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Election 2015… Arsed?

Submitted by on May 4, 2015 – 3:52 pm2 Comments

by Divinio

"coming to vote Sid?"... "am I fuckin ellerslike!"

“coming to vote Sid?”…
“am I fuckin ellerslike!”

 

 

Five years ago, the 2010 general election saw the constituency of Manchester Central yield the lowest voter turnout in the whole country. With such a diverse range of peoples living within its borders, this highlights how voter apathy has spread to so many in society and illustrates the wider problem of low voter turnout in the country as a whole. So how is it to be approached? Who is to be blamed? And what are the most helpful ways of considering the problem?

For many people, the response seems to be simply to bash the electorate over the head again and again with the message that “Voting is important”, and, as the 2015  general election looms, it seems that every facet of media, corporate and social alike, is awash with people encouraging us to go out and vote. We are being harangued with a rapacity never before seen. Recently, as the deadline to register approached, every media-orifice was clogged with righteous, eager, hopeful voices all extolling the importance of participating in the democratic process.

Troublingly though, not one of those voices ever felt the need to go into detail about why it was so important – perhaps believing this to be so self-evident, even to the politically unengaged, that a link to the “gov.uk” registration page was sufficient enough to negate the need for impassioned rhetoric, or reasoned dialectics.

‘Just vote because you should. It’s the right thing to do’ seems to be the extent of argument required for most people.

Another oft-heard line, geared to get us off our backsides and into the polling booth, is that people died for the right to vote. This seems to provide, for some, the ultimate moral trump card, and woe-betide anyone who questions the context of that statement, or its relevance to the current situation.In fairness, amid the mire of hashtags, status-updates and fear-inducing Guardian articles, there are, occasionally, vague allusions to some sort change that could be affected if people were to go out and cast their vote. Though the matter of what shape this change would take, and how it could be achieved in the current political paradigm, is never broached. Nor is the quite distinct possibility that none of the options on offer are willing to affect the kind of change we need.

 

Something about all this doesn’t sit quite right, however. And it’s not immediately clear why that should be.

Of course it makes sense to encourage people to get involved in the political process, to have their say and contribute to the running of our society. If they don’t, they run the risk of being cast-aside and forgotten: penniless inconsequentials in today’s marketised political world. But this cheerleading of conventional politics provokes an unease that requires deeper thought.

 

Firstly, it has to be said that this is not a treatise against voting. It is simply a closer examination of the arguments for and against voting and the consequences of either decision.

 

I will get the simple stuff out of the way first. I am a resident of a Labour strong hold. You could pin a red rosette on a donkey…– so the saying goes. Which means I am in a position where it is simultaneously pointless for me to vote Labour and equally pointless to vote for anyone but Labour. This is neat illustration of why so many people are frustrated with the First Past the Post system. The argument is that the robust government this system creates is worth the sacrifice of a more elegantly representative system. Unfortunately it also has the potential to create a situation, as it did in 2010, where a right-led government gets elected despite the majority of votes going to the centre left. This weakness risks being brought into even further relief with the rise of the Greens and the nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales stymying support for the Labour Party.

Just typing this is both boring and frustrating but nevertheless, it is not the lack of a proportional system that puts me ill at ease with the near-ubiquitous full-throated support of voting. Indeed, this issue could be resolved comparatively easily, through reformation of the voting system. No, my unease stems from something more deep seated and not so easily remedied, and to address it, the arguments for voting must first be addressed.

 

Argument 1: Make Your Voice Heard

 

One argument is that if you don’t vote you won’t be listened to. Countless are the times we have been told that the reason pensions have been protected while tuition fees have trebled is because pensioners represent a large voting bloc, while comparatively few young people vote, meaning policy is not worth tailoring to their needs. There is admittedly some merit to this but there are two large problems with this justification.

Firstly, taking such an individualistic approach to politics is nothing short of unsettling. The argument goes that a young person should vote in order that (if enough other people in their demographic also vote), some peripheral governmental policies will be introduced that benefit them as an individual.

And what of the poor pensioners? Deprived of their hard-earned stipends because enough 25-35 year olds bothered to turn out on Election Day. The argument seems short-sighted and self-centred and a long way from the kind of cooperative politics we need in order to establish a fairer society. In short this argument is incompatible with egalitarian political views.

The other source of discomfort with the “Make Your Voice Heard” argument is that it panders to, and encourages, the kind of marketised politics which were refined under the 1997 New Labour campaign. If votes are viewed solely as currency, this means political parties are no longer the champions of ideals, but are products to be tweaked, tailored and rebranded to suit the whims and desires of the electorate. This in turn leaves politicians vulnerable to media barons who can sway public opinion and indirectly determine policy, as we have witnessed recently with the story of Rupert Murdoch lambasting Sun journalists for not doing enough to discredit Ed Miliband.

