Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Bring in the OSCE

It seems that when it comes to electoral rights, there are at least three categories of people in this country. There are those (most of us), who have one vote, which we may or may not use on May 5.

Then there is the growing number of postal voters, such as the ones in certain parts of Birmingham or Blackburn. Among these the cry is becoming vote early or late, vote often, as long as you vote the right way.

And then there are members of the services, stationed overseas who have been risking their lives, fighting for our interests and ensuring that Iraq and Afghanistan have their first free and fair elections. They, it seems, will not be able to vote in our elections.

This interesting story has been going round some parliamentarians and has finally been brought out into the public by the The Herald.

“Ivor Caplin, the armed forces minister, told the House of Commons in January that 100,000 advisory leaflets would be distributed to bases from Basra to Benbecula by early the following month to allow soldiers, sailors and airmen to have their names included on voters' rolls in their home constituencies.

But the first leaflets were not handed out until March 1, only 10 days before the final registration date. Many units did not receive them until after the deadline, military sources said.”

In other words, around 80 per cent of our troops overseas will not be able to vote. We appear to have gone backwards in technological development. In 1945, with hostilities continuing and with huge numbers of British forces overseas, ballot papers went out, were filled in honestly, returned and counted honestly. (And brought in the first Attlee government.)

Now fast forward to 2001 and with all our technology we do not seem to be able to ensure that our servicemen and women vote in an election that has been signposted months ago.

Nor does it seem that anyone is too upset about it all.

“Peter Viggers, a parliamentary representative on the Electoral Commission, admitted that the leaflet initiative advising service personnel how to secure their votes had not been implemented "as speedily or effectively" as anticipated.”

Dear, dear. Note the passive aspect of the statement. It “had not been implemented”. Nobody is at fault. It just happened, guv.

“An MoD spokeswoman said: "The leaflets were produced and delivered. It was up to individual units, ships and bases to distribute them."

She could not,however, give detailed dates for the arrival of the documents.”

Well, that’s all right then. The MoD airhead probably went off to her statutory lunch break with the clear conscience of one who has done her work well.

It is no wonder that there are dark mutterings among some of the military:

“Jeff Duncan, manager of the Save the Scottish Regiments campaign, questioned whether the delay had been deliberate.

He said: "This government is treating our servicemen and women with contempt. This is just another example of that contempt.

"It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that perhaps Labour did not want to create the climate under which a military constituency of perhaps 250,000 potential voters facing defence cutbacks would make their displeasure plain at the ballot box."”

It is difficult not to feel some sympathy with that point of view but we on this blog believe that the MoD is inefficient rather than completely evil.

We also have a few suggestions. It seems, in the light of all the stories of postal vote chicanery, government refusal to deal with it and, now, soldiers not being able to vote, that this country must be put on the danger list.

It is not too late to send OSCE observers even for this election but, certainly, we shall need them for next year’s referendum. Incidentally, will the troops overseas, who have a fair idea of what Europe means to them, get the referendum ballot papers in time? Care to bet on that?

Then there is the purple indelible dye that so many Iraqis sported proudly on their election day. Was there any left over? Could we possibly have it here? It seems to me that we are beginning to need some extra security measures to ensure that our elections become free and fair.

In the meantime, bearing in mind the number of people in Britain, who find this election campaign of appalling tedium, we are suggesting that they might like to adopt a soldier. Find out how individual servicemen and women would have voted if they had not been disenfranchised by the MoD and cast your vote for them.

There is a slogan the Sun could adopt and mean it, for once, literally:

Cast your vote for our brave boys and girls.

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