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.