This marketisation has also led to the kind of homogenised politics that people so often complain about. Clegg and Cameron both emerged from this – a pair of Blair-eqsue foetuses spawned from the pustular wombs of their respective parties’ spin departments.2015-01-28-Svotechart

Another argument that can be classified in the same taxonomy of “Make Your Voice Heard”, is the idea that such a huge amount of non-voters suddenly turning up at the polling stations could instigate massive change.

Recently, a picture doing the rounds on social media has been gathering attention. It consists of a bar chart showing the numbers of people who voted for various parties in the 2010 general election. Towering above the Red, Blue and Yellow, however, is a bar representing the amount of non-voters in the election. An arm, be-suited and authoritative, which points reproachfully at the “non-voting” bar, is accompanied by the words “These people could change everything.”

Whilst this message is well-intentioned, it is probably the argument that provokes the most irritation. This irritation is not down to the fact that it seem to pre-suppose that the 15.9 million non-voters have some esoteric knowledge that they’re not letting us in on. As though they are the secret arbiters of the key to a better society, a more prosperous world that they are unwilling to share with us because they are: lazy/cynical/bastards (delete as appropriate).

Nor is it the fact that the neat graph with its bendy arm, which looks as though it’s been amputated from an exasperated Victorian school teacher, doesn’t consider that those 15.9 million voters may not have a clue which way to vote and, if they did, it might (just maybe) not have a particularly big impact on the outcome – as those who do vote probably comprise a satisfactorily large and reflective sample of the population as a whole.

No. The most agitating thing about this graph, and the argument it embodies, is the fact that it doesn’t even begin to try and address the biggest question that should be asked when 15.9 million people of your potential electorate fail to turn out on Polling Day: why not?

There is no real questioning of what is being offered by the political parties. There is no real interrogation into whether the political paradigm we exist under is in need of reform or, indeed, complete revolution. The whole phenomenon is reduced down to the fact that the electorate are lazy/cynical/Russell Brand (delete as appropriate). Even when the point is made that perhaps they feel disengaged, the discussion of possible solutions rarely extends beyond tweaking those aforementioned peripheral policies or getting One Direction to hug David Cameron.
And the most galling thing of all is that those politicians, who have worked their whole lives to offer up slightly different shades of the same putrefactive bile, who all went to the same schools and universities, who all have the same coloured skin and speak in the same accent, have the temerity to finger wag and frame the non-voters as the problem.

And it doesn’t stop at the politicians. Everywhere in the media people are telling us to vote without even stopping to question the causes of low turnout, the legitimacy of the current system or possible solutions and alternatives. The whole argument is framed around the voters: it is their fault that they don’t want to vote. Then we see that the whole-hearted endorsement of voting, under the current system, helps to keep the debate well and truly in that frame. It implicitly impedes any wider discussion on the subject and allows for the promulgation of the same old system with the same old problems.

 

Argument 2: It Effects Lives

 

That’s all well and good, you might say, but people are suffering under this government and voting them out will stop this. This is true and for those people affected by the bedroom tax, food poverty, cuts to welfare spending, universal credit and all the other nasty policies affected by the Conservative government in the name of austerity, then voting them out could have a real impact on their lives.

Owen Jones wrote recently in the Guardian about a woman named Sue who, after the tragic loss of her disabled daughter, was forced to start paying Bedroom Tax, which she simply could not afford. In the article, Jones writes:

Many say that there isn’t enough of a gap between Labour and the Tories…But in that gap are people such as Sue. Those who say there is no difference whatsoever are surely not being pummelled by the bedroom tax.” 

He goes on to say that those who claim there is no difference are “doing down” those who have campaigned against the Tory regime of the last five years. Owen makes a good point: if you live in a marginal constituency you can have a real impact on the lives of individuals in the country. And how do you do this? By voting for the party that holds the beliefs which are closest to your heart? By voting for the party which you believe can bring about the best possible society for as many individuals as possible? No. By voting Labour.

And in the end, that is the best we can hope for from this current system: to save as many people as possible by voting for the least offensive of a binary option. The nobility of this is clear. Anyone who is voting Labour to save those who have been hardest hit by the current government are doing a good thing. That cannot be argued. But in a system where we are voting simply to keep the most amount of people alive, we have surely got to ask the question: when will this end?

