Don't vote, engage with politics. Posters by the Special Patrol Group. Credit: Strike! magazine Facebook page.
Refusing to vote is controversial. Voting is democracy in action, party politics fans argue, waving Facebook statuses and sign-up sheets. It's your major chance to make your voice heard. If you don't vote, you can't complain about the result. If you don't vote against the Conservatives, you are basically voting for them.
Even former anti-voting figurehead Russell Brand has now joined the box-ticking queue, this week endorsing Ed Miliband in a widely-viewed Youtube video. “You've gotta vote Labour”, the UK's most centrist revolutionary urges, eyes wild and hands stiff with political fervour. Brand, also known for prank-calling a rape support hotline, argues that a Labour-led coalition would respond to leftist grassroots lobbying. “I think this bloke will listen to us,” he says. He doesn't explain why Miliband hasn't listened so far.
Now that choosing not to vote will – thankfully – no longer be associated with Brand, it's worth remembering that non-voters are a significant demographic. In the 2010 general election around 35 percent of the population didn't vote, similar to the proportion of people who voted for either Conservative or Labour. One survey found two major reasons why. First, people don't believe voting will make any difference, and second, they see all political parties as the same.
This decision not to vote is often misunderstood – or patronised, seen as apolitical. Because voters are disproportionately older, richer, white people, think tanks clamber over each other to 're-engage' young people, and/or people of colour, with the electoral mechanism. These groups impotently strive towards greater 'participation', as if the real reason behind political apathy is that people are too stupid to see that policies impact our lives. But feeling that voting doesn't change anything may be correct – these groups refuse to acknowledge the depth of peoples' despair, and the strength of our anger.
Calls for engagement are missing the point: we have little to vote for. True, a Labour-led coalition may cut and privatise a bit less than another Tory-led coalition will. They may be slightly less awful. But both major parties drive towards the same form of austerity-capitalism. And the First Past the Post voting system means votes for alternative parties don't result in equivalent political representation – at best it's a notch in the records on supporter turn-out.
What does choosing not to vote mean? If voting is fundamentally undemocratic, not voting could be the more transformative political action. Last week 20 “DON'T VOTE” posters, designed by Strike! magazine, appeared in bus shelter adverts around London. Their slogans read: “engage with politics”, “take to the streets”, and “spoil your ballots”. Reminding us that box-ticking is the least radical, least efficacious way to create change, the posters hinted at the possibility of a different kind of politics. A politics of collective and individual action. This kind of engagement is totally absent from politicians' debates and mainstream media election coverage.
“To politicise not voting is to recognise that real democratic participation is about far more than making compromises”, said an anonymous spokesperson for the Special Patrol Group, who claimed responsibility for putting up the ads. They went on: “the emphasis on voting as our 'one chance' to get involved is actually designed to disempower and disengage the people, not the other way around.”
At this stage in the conversation somebody usually invokes the suffragettes. It's a trump card, “Women died for your right to vote”. We're taught this at school, in history lessons that misrepresent the 'first wave' of modern feminism as simply a fight for the vote. In this way radical struggles are invoked and depoliticised by the very people they stood against.
As Shulamith Firestone writes in her feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex: “The vote was seen as only the first of many goals, and therefore to be won as quickly as possible... with the granting of the vote the establishment co-opted the women's movement...Mrs. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont of the Women's Party urged women to boycott the elections: "Husband your new power. Suffragists did not fight for your emancipation for seventy years to have you become servants to men's parties.”
The early women's rights movement didn't want the vote to gain inclusion in existing political structures. They wanted the vote as a stage in taking political power, as a small stepping stone towards liberation from gender oppression. Firestone goes on to quote noted writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman: “The party system of politics is a trick of men to conceal the real issues. Women should work for the measures they want outside of party politics.” To cite feminism as reason for voting ignores the role that party politics plays in shoring up existing hierarchies. It ignores the power we can wield by not voting.
Tomorrow many people will vote on the basis that they've voting for the least worst option. That's an understandable choice, particularly in marginal constituencies. The problem is the insidious idea that voting is the end goal of political engagement. This positions us as individuals in a particular relation to the state – in which our agency is defanged through its channeling into an approved mechanism. We are supposed to see ourselves as isolated individuals, powerless to create upheaval – voting is the one form of collective organisation sold to us precisely because it doesn't threaten the powerful. Elections channel our dissent, our real desires for change, into controlled, sanctioned outcomes. The results are then presented back to us as democracy.
We aren't supposed to believe in our own ability to mobilise. Voting provides an outlet for any left-over dissatisfaction. Your voice has been heard, now go back to your everyday lives, your job, your friends, your worries. Refusing to participate – not lining up nicely at the ballot box – questions this assigned relationship between ourselves and politics. It opens the door for a different kind of participation, for more effective actions. It challenges the idea that 'democracy' is electing the best of a bad bunch.
Even where governments have been voted in on substantially different platforms – as with the 1945 Labour government – political power remains concentrated in the same place. Voting doesn't change the current system, it maintains it. Political engagement isn't voting, it's dismantling party politics altogether. It's abolishing parliament. And short of that, it's having a truly participatory democracy where peoples' choices feed through to representation. If you want to engage with politics, forget about the election.