openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Too many feel there's "no point" voting - so what next?

We should all cast our votes – even if we spoil the ballot paper – and have an eye on the next election, that will need to address political reform.

Natalie Bennett
6 December 2019
Natalie Bennett speaking to protestors in 2016
Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/PA Images

Many of us are feeling anger, frustration and sometimes despair about the state of our politics. That we are now a divided country. There is a widespread sense that in the United Kingdom, our politics is broken.

But in some respects, democracy - if you define it as people doing politics, getting together with their neighbours, friends, classmates, work colleagues and those with shared interests – is flourishing in a way not seen since at least the 1960s.

The Climate Strike/Fridays for the Future movement has probably engaged more, and younger, young people, than anything that happened in the 60s. I’ve met primary school pupils, engaged, informed, determined and fed up with their elders, and hugely impressive 14-year-olds organising and speaking at major events with skill and aplomb.

Unions like the International Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) are working with immigrant cleaners, bicycle couriers, and others in the most fragmented workplaces, and the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) are taking workplace organising and demands for better pay and conditions into areas – like fast food, particularly McDonald’s – that used to be thought impossible to organise.

In many of the poorest communities, groups are getting together and in Annie Lennox’s words “doing it for themselves”. Among those I’ve met in just the last week are the brilliant Galgael in Glasgow, the Valley Project in Holme Wood, Bradford, and the Horley Green campaigners of Claremount, Halifax.

But often this all seems a very long way away, and utterly detached, from the election campaign we’re now engaged in.

Earlier this week I spoke to an avowed non-voter, a young woman fed up with it all. She’s confused and bemused by the palpable nonsense that’s passing for a campaign by the largest parties in the mainstream media. She thinks her vote won’t make a difference (and she’s right in direct terms, given the constituency she lives in).

And as we talked, it became clear that she is indeed very much “political”. A lifelong resident of Sheffield, she cares hugely about its community and life, about fixing the failings and celebrating the brilliant, but the election was not speaking to her about that.

I suggested to her that at least she go down to the polling station and write a few thoughts on the ballot paper. Otherwise, she’d be counted in the “happy enough with how things are that I haven’t bothered” party, I told her. And I think after our conversation that she just might.

But how much better it would be if she could go down to the polling station and cast a vote that she’d know would make a difference, a vote for campaigns that were genuinely addressing her concerns? If parties, rather than chasing swing voters in swing seats, crunching the numbers about how to attract the “right” voters, and throwing cash at microtargeted Facebook adverts, were trying to address the real concerns of a country in economic, social, environmental, political and educational crisis?

Yesterday was “Democracy Day”. The day was called by over 20 leading campaign groups wanting to put political reform on the agenda. It is more evident than ever that the UK is not anything approaching a functioning democracy, and that that is a key source of our current extreme discontent.

Many people voted in the 2016 referendum to “take back control”. Their anger that they were not in control of their lives and communities - wracked by austerity, dominated by tax-dodging, low-paying multinational companies, trapped with terrible representatives surfing through a “career” of fat-cattery from the cocoon of safe seats - can only be acknowledged as fair and reasonable.

We can’t do anything about the format of this election, but we can use it to influence the future.

What you can do

First, I’d urge everyone to go along to the polling station. Obviously I’d like you to vote Green, but top priority of all, I’d urge you to pick up your ballot paper.

If you genuinely don’t feel like you can vote for any of the alternatives, then don’t mark a box, but write on the ballot paper why you are doing this. You mightn’t fit an essay in, but there’s space to get your view across, and every one of those papers will be read.

If there is someone you feel best represents you, then vote for them. Whoever they are. I’m confident that if the nation did that collectively, the Green Party would get at least 10% of the vote. That’s what we got in May in the proportional European election, where the number of seats in parliament matched the number of votes.

That vote on December 12 would be a powerful argument for a fair, proportional voting system in Westminster (as well as for fairer levels of media coverage for the Green Party, and more resources, through Short money, for our MPs). And it would show the public gets that this is the climate election.

But whoever the party or candidate that best represents you is, vote for them. The diversity of those views will reflect the hopelessness of the first past the post electoral system in representing the UK.

Warped Westminster

This election won’t produce a representative parliament. We can hope, and it seems the most likely outcome, that it will produce another hung parliament. One that will put the final Brexit deal to the vote against the option of the status quo, remaining as a member of the EU – just as trade union officials put deals they’ve negotiated to the workforce before it is ratified.

Then – most likely – we will see another election. I hear the sighs now - but that election will have to be about the future of the UK: about changing our broken political system.

And in two years or so, we could be seeing a new kind of politics, a genuine transformation that sees five generations of stored-up inertia (the last significant change in Westminster being women getting the vote a century ago) swept aside in a fair, democratic, proportional election, for both the Commons and the new House of Lords.

And that should see the unpaid workers of Galgael, my disgruntled Sheffield voter, and the rest of the country, represented in ways that they certainly aren’t now. Then, perhaps in a few years, Democracy Day can be a celebration - not a call to arms.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics of class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this a chance to realign around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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