Voting for the sake of it is not enough. If change is going to come, we must be the source of it.
A few years back, during one of the omnishambles that have festooned this Parliament like writing upon biblical walls, I declared that were there an election the next day I would abstain. I was met with howls of reproach: “However you vote, you must vote.”
The last is a sentiment I too have frequently expressed down the years. It is notable, looking back on this year’s European elections, that my exhortation was down to stopping UKIP rather than a romantic appeal to the joy of the democratic process. That more prosaic tone does indeed reflect my increased feeling of disillusion, and as the General Election of next year draws ever closer, I find myself less and less able to back any party.
Nevertheless, the expectation is that I must vote. To not do so is a dereliction of my democratic duty. After much consideration, I must disagree and speak out in defence of active abstention.
The vote is one part of our democracy. It is certainly the most thrilling, and in many ways the most important, but it is just one part of it. I enjoy voting. I take pride in it. I value my vote and would not carelessly refuse to use it. I have turned out in every election I have been eligible to vote in, and I can only think of three occasions out of ten when I really felt that my vote counted in some small way. Two of those were European elections conducted under PR. The other was the vote for London Mayor, where my defiance in voting for Siobhan Benita, was somewhat masked by the futility of then having to vote for one of the two major candidates, neither of whom I particularly liked.
It’s not exactly a great hit rate is it? All of the others have been conducted in safe seats for one party or another. My vote made little difference. It was either a shout into a storm or a whisper in a chant. The conclusion is this, my vote, far more often than not, gives me little impact on the way my country is governed.
Besides, if I were still to vote I would still have to vote for one party that I find unacceptable on one level or another. I do not expect to go to the polls every election wholeheartedly believing in the party I will vote for, but I would like to go to the polls just once and be able to vote in a positive frame of mind.
The options in front of me have steadily strayed from anything that I might recognise as viable. They have become tortured, twisted, tribal, gutless prattlers, solely interested in their favourite game of politics and not at all in good governance. Politics is their sport, Westminster their Wembley, and The Andrew Marr Show their match of the day. Every single beat of a five year parliament is a point-scoring operation against the other side, and if it’s choice between good government and good politics, it is always the lesser motivation that wins. My vote will not change that mortifying fact about our politics.
So, what am I to do? Continuing voting in elections were my vote doesn’t count, casting my franchise in the direction of the party I dislike the least? No. The cure for this malaise must run deeper than that. It lies in a wholesale change and reinvigoration of our politics, and this is where the other tools of our democracy come into play.
My next election is in Cities of Westminster and London: Tory Majority of 11,076. Once again my vote will not count, and I feel uninclined to compromise myself by voting one way or the other as it stands, in which instance spoiling my ballot is the only course of action. What will have more impact is writing letters, campaigning on issues I believe in, and – above all – debating freely and openly without prejudice whenever and wherever there is an appetite for it. All these I must do more of, and I reckon so must a fair few of those reading this.
Suddenly, my tone has swung from the prosaic back to the romantic, and how dearly I would like the vote to be a romantic thing once more. To a certain extent, we get the politicians we deserve. Our current dearth is in part the result of our apathy. If we can reverse that, imaginatively, creatively and at every opportunity then we will be on a better path to a better future.
I am not saying “do not vote”. I am merely asking you to assess a person by the sum total of their democratic activity. After all, a person who votes as a matter of routine is on a par with the person who never goes close to a polling booth, for they have forsaken vigilance, and vigilance is demanded of us all.