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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 19:39 GMT 20:39 UK
Chris Smith quizzed

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Voter apathy has been a key issue in this election.

Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, joined us for a live forum on 6 June - the day before you may or may not go to the polling station.

He answered questions on new methods of voting, PR, voter ignorance and what could politicians do to encourage turnout.

Transcript

Nyta Mann

Hello and welcome to BBC News Online's Election Forum the day before polling day and joining us to answer your questions e-mailed into us is Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary. Chris Smith thanks for joining us. Our first question is about the renewal of democracy and it's from Mark Whitehouse in Birmingham. He asks: "What do you believe will reinvigorate democracy, would it be compulsory voting, a course in the schools curriculum on civil duty or do you believe all these approaches no matter how neutral can only impose an ideological dogma on the electorate."

Chris Smith

I certainly don't think that things like teaching about citizenship and voting is imposing dogma on anyone. I think its part of explaining the process of citizenship and deciding how the country's run. And I've certainly found that going round talking with school pupils over may years, they have a keen interest in what elections are about and how the process works. So I think citizenship as part of the curriculum is a very welcome thing. In terms of compulsory voting which of course they have in some parts of the world like Australia, I've always been a bit sceptical because I think in some ways making people go to the polling station is a bit draconian. You know part of being in a democracy is the right to vote, the right to kick out government, but also the right to choose not to vote if you want. Now obviously I hope that tomorrow very few people will choose not to vote but I think that choice has to be there for them.

Nyta Mann

That's a subtly different line to what Tony Blair was saying earlier this week when he was scolding people into voting and saying if they didn't vote, if they voted for anyone other than Labour, they were voting for the Tories. Was that quite the right thing to say.

Chris Smith

I think he's making an entirely valid point. But what he was saying there, was very much in direct response to this Tory campaign about, oh, it doesn't matter what you believe in go out and vote to stop Labour getting a landslide. Now I don't believe that we're going to get a landslide anyway because everything counts on polling day rather than in the opinion polls. But I think the point that he was making was that that is a dangerous temptation. People should vote because of what they believe in. What sort of country they want to see. What policies they want to see the government follow. And they ought to have a close look at what the various parties are offering, they should make their decision about which most closely reflects their view and then they should vote accordingly. Trying to vote in terms of, oh, I ought to clip someone's wings or I ought to stop someone else getting a particularly big majority, that's not a particularly valid reason for making your democratic choice.

Nyta Mann

Okay, lets move on to a question about your own department, at the moment anyway. From Jeremy Austin in Streatham, London: would the culture department be broken up after a Labour election victory. If not what new form might it take. There have been reports about your department being broken up.

Chris Smith

I expect my department to remain very firmly in place. It's I think doing a very valuable job in drawing together these actually rather synergistic strands of culture, media, sport and tourism. I think having a department in overall charge of those areas actually makes a lot of sense. I don't expect the department itself to be disbanded at all.

Nyta Mann

Okay, your department may not be disbanded but if it were, what would you expect to do on the backbenches if you're sacked.

Chris Smith

Well, I very much hope not to be in that position. If that is indeed the decision I will seek to be as active and energetic a constituency MP as I've always been.

Nyta Mann

Okay, lets move on to methods of voting. First a question on proportional representation from Ian Sweeney in London who asks: "If PR were introduced then perhaps more people would think that making the effort to vote would be worthwhile. Does the Labour Party have any valid justification for not allowing PR in Westminster?"

Chris Smith

I think we want to be a little bit more cautious about proceeding to change in the House of Commons. Partly because there's no evidence of enormous demand for change.

Nyta Mann

Although opinion polls show most people support PR for the House, there haven't been demonstrations about it, but they support it when asked.

Chris Smith

It does depend what sort of change you're envisaging. Now I happen to believe personally very strongly in single member constituencies, because I think having a Member of Parliament identified with a particular area is enormously valuable. It helps to keep politicians' feet on the ground, it helps to inject into politicians a sense of what's happening in the real world and what the real impact of the policies that you're determining in the House of Commons actually is on real people. Now having said that, I'm attracted by the alternative vote system. Which means that instead of just voting for one candidate in a particular constituency, you vote 1, 2, 3, 4. So you can express a best preference, but also a second best preference. That I think might inject a bit more of a sense of fairness into the system, but I think we should be very cautious about going down the road of changing the method of voting for the main government of the country, unless people actually want it.

