – we can provide common goods; law and order, health, roads etc. As citizens we have a civic duty to pay taxes, true some may try to avoid it, but if we are to avoid social breakdown the state, as guardian of the common good, must offer sanctions so that we are compelled to pay them.

The BBC article picked up on the recent argument over proposed changes to the way people register to vote and particularly the removal of a fine if people refuse to give information to Electoral Registration Officers (ERO).  It is currently an offence for electors not to respond to an ERO request for information or to give false information. The offence is a failure to respond to an enquiry it is not an offence to fail to register. Anyone refusing to supply information is liable for a maximum fine of £1,000. Prosecutions are exceptionally rare but EROs have stressed the importance of the presence of the fine as a key tool in securing a complete register. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says he doesn’t believe a fine is necessary, insisting “everyone recognises” that registering to vote is “a civic duty”, and given that sense of obligation, the threat of sanction is not necessary.

This is an interesting view, especially as it appears from the article that a general feeling of being duty-bound to register to vote is in sharp decline. It would be telling to see how this duty correlates to how duty-bound people felt to pay their taxes. Maybe we should just leave paying tax up to that sense of obligation? By imposing sanctions on certain civic duties, the state signals how important it believes these duties to be. Removal of the threat of fine says registering to vote doesn’t matter.

You could, of course, argue that registering to vote is not a civic duty; it’s a matter of choice, not part of any social contract. But the electoral register is used to select people for jury service and will be used as the basis for future boundary reviews. It also has a role to play in the provision of public service funding. The Government’s argument that failing to register will only affect the individual is erroneous given the register’s direct impact on the justice system and political representation within our communities.

The Government have sent out mixed messages on civic duty. They need to be clear. If as citizens of a democracy we don’t have any duty to ourselves and to each other, then perhaps the doomsayers are right and we deserve to return to Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’.

Find out more about what the Electoral Reform Society is doing around Individual Electoral Registration.

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