Churchill famously observed that, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
The man often adjudged the greatest of all British Prime Ministers clearly was not always encouraged by the intellectual capacities of the voting public. Ultimately, he suffered the humiliation of being ejected from government by a post-war electorate which appeared to have suffered a major lapse of short-term memory. In very quick time, the old man’s feats of wartime leadership and resolve had seemingly been forgotten.
Yet, for all its flaws, Churchill understood that democracy is the least worst of all the alternatives. He knew from his experience battling Nazism, that if citizens refuse to stand and be counted, by engaging the system of governance and holding it to account, a dangerous power vacuum is created. Ruthless ideologies and individuals will always exploit such a vacuum.
Voting is both an individual right, but it is also a part of one’s responsibility to the collective society.
In the lead-up to this general election, there is more than the usual degree of uncertainty. There is a lot of talk about undecided voters, but a good deal of attention has also been paid to one or two advocates of a “don’t vote” philosophy.
The current enthusiasm for non-voting perhaps smacks of populism and half-baked philosophies. Yet it is a response to something felt very deeply by its advocates; specifically, a gaping trust deficit when it comes to politicians and other members of the ruling elites.
Scepticism, of course, is not restricted to no-voters. It has long been a component of the wider public’s default reaction to politicos and their promises. Manifesto commitments have all too often turned out, once a party gains power, to be little more than expressions of wishful thinking at best and cynical manipulation at worst.
Since 2009, this natural wariness has morphed into a more overt form of suspicion. At the height of the recession, the public’s trust in almost every foundational institution within British society was called into question.
There was a drive to see a collective housecleaning, starting with the banks and quickly spreading to Westminster in the wake of the expenses scandal. The spotlight of suspicion then widened to include universities, as tuition fees began to bite. The reputation of the police and the courts was battered for a while by their handling of the riots across England. The media and press were hauled before the court of public opinion over phone tapping scandals and the institutional church struggled to deal with horrendous child abuse allegations made against it. The world of popular entertainment took a beating too, in the wake of Jimmy Savile child sex abuse revelations.
On the political front in more recent times, we’ve heard story after story of abuses of parliamentary privilege. We’ve read about prominent politicians who’ve pitched themselves as sellers of influence to the highest bidder.
While many politicians may be doing their best in an often difficult job, there are some grounds for public cynicism and feelings of estrangement. Unsurprisingly, the trust issue continues to surface as a major factor in surveys among undecided voters.
However, turning mistrust or scepticism into an excuse not to vote is to mistakenly equate anarchism with activism.
Acclaiming individual rights without recognising concomitant social responsibilities is the beginning of anarchism.
Activism is motivated by a clear and distinctive vision of the preferred future – usually , in one particular area of need. It takes the cards it has been dealt and strategically looks for ways to maximize their potential, in bringing about clear goals and specific changes.
Anarchism, on the other hand, throws the cards in the air, not knowing or much caring where they land, as long as the result differs from the status quo. Current advocates of non-voting appear to lean more toward the latter.
Whilst they're quick to demand that systems of governance should change in all manner of ways, they're usually loath – or unable – to specify what form those changes should take. Apart from airing sometimes legitimate grievances with current corporate structures – and links between big business and government – their rhetoric reveals a paucity of core, pragmatic aims.
There's no specific, strategic goal as to what needs to change first and what type of action is needed to promote that change. And there's little opportunity for everyday people to buy into the process or join the cause in any way, aside from occasionally joining a demonstration.
The no-vote option is also a road to personal powerlessness and despair.
Psychologists have long talked about the links between a perceived loss of control and the onset of certain types of depression. If I feel that my choices no longer count, that there’s no way for me to initiate change within my situation, I become a victim of the fates. Self-confidence leaks away and grinding frustration and anger set in.
To choose apathy is not only to abdicate responsibility for the world around me. It is ultimately the least self-affirming and self-caring option.
Arguably, a refusal to vote is also an insult to those of our forebears who fought for universal suffrage, sometimes at great personal risk. A few western nations, such as Sweden and Finland, gave women voting rights at the start of the twentieth century, but most waited until mid-century. Ethnic minorities often had to wait even longer. For example, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that my homeland of Australia allowed its indigenous people, of either gender, to vote – though one of its states first allowed women to vote in 1894.
Campaigners in these struggles usually paid dearly for their engagement with a hostile system; a system which paid lip service to democracy but failed to live up to its promise. Against great odds, they doggedly battled the power structures in the belief that, as Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. put it: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Possessing the right to vote and not using it is akin to saying to these bygone social reformers: “Your sacrifice is not appreciated. Thanks, but no thanks.”
The non-vote option is also useful fodder for political bodies that would like to exercise greater control with less accountability.
Right now, self-confessed political nerds and professional pundits are salivating over the vast array of permutations available for the make-up of the next British government. With this election campaign, everything is potential wheels-within-wheels; all is fluid and nothing appears to be nailed down.
We used to say, in tight elections, “the result could go either way”. Now, in a post-two-party world, we’re left to scratch our heads and mutter, “anything could happen”. Even the deepest political enmities are being called into question. Some experts have even floated the possibility of a deal between Tories and the SNP. (Look, there’s pig number three coming in to land…)
Of course, there is no truly “new type of politics”. Politics is politics and the game hasn’t changed all that much in quite a long time. It would be helpful if someone were to remind the leaders of smaller parties, prior to TV debates, not to talk ad nauseam about finding this elusive “new way” to do politics. It just makes them sound either cynically opportunistic, historically ignorant or profoundly stupid.
Yet alliances and coalitions are relatively new ground for British politics – not completely without precedent, but certainly not the norm. Their potential benefit, though, is that they force party ideologies to take more of a back seat. Ceding ground on what is a legitimate conviction is not always healthy, but being forced to think through what is truly non-negotiable – and why – is a good thing for the system.
All of this is only made possible because, at the end of an electoral cycle, politicians are held to account, not by the press and media, or online celebrity pundits, but by the everyman and woman at the ballot box.
Not to vote may seem like a convenient way to voice a protest, but it is to cast a vote nonetheless. The democratic process stands or falls on whether or not people willingly – if not enthusiastically – engage with it.