Monday 3 May 2010

Why I'm Not Voting This Thursday

I'm neither an undecided voter, or apathetic about politics; quite the opposite. But on 6 May I have no intention of voting in the general election and it's not simply because the Treasury minister standing in the safe Labour seat where I live is already assured a landslide victory, whether I vote or not.

A voting system that places the outcome of an election in the hands of the electorate in a handful of marginal seats may well be fundamentally undemocratic, but whilst a hung parliament on Thursday may well offer a greater prospect of the introduction of PR, this provides no guarantee that governments will be any less corrupt or any less concerned with maintaining the wealth and privilege of a tiny minority. Ask the Italians about Berlusconi. And after years of repeatedly seeing votes for Westminster politicians leave the vast majority of people completely powerless, it now seems to me like basic common sense that placing so much faith and expending so much time and energy on the outcome of parliamentary elections is profoundly irrational.

I guess I must have voter's block. Let's put it another way: have you noticed how whoever people vote for, the rich and powerful always win? So if politics is fundamentally about power and all the evidence shows that elections make no real difference to who owns it, who wields it and who always gets screwed by it, shouldn't it be obvious to anyone seeking something more than vague promises of change to stop going through the motions, kidding themselves that voting really changes anything? Wouldn't it be better to focus our limited resources on action that genuinely challenges the powerful, rather than helping every four years to legitimise their control over our lives?

Indications that the turnout on Thursday will reach new lows seem to suggest that the public mood has fundamentally changed, that more and more people are choosing to withdraw their consent. According to the Electoral Commission, more than half of all 19-24 year old haven't even registered to vote. And for once, the political class has largely resisted patronisingly characterising this as 'voter apathy', for their polling data says that after the scandals over MPs' expenses and the enormous state welfare cheque offered up to the banks, prospective voters are extremely angry.

I realise that elections and party allegiances are, of course, deep-rooted in our political culture. Many on the left will vote in spite of the constant disappointment and betrayal they have felt towards mainstream politics. Not everyone – plenty continue to organise and campaign knowing that whoever forms a government must be fought – but probably a clear majority. Elections also generate a fair amount of excitement, not least because the media love the spectacle of a contest, providing an opportunity to fill newspaper pages and television coverage with endless speculation and comment. Journalists have been particularly ecstatic about the novelty of the 'historical' presidential-style television debates, the chance to ludicrously analyse every sentence and physical gesture of the party leaders in interminable detail.

Portraying the election as some kind of 'national job interview' has, if anything, reinforced the impression of an orderly handover of power with the Westminster bubble. It has also resulted in even less debate than usual about policy and ideas. But even so, it’s not as if there is much of a choice offered by the three mainstream parties, who all support savage cuts in public services to recoup the billions given to the financial sector. The three party leaders seem more concerned about the reaction of the markets and the judgement of the media than the thousands who will lose their jobs.

That's why I am surprised at the level of disbelief, even outrage, that declaring an intention to refuse to vote provokes, especially from friends on the left. The moral arguments in favour of voting are always the same. Voting is the most important expression of the popular will – as though others, like lobbying, protest and free speech, are significantly less important. Choosing to abstain without some kind of concerted (and pointless) boycott campaign is simply individualistic, apparently – as though the chance to pick the lesser of several evils in the isolation of a polling booth is any less so. And the right to vote may well have been a hard won victory - but never a complete victory and certainly not one for turning politics into an the exclusive preserve of 'professionals' in Westminster.

As for the pragmatic arguments, one friend of mine said recently that voting at least provides an opportunity to choose the most favourable terrain for the inevitable battles ahead. Fear of the Tories has been exploited by Labour at every election since 1997, but it has been in government for 13 years and power has remained firmly in the hands of business, the rich and the well-connected. Two wars, the deaths of tens of thousands of people, ever greater restrictions on our liberties and freedom and policies allowing the market to create the conditions for the banking crisis have be enacted with little effective challenge within parliament. Instead, everything exhilarating, from campaigns against the war in Iraq and for concerted action on climate change, has taken place outside of it. Moreover, extra-parliamentary campaigns increasingly have no interest in party politics – they have sought to disrupt and undermine the complacent assumption that the powerful, whoever they happen to be, can get away with anything.

Finally, there is the argument that the left simply cannot ignore the wider political debate, which might carry more weight if left-wing parties haven't been largely invisible in this election.

Leaving aside the collective lost-deposit that the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition represents, the election coverage in the magazine Red Pepper has, for example, focused on the outside chance that Respect's Salma Yaqoob might win in Birmingham Sparkbrook and that Green Party leader Caroline Lucas will probably become the MP for Brighton Pavilions. Both are undoubtedly great campaigners but concentrating on them as individuals is not the same as consideration of their respective parties. Respect is hardly a national party and has been an unprincipled embarrassment at times, especially after it imploded in acrimony. The Greens have candidates across the country and by far the most progressive agenda, but are essentially concentrating on only three seats. They also seem like a party that, as it grows, is more than willing to compromise for continued electoral success. Let's see whether power has the same affect on Green radicalism as it has done in Ireland and Germany.

Neither the moral or pragmatic arguments for voting seem that strong to me, but if you are planning on doing so, then enjoy yourself on Thursday – my point is that it really doesn't matter as much as most people have been encouraged to believe. In a few weeks time, the contrived and often surreal pantomime of an election campaign will be largely forgotten, politics will have returned to normal and the true impact of cuts in spending, which all the mainstream parties have avoided spelling out in detail, will become clearer.

That's when the real political contest starts – one that is simply too important to leave to our elected representatives.


Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of your post though as you know I will be voting Labour. And it may be the last time I vote Labour. The fightback and resistance has to start immediately as whoever wins/hung parliament, it will be cuts galore!

Erich Kofmel said...

On this, check out my blog, the "Anti-Democracy Agenda":


milgram said...

I'm not voting either.

You might enjoy this article that Anarchist Federation members wrote in last week's (Scottish) Sunday Herald. Was part of a debate on "is it ever OK to not vote?" It goes after those "people died for the vote" and other arguments.

Anonymous said...

Get off your high horse Voter.

Those same people died for the freedom of speech and choice.

Kevin is expressing his view and if he feels none of the parties or candidates represent his political point of view he has every right not to to vote.

The no-shows on polling day say more about our current electoral system than do those voters who slavishly dole out to put an x against Labour, Conservative or whatever through basic tribal loyalty.

Newham is a good example. Traditionally a Labour stronghold, nothing wrong with that, but can anyone who takes the time to examine the current mayoral administration confidently assert that "The Labour Party" is at the helm. I think not.

Catprill said...


People did die for democracy, but If you think that's what we have now, then you're incredibly naive- I won't stoop to your level and name call, but can I say your comment reflects that you have very much misunderstood the point this post is trying to make.
The right to vote is an important one, and spoiling ones ballot is an obvious expression of this right; you are to vote for what you belive in, and as the current parties fail embody the beliefs of many people they have a right to express this. Surely you can see that voting for something you don't believe in is more of an insult to those who fought for the vote than expressing an alternative.

Voting for the sake of voting is not democracy, it is idiocy.

If you affiliate with a political party then I applaude your faith, but pity your naivity.
I will be voting for a change in politics, rather than a change in party. I will spoil my vote.

Anonymous said...

People also died for their right to fish in certain bodies of water, or atop Aztec pyramids to ensure that the sun rose the next day. Their experience did not correspond to that of their descendant. Would the Chartists have bothered if they knew that one day free men would rally under the banner of "Anyone but Cameron"?

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