Should I vote? Should you?

After the Russell Brand debate the question of abstaining in general elections is again generating discussion in Britain. So what are we really achieving with our vote, and what effect do we think abstaining can actually have?

Mike Butcher
13 December 2013

Flickr/Keith Bacongco

Full disclosure: I’m in my fifties and I believe I have voted in every election I’ve been able to.  If ever I haven’t, it will have been through circumstances conspiring against me, not choice.  Now, I find myself questioning whether voting will be the right thing to do in future and I know there are plenty of people in a similar quandary.  The hard thing is trying to resolve it, but the very least we can do is examine – and appreciate –the choices we have and the freedom to make them.

The Source Of The Quandary

Let’s assume that we accept democracy, when it works well, as the most sensible way forward.  It’s not perfect, but it’s the best humanity has devised thus far.  Let’s also assume that we agree that democracy in the UK is not working well, and – as I argued in an earlier article that all our main political parties are part of the problem.  The question then becomes, what is a realistic course of action for the individual?

Of Course You Should Vote

Any discussion of voting, online or down the pub, will quickly yield some strongly held and popular beliefs to support the view that everyone should vote. People will happily acknowledge it’s a flawed system but assert that despite the problems you should vote anyway, because

  1. people in countries all around the world are fighting and dying for the right to vote;
  2. people fought for your right to vote;
  3. if you don’t, then ‘evil prevails when good men do nothing’;
  4. even if the differences between the parties are small, they are still significant.

(Without being flippant, I presume the other important opinion about voting, ‘why bother, nothing changes’, is seldom voiced in discussions precisely because its proponents just cannot be bothered. However, voter apathy is a distinct problem in itself.)

Looking Abroad

For assessing whether one should vote in the UK, I suggest the situation in other countries is, in fact, irrelevant. People can and cannot do all sorts of things in other countries which may or may not be desirable in Britain. To focus on voting rights as the sole aspect of life that we must bench-mark ourselves against or draw imperatives from is to cherry-pick, and you need to look at the whole to ascertain what’s genuinely relevant and applicable.  While democracy may be the best political system humanity’s come up with, it does not exist in and of itself; it does, or doesn’t, exist in political, social, cultural-religious and economic contexts which vary from country to country.

Looking Back

Turning to all the fights for voting rights in the UK over the centuries, I am all too aware that women and men, far more noble and brave than I will ever be, have fought, suffered and died to win and defend the right to vote.  I would add to that, however, that democracy is about more than just the right to vote – it is about the sovereignty of the people and personal autonomy - and hence I would say they were also fighting for the right and freedom to decide not to vote. In any incarnation of democracy in Britain that bears any meaningful correlation to the present, there has never been a system of mandatory participation. 

To make something mandatory requires sanctions. Mandatory participation in politics thus easily becomes identified, rightly or wrongly, with coerced participation and that, in the popular imagination if not in reality, comes tainted with the experience of 99% turn-outs in favour of the rulers of totalitarian regimes. 

Looking For Better

Does voting prevent evil prevailing?  We might vote in the hope of somehow thus getting better politicians, or at least staving off even worse ones, but is it wise to cling on to that hope?

Given that all our political parties are collectively guilty of creating and perpetuating the state of democracy today, to make a difference in this sense a ballot paper would need to include a ‘none of the above’ (NOTA) option.  This would allow a distinction to be discerned between ‘simple’ apathy  – which is one problem – and the active rejection of the representatives on offer, a wholly different issue. 

Including NOTA as an option, of course, raises the question of what to do in the light of any subsequent NOTA votes.  A system stipulating that to win a candidate would have to achieve a majority of the eligible voters may be instantly appealing, but it runs the risk of creating paralysis – how many candidates could actually command a majority in that sense?

Perhaps a better way forward would be to incorporate NOTA into a system of Proportional Representation (with all the benefits of that approach ).  NOTA, in this context, might then come into play only if the NOTA vote is greater than that achieved by the candidates as voted for under PR   (in which case new candidates would have to be fielded).

Whatever the details of any future voting system adopted with NOTA, as the UK system currently stands, voting can do nothing to directly influence the calibre of the candidates – and nor the system that produces them.

(If otherwise disaffected individuals were to engage in active democratic activities beyond simply voting  –  e.g.  actually standing for election – then, perhaps, real change might come about.  A charismatic voice with proven integrity and an adequate, probably pre-existing, public profile does stand a slim chance of gaining election.  Martin Bell comes to mind.  But democratic participation in this sense is a far greater personal commitment than simply voting, and it’s not in any way a realistic option for the vast proportion of the population for as long as our system, our parties and their supporting mass media all continue as they are.)

Might opting to not vote allow a political rule worse than a rotten democracy to prevail? Whether the low turnouts for European (34% in 2009) and local elections (32% in 2012) have actually created change for the worse is, at the very least, moot.  Beyond that, I suggest we just don’t know. History doesn’t offer a comparable lesson in the consequences of voter non-participation in a western-style democracy.

We can say with certainty that voting for the candidates we’re given and the system they represent perpetuates the status quo.

We also have to acknowledge the grim reality that significant numbers of people sometimes vote for monsters. It’s always invidious to raise Nazi Germany in any discussion and of course we’re a long way from the situation that pertained in pre-Second-World-Germany, but it is a prime example: the Nazi Party was the most popular party in the Reichstag after elections in July and November 1932. In some circumstances, voting most certainly does not prevent evil prevailing.