Nyta Mann

You've been a long-time supporter of electoral reform. You must want a referendum for Westminster, after all you'd be delivering a promise a bit late, but you must support one as a long-time supporter of proportional representation.

Chris Smith

At an appropriate time I think yes.

Nyta Mann

In the next four years?

Chris Smith

There might be a good case for having a referendum on whether people want to change the format of voting. I'm not sure that the next four years is the right time, because as I say I don't see any evidence of a great pent-up public demand for this. If that evidence emerges then of course we might need to look at that. But I don't see it as an urgent top of the agenda question in people's minds at the moment.

Nyta Mann

Okay another question about voting. This time methods of voting itself. This is a question from Robin Miller in East Kilbride, Scotland, "How should the government utilise information technology to encourage young people to vote. Are there proposals to use electronic voting systems?"

Chris Smith

Not at the moment, but it's something that I think may be worth looking at in the years to come. The ideas about voting by the Internet or even voting by telephone as well as the current systems of voting either in the polling station or by post.

Nyta Mann

We've had some trouble with postal voting.

Chris Smith

There have been one or two cases, and if there is an instance of fraud then it clearly has to be investigated and there are very strong laws against it. I think we need to be careful about expanding the number of ways in which people can vote, but that may well come. It would be a matter not for an individual political party or even an individual government to decide, it would have to be something that the Electoral Commission as an independent, impartial body would need to look at. And I'm sure that over the course of the next few years they will be looking at these sort of issues. What conclusion they'll come to at this stage I don't know.

Nyta Mann

Okay let's move onto a question from Steve Smith in Brighton on electors' aspirations. Steve asks: "Listening to remarks from politicians and the public leads one to think that voting is about what I want you to do for me. How can politicians encourage voters to vote on the basis of the common good rather than on the basis of selfish gain. Chris Smith, we've seen a lot of focus on tax for example in this campaign, but it's all been who will tax less. Is that an example of the kind of selfish agenda that the mainstream political parties have had to address to get elected.

Chris Smith

I think actually the focus throughout this campaign has been on public services rather than on tax. And I think that's a very interesting and constructive political development. In health, in education, in fighting crime, in transport, the key essential services that we all depend on. Now whereas I think back in the 1980s the focus was very much on tax and who was going to tax less and who was going to tax more. But where I disagree with the question is that I think what that signifies is that there a lot of people in the electorate this time round who are not thinking particularly selfishly. They are thinking about the common good, about the things we all depend on when we get ill or when we've got children and we need a decent education for them. Or when we're the victim of crime of fear we might be the victim of crime.

Nyta Mann

Okay, lets move on to a question about voter apathy from David McLean in Newport, Wales. David asks: "As Culture Secretary would you agree that the real issue isn't voter apathy but voter ignorance. When it comes to a choice between taking an interest in real world issues or locking yourself inside soap operas, movies and music, too many people are victims of a general dumbing down of society and choose the sofa rather than the ballot box. Do you agree with that Chris Smith?

Chris Smith

If you put it like that then I think I have to disagree because actually over the course of the last four weeks I've come into contact with a very large number of voters, and they're far from stupid. They do know what they want, what they think, what they want politicians to do, and what they think the major issues are. And on the whole they have been following what the election campaign has been about. To many people, and yes for us politicians we live, eat and breathe politics and when we switch on the television we tend to switch on political programmes. For most people politics is one amongst a range of interests that they have, it's one amongst a range of things they may watch when they're looking at their television at night. I think one of the important things though is that political news and information is there amongst the menu that people have to choose from on television. It's why I believe so passionately in public service broadcasting. Both the BBC and ITV have the responsibility to include current affairs, political analysis, comment and news in the mix of what they put on television. If all we had was wall-to-wall entertainment on television I think we would be losers, all of us, in terms of our democracy.

Nyta Mann

Should politicians watch more soap operas?

Chris Smith

I would dearly like as a politician to have more time to sit down and watch enjoyable programmes, and from time to time I do. But nowhere near enough.

Nyta Mann

Okay thank you Chris Smith that's all the questions we have time for. Thanks for joining us on this BBC News Online Election Forum.

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