We have all heard of the tragic cases of individuals dying as a direct result of Tory policy. There can be little doubt that this regime in killing us. But by reducing the political process down to simply keeping those people alive, we cannot even begin to bring about a discussion of the core causes and problems that lie at the centre of this system.

If we are focused on swapping austerity for less austerity, albeit for the cause of saving lives, then we can never shift the focus to the real, big issues that lie at the core of the current system. In effect, those lives are being held hostage, and the ransom we pay is the submission of wider political discussion or change. Short term policy change is all we can hope for.

One excellent illustration of this is climate change. This is arguably the single biggest threat to humanity, and a party’s stance on this issue should be one of the biggest determiners on the way we vote. Yet, consider the most prominent issues of this general election and it barely gets a look in. Indeed, Professor Brian Hoskins, Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London came out recently to criticise the short-termism of politics saying politicians are operating on “the lowest level of what’s going to make someone happy for the next five minutes.”

 

Well, the answer’s simple, you might say, vote for the party that’s going to do something about climate change. And if there isn’t one, form one and convince people to vote for you.

 

But we can’t. Because we have to vote Labour. To keep the Tories out.

 

Again it must be reiterated, the individual cases are tragic and must be fought at all costs but this cannot be the end goal of politics and voting. If it is, then we are consigning ourselves to long term failure. Our society is a sinking boat and we are bailing it out with a thimble, when what’s needed is a new boat.

 

This is another reason I find the whole-hearted promotion of voting troubling, especially when the above justifications are implemented, as it plays a part in preventing any of us from considering the core issues.

 

And it doesn’t stop at climate change. In fact, climate change gets an abundance of attention compared to other issues that at least deserve consideration. We simply aren’t allowed to consider alternatives to the tiny sliver of the political spectrum in which the current system allows us to exist: money-based economy, exchange value of resources placed above use value, property ownership, linear economy – there is a raft of issues at the very centre of our system that we simply cannot even begin to consider while we have to focus on keeping the Tories out, or getting Labour in.

 

Of course, the solution to this isn’t simply not to vote. But in encouraging people to go out and vote no matter what, there is at least the possibility that we are contributing to the tacit endorsement of remaining within the political confines which we currently find ourselves.

 

Argument 3: People Died

 

Another wide-spread reason to go out and cast your vote is that many, many people have fought and died for the right to vote. This both illustrates the huge value and preciousness of having the vote, and means it is an insult to the memory of those people by eschewing the privilege.

That many people throughout history have bravely sacrificed themselves for the right to have their say in the political system is a truth so indefatigable is cannot be overstated. From black suffrage, women’s suffrage to the class struggles of Peterloo in Manchester and the Queen’s Square riots in Bristol, the journey towards a society where everyone gets a say has been a long and bloody one. But it is just that: a journey. And we are by no means at the end of it.

To attempt to create an analogue between the electoral reform struggles of the 19th century, where people were living under a political system little removed from feudalism, to today’s voting landscape, seems foolish to me. In terms of black and women’s suffrage: they fought for the right to vote because it was morally and patently absurd that they couldn’t.

The progression from an absolute monarchy to a system where everyone has the right to vote has been glacial. Only comparatively recently have we reached a point where it is morally accepted that most people should have the right to vote, and even now that right is denied to under-18s and immigrants who do not hold British citizenship. But now we face the bigger challenge of securing a system where every vote counts and every voice is heard. A system where people feel valued and where aggregate happiness is spread between all. Of course, not voting is not the way to achieve this but I urge you to think twice before beatifying the vote as some enshrined and blessed thing; a ticket to participation in the political process and a means of ensuring that you are catered for and cared about by society, because clearly the vote cannot provide these things as it has not done for so many people.

Go out and vote on polling day, mark the box next to the name you like the most, but remember that you are so much more than a potential vote to be won by those who would lead this country. Remember that voting and participating are not the same thing, and remember that criticism of the current democratic system is not the province of the cynical or the lazy but a necessary step on the journey towards a more fulfilling, inclusive society.

As Election Day looms and the liberal commentators and the conservative commentators rush towards the middle ground, cowing us into the same old binary system and reminding us to be grateful for it, please spare a moment to remind yourself of the individualism and short termism that the system has the potential to provoke within us.

And most importantly, the next time you come across someone who says they are not going to vote, don’t berate them, don’t encourage them to cast aside their reservations or their criticisms for the sanctity of the almighty vote. Instead ask them, why not? And listen. And when you have finished listening then maybe we can all move forward and finally begin to take the next step on the journey, and resolve the core problems that have bred this ennui in so many of us.

Because that is when the people in power will really have to sit up and listen.

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