Whether incorporating a NOTA option, adopting PR or any other reform - any attempt to improve any democracy, in the UK or anywhere else, needs to keep that lesson in mind. There is more to the governance of a nation than the means by which a political party is voted in.

Looking For Small Mercies

That leaves us with voting for the small differences between the parties, for marginal gains – voting for the ‘least bad’ option on offer.  If you are anything other than wholeheartedly in favour of the status quo, then voting in this sense, in the context of the UK today, is to say that I know any vote cast is a vote for a flawed/failing/failed system, but I think voting for this party, knowing all that’s wrong and despite all that’s wrong, is better than voting for this other party because at least they _____.  And here we all fill in the blank according to our own honestly held views; our prejudices, beliefs, biases and often-but-not-always vain hopes.

Let’s be clear – these really are small mercies we’d be looking for.  It’s hard to over-state the impotence of most voters, when not even tactical voting is likely to have much impact.  By way of simple, blunt evidence, Labour have as targets just 106 seats in their planning for the coming general election – all the rest are foregone conclusions.

We can be quite sure that in the 544 ‘foregone conclusions’ we can cast our vote with the blank filled-in and/or as tactically as we might fondly imagine, but it will have little or no consequence. The parties won’t even be bothering to fight the seat seriously.

And whether voting for the incumbent in a safe seat or not, we’d be voting knowing it is almost guaranteed that our voting intention will not be shared by even a large minority of those actually eligible to vote in that constituency.  In the last election, only 36 MPs gained a mandate in the 40+% bracket.

You may or may not think of MPs as corrupt, venal, divisive and/or deceitful.  Whatever the truth on those fronts may be, that they are unrepresentative is plainly evidenced by the numbers from the last general election.  In the worst example, Austin Mitchell MP is in parliament on the strength of just 17.6% of his electorate.

And away from these bald, basic numbers, the unrepresentative nature of our MPs by other measures – gender, ethnicity, class, education, etc – is well documented.  To take just gender as an example and to paraphrase the Electoral Reform Society, if our country looked like our parliament then only one person in five would be female.

Whatever we may want to believe to the contrary, that then is the context in which we’ll all be voting next time around.   To return to the quandary I started with, will I vote the next time I can?  I don’t know. 

If I Don’t?

Not voting is not a recognised ‘official’ option.  Despite that, the hope, in abstaining, is that a significantly low turnout – say, below 50% - in a general election will de-legitimise the ‘winners’ to the extent that they will feel they need to act decisively to restore faith – and participation – in democracy. 

The question that that hope poses is whether our political classes and the establishment they are part of, the collective source of the disaffection, would actually respond to that pressure.  Our political classes as they operate at the local and European levels, with their lower than 40% mandates, certainly seem fairly immune to any legitimacy-based concerns. 

At least if I opt not to vote I’ll be able to say that whatever the establishment does for the following five years, it won’t be able to claim to be doing it in my name.  At least I’ll be, in however small a way, undermining them.  (And at least we know from dictatorships and their coerced 99% support that a claim to legitimacy on the world stage is a concern for even the most corrupt rulers.)

Whether a low turnout should also raise hopes – or fears - for protest action on the part of the electorate en masse, or, indeed, the established mass media, is a wholly unknown prospect for modern Britain. All we can do is speculate:

It is more than likely that the media will try to promote stability in these circumstances; the media is a part of the establishment and has as much or more to lose as anyone else. As for mass protest, violent or otherwise, we can look back at the (violent and non-violent) reaction to the Poll Tax for clues perhaps, but – real hardships and currently declining living standards aside - our collective affluence now is far greater than it was even just those few decades ago. The bulk of the public has a lot to lose nowadays, whatever the wealth gap(s). 

I suggest a very low turnout will only trigger large-scale popular protest if those in power are perceived to abuse their positions to an even greater extent than in recent years, but that if push does come to shove, the public would readily cite the illegitimacy of the government as just cause. (At that juncture, watching which way our mass media jumps would be very interesting.)

If I Do?

If I do turn out to vote yet again, I’ll be hoping that some marginal difference between the parties, not as merely promised but as it transpires on the ground, will salve my conscience. This would be the ‘fill-in-the-blank’ time as referred to above, when I would be hoping that something concrete, observable and measurable; something I believe is a positive thing, will actually transpire, so that I can point to it and say ‘that only happened because of the party I voted for’.

Now Or Later?

Perhaps whether to vote or not comes down to a choice between the long and the short term.

The long-term is the non-vote, a tactical choice with at least some meaning, cast in the belief that eventually a de-legitimised establishment will act to create meaningful change – or that the public might react and push for change with a voice that can’t be ignored.

The short-term is the belief that X or Y party will do something positive, however small that something might be, and that that ‘something’ is more valuable than the long-term de-legitimisation goal.

Due Justice

Where does all this actually leave us?

I suggest that, rather than arguing over assertions that people should or should not vote, instead we ought to be fully conscious that we have that long-term versus short-term choice.  That choice is, in itself, a freedom to be valued.  Recognising that fact would be a step towards affording the struggles for democracy, past and present, due justice.

As for actually making the choice: for as long as we are not coerced, for as long as we are not fearful because of our politics, for as long as we have the intellectual freedom to assess that long-term versus short-term distinction, we can make our decision on a moral, personal level – and be actively grateful for that.

If we want to promote change, then once we have recognised our own freedom and the long- versus short-term choice we have to make, framed in the terms outlined above, then perhaps the most valuable thing we could be doing is working to make others similarly conscious of that choice.

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