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by Kevin Pringle
21 March 2016
A political campaign needs to be fought on policy not polls

A political campaign needs to be fought on policy not polls

Being a teenage sci-fi geek, the fact that one of my favourite tales was about elections of the future meant I was probably doomed from a tragically early age to become a politics geek.

In a 1950s short story called ‘Franchise’, Isaac Asimov wrote about a perfected system of ‘electronic democracy’ in 21st-century America that had dispensed with the inconvenience of people actually having to vote.

The plot concerns the then far away US presidential election of 2008, where excitement abounds about the individual citizen who will have the honour of being selected by a super-duper computer called Multivac to be ‘Voter of the Year’.


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Instead of universal franchise, Multivac asks this ultra-representative elector questions about everything from the price of eggs to foreign policy issues, and from the answers extrapolates which presidential candidate will be ‘elected’, and who will fill congressional seats and state legislatures across the USA.

After the results coverage and post-match analysis, the voter is proud that, through him, US citizens have “exercised once again their free, untrammelled franchise”.

Like all good science fiction, it contained a kernel of truth about trends already underway in society – in this case, the beginnings of polling experts seemingly telling people how they were going to vote weeks and months before election day dawned.

Hopefully, Donald Trump hasn’t read the story, because the crazier the idea, the more he seems to like it.

In this country, though, we seem safe enough from any and all electoral innovation. Never mind electronic democracy, over 60 years after Asimov wrote his story we still vote here with pencil and paper in a wooden booth.

But there is a sense in which elections can bypass the people, even in post-referendum, hyper-engaged Scotland. And that carries risks, particularly for the far and away dominant party, the SNP, as well as for democracy itself.

With poll after poll forecasting another overall majority for Nicola Sturgeon’s party, the danger is that complacency creeps in – not on the part of the foot soldiers, but from supporters who think that another SNP steamroller result is pre-programmed into Scotland’s body politic. In the absence of any sense of competition or uncertainty about the outcome, such people may think either that their votes aren’t needed at all or that they can do something different with their list vote, both of which endanger the majority.

It will serve Nicola’s interests to talk down the inevitability of another majority while talking up the need to achieve it on the basis of a manifesto buzzing with ideas, the contents of which are only guaranteed if people in Scotland vote SNP in similar percentages to 2011 and 2015.

The days of the SNP motivating supporters by contesting elections as underdogs, capable of besting Labour at the end of the fight, are obviously long over. That is why the vision and policies have to be strong so that people want to be part of it.

Apart from anything else, turnout in Scottish Parliament elections has never even hit 60 per cent. Only in 1999 was it significantly above half of registered voters.

 All parties should be aiming for a record turnout this year – a modest enough target – and deliver it by positive campaigning.

Like all elections, this one belongs to the people – and they deserve a campaign defined by the policies, not the polls.

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Read the most recent article written by Kevin Pringle - Kevin Pringle: Who is fixated on constitutional politics now?

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