By Pieter Cranenbroek
‘Bad politicians are sent to Washington by good people who don’t vote,’ William E. Simon once remarked. Replace ‘Washington’ with ‘Westminster’ and the sentence doesn’t lose its significance. The British left can no longer passively wait for Russell Brand’s revolution and watch with dismay how politics is becoming more and more cynical. A positive, politically active countermovement is needed to end the surge of British politics to the right and bring back the momentum to the progressives.
It’s been nearly a year since British comedian Russell Brand urged people to not bother voting, which recently caused his colleague Al Murray to declare his views ‘close to fascism’. Despite the rather unfortunate analogy, Murray’s statement does open up an interesting debate. Brand undoubtedly has the best of intentions, but is society best served by his call for political non-participation?
Brand’s plan to boycott the democratic process has found resonance with many. Having been in the grasp of successive Tory governments, New Labour proved a continuation rather than a break from their destructive policies, up to the point that voters could barely distinguish between politicians with a red and a blue tie. It left British citizens so disillusioned that, as George Monbiot has described it, they have not lost interest in politics but have lost hope.
People are tired of politics, and with good cause. But the answer never lies in staying at home on election day. Not voting, the political equivalent of burying your head in the sand, doesn’t solve anything. Although it is understandable that people have grown sceptical after decades of demoralising governments, there is always a reason to vote.
Non-voters empower voters. Yes, it is true that one out of roughly 46 million eligible voters will not make any difference, but you may see things differently if you know how many people had this thought in the previous general elections. In 2010, about 50 per cent of people aged 18 to 40 did not cast their vote, which is the equivalent of all the votes the Conservatives received in that same election. Non-voting has an impact as it empowers those who do vote.
Labour and the Conservatives are not the only choice. With Labour following the example of the Tories in chasing the Ukip vote it certainly seems like it is slim pickings for a lefty. There are more parties on the ballot paper though. As the Liberal Democrats and Ukip have recently shown, British elections are no longer a two-horse race. Why not vote for a smaller party like the Green Party or another left-wing alternative? It’s only a vote wasted if you don’t vote at all.
Small parties can influence politics and they can quickly gain support. What happens if Labour loses a marginal seat due to a rise of small left-wing parties or if it (nearly) loses a safe seat? Surely, Labour would have to reinvent itself when it notices that there are votes to be won in the vacuum that they have left behind on the left. More support for smaller parties may also lead to a call for a fairer voting system. Proportional representation would allow the party with the most overall votes, not constituencies, to form a government and would make it easier for smaller parties to get MPs. Also, don’t forget that Ukip used to be small and rather insignificant up to a few years ago.
Still not convinced? Then have a look at Spain, where a small, new party is making a difference. As in Britain, the Spanish political landscape has traditionally been dominated by two parties, a conservative party (PP) and a labour party (PSOE), which have grown more similar in recent times. Fed up with this situation, a group of intellectuals founded Podemos (We can) at the start of the year and surprised everyone by coming in fourth at the European elections in May, only four months after its founding. With the general elections due to be held next year, PSOE Secretary-General Pedro Sánchez announced new and progressive party policies last month which signified a move back to the left. Why shouldn’t this scenario be possible in the UK as well?
The British left needs to do something more meaningful than leaving ballots blank. Like right-wingers voting Ukip because they feel Tory policies don’t go far enough, people dissatisfied with Labour should start massively backing a left-wing alternative. One thing is certain: no revolution ever started with apathy. To quote another politically engaged comedian, John Fugelsang: ‘If you’re too disillusioned to vote that’s kind of what they want. I am too disillusioned to not vote.’