Tag Archives: democracy

To Vote, Or Not To Vote

MPs debate Queen’s Speech
Count the women! Spot the non-white people! Guess how many of those pictured are millionaires! Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

The House of Commons is hopelessly unrepresentative of the population of the UK, both politically and demographically. It has been dominated from its inception by wealthy older white men belonging to one of two or three political parties, and the policies of those parties have converged in recent decades on a so-called ‘centre ground’ which is in many ways far to the right of popular opinion, and which takes for granted a set of economic assumptions which are at best questionable, and at worst both harmful and evidently false.

Although I am focusing on the UK here, the same points can be made in a disturbingly large number of other countries.

So I have a fair bit of sympathy with lines like  ‘don’t vote, engage with politics‘ and ‘if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it‘. I can see why people would want no part in a system there is so much wrong with, and far too many people mistake turning up at a ballot box every few years for meaningful democratic engagement. However, none of this is a good argument for abstention in national elections. Don’t fall for the lazy lie that politicians are all the same, and don’t lose sight of the fact that sometimes they achieve tremendous things like founding the NHS, or exceptionally bad things like starting wars of aggression. We have a shared responsibility for holding them to account for their wrongs, and letting them know what we think they should be doing.

Unless you’re a rich white man, the fact you can vote at all is probably thanks to direct action. There are at least three important lessons in this, the first of which you will doubtless have heard many times before, although it is probably the weakest: (1) Many people have thought it was worth fighting extremely hard for voting rights; (2) Direct action can fundamentally change the way society is run, especially when it forces those with the most power to sit up and take notice; (3) Extending the franchise beyond rich white males is clearly no guarantee that the main power structures will not continue to be dominated by them.

Abstention does not imply apathy, but it is far too easily mistaken for it. Only 44% of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2010 UK General Election, and the politicians know it. Turning up to vote is not just a way of expressing approval for a particular party or candidate, or disapproval for others. It is a plea for you, and your demographics, to be represented – a message that you won’t just go along with whatever happens, and that elected politicians stand to gain something from taking you into consideration. This works even if you spoil your ballot paper or vote Monster Raving Loony Party, though I would encourage you to rule out the existence of a serious party worth voting for first.

Don’t be put off by the apparent improbability of your preferred candidate winning – there’s no such thing as a wasted vote. When victories like Caroline Lucas’s win for the Green Party in 2010 do come along, it’s possible largely because enough people in previous elections refused to vote for ‘the lesser of two evils‘ to convince much of the rest of the population that it might be worth  doing the same. In recent years, Spain has seen the decades-old dominance of its electoral system by two parties abruptly ended by the rise of Podemos, a new party formed as a result of the Indignados movement that presaged Occupy. In Greece, the ascent of left-wing Syriza has gone some way towards counter-balancing the simultaneous rise of the far right, and may yet see the country find a way out of its current difficulties that works for most of its people and not just its wealthiest. Long-standing political assumptions are often shakier than they look, and profound changes can take place in a surprisingly short time when people get together and demand them.

Britain is not being run well, and that is largely because we have collectively been letting our rulers get away with it for far too long. Voting is a painfully weak mechanism for holding them to account; it’s not enough, but it’s something.  The UK parliament has great power over our lives, for both good and ill, and we have some power to steer it. Huge gains were made for the people of Britain in the decades after the Second World War, which thirty-five years of neoliberal rule have still not fully undone. We can do much better than this, if we’re prepared to fight for it on multiple fronts. If not, we should expect to see it get much worse yet for most of us.

On Democracy and Hope

The atmosphere in the run-up to the referendum was electric.
The atmosphere in the run-up to the referendum was electric.

On the 18th of September, 1.6 million people in Scotland voted to break away from the United Kingdom. When asked, about three quarters cited dissatisfaction with Westminster politics as one of their main reasons for voting Yes to independence. No big surprise there: just a quarter of the population here is happy with how the current government is running the country, and our electoral system keeps electing tory governments in spite of how the Scottish population votes.

Evidently, we felt that being shot of the political system we’re saddled with, once and for all, was worth all of the economic and social risks and costs associated with breaking up a country and starting many of its institutions from scratch. That means a lot – independence was never going to be easy, and change is almost always scary.

Democracy cairn
Still, the dream of democracy lives on.

But this is a country where less than a fifth of the population trusts politicians to tell the truth, where the electoral system is set up in such a way that politicians can safely ignore the wishes of the great majority of its citizens if it garners favour with the few who live in ‘swing seats’, and where it has been widely taken for granted that a vote for anyone but the two or three main parties is a ‘wasted’ vote, since the first-past-the-post system makes it so unlikely anyone else will be elected. Less than two thirds of the country even bothered to vote in the 2010 general election; of those who did, most voted against the Conservatives. Only 36% voted for them, country-wide, and only 16.7% in Scotland – far, far behind the 45% who went for Scottish independence, although the media’s been describing that as an ‘overwhelming defeat’. Even if you add up all the Scottish votes for both of the parties ruling us from Westminster, it only comes to 878,326 – not much more than half of the 1,617,989 who voted for independence. It is pretty clear that the Westminster system does not deliver governments, or policies, that most of us particularly want to vote for.

I say all this not to suggest that we were robbed, although some demographics, particularly on social media, were so pro-Yes that many people were genuinely shocked by the result. My point is that this level of engagement is extraordinary in British politics, and we must not allow it to be a one-off.

Less than 64% of people in Scotland voted at all in the last General Election, and only 39.1% in the latest round of council elections. We are very used to politicians and the media bemoaning this as ‘voter apathy‘, as if people didn’t vote because they don’t care, but the 85% turnout for the referendum suggests that overwhelmingly, people will turn out to vote if we think our vote will make a difference. The referendum didn’t just get people voting – it got us debating, researching and imagining. We started taking seriously the idea that that we could help shape the future of our country, and probably should.

Sarah Beatty-Smith, Edinburgh Co-convenor, at Edinburgh Greens
The first post-referendum Edinburgh branch meeting of the Scottish Green Party had to shift to a bigger venue to accommodate all the new members, but then that one filled up too so we had to split up and also fill the original venue.

In light of that, it makes perfect sense that the SNP and the Scottish Greens have both seen massive surges in membership since the referendum, with both parties more than quadrupling their numbers in the space of less than a month. All of that energy, all of that creativity and hope  had to go somewhere – and it was hardly going to go to the big Westminster parties, who all opposed independence with such inspiring slogans as ‘IT’S NOT WORTH THE RISK.’ The ‘Better Together’ campaign started out with that nice, cuddly title, but it turned out to be almost the only glimmer of positivity in a campaign overwhelmingly focused on killing aspirations and playing up fears.

We might object that there are also some fairly alarming risks associated with being ruled by a parliament elected through a hopelessly undemocratic system, dominated by three parties who still take broadly neoliberal economic assumptions for granted in spite of all the evidence against them, most of whose MPs come from profoundly privileged backgrounds and won’t challenge the great transfer of wealth from poor to rich that they like to call ‘austerity’. But these are familiar risks. Better the devil you know, right?

So most of us voted against Scotland becoming an independent country. This was always the likeliest result, whatever social media might have led us to believe – change really is scary, and before the referendum campaign started, the polls showed overwhelming opposition to independence. Factor in all three of the biggest parties currently in Westminster, along with almost the entire mainstream media and several large corporations working to convince us the economy would be terribly imperilled by independence, and scoring as much as 45% of the vote looks like a remarkable achievement.

Independence, for now, cannot be our route to a more just and democratic society. But for many of us it was always a means to an end, not the ultimate prize. We will not stop fighting for more power to be in the hands of the people who are most affected by it; we will not stop fighting for accountability in government, for a fairer economy, for a system and a public discourse which acknowledge that a better world is possible.

Because here’s the thing: with enough of us fighting for it, a better world really is unmistakeably possible. If we don’t keep fighting for it, a much worse world seems pretty much inevitable.