“When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives.” – Alasdair MacIntyre
I have never written a blog before.
In the last couple of days, local elections and the London Mayoral elections have been taking place. I posted on my Twitter: “I don’t have local elections in my area, so I can’t vote today. Even if I did, I wouldn’t. A lesser evil is still an evil.” I, and others on my feed expressing similar sentiments, faced a barrage of replies, ranging from understanding of our choice, and begrudging acceptance of it, to bemusement, disappointment, and outright abuse.
I got into a Twitter conversation about it with a local Green Party member, called Duncan Roy, which culminated in his writing an inaccurate, reactionary, sarcastic, rude, muddled, and bile-filled blog about me personally, and others who choose not to participate in the framework of the British electoral system. You can read his blog here: http://blog.scrapperduncan.com/2012/05/05/congratulations-to-the-non-voters/
In it, he calls me, and others who don’t vote, ‘intellectually lazy’ (perhaps a bit rich from someone who concludes his arguments by writing ‘fuck you’ and consistently using strawmen), so I thought that rather than let him get away with making lazy assumptions that people who choose not to vote are apathetic, I thought I would write a direct response to him, as well as to other common arguments against choosing not to vote.
One of my first really clear memories of a general election, and actually appreciating and understanding the scale of the effect it had on people’s lives, was in 1997, when I was 13 years old. I grew up in a small army village located next to a military base, which was used to receive all the war dead from the Falklands, who were kept in the cargo shed before being returned to their families. In the months leading up to the election, the streets where I lived were decorated with Labour posters in every window, including my own house. On the day the election result was announced our estates had street parties. For me and my teenage friends, watching Tony Blair shake the hands of the jubilant crowds, and watching our parents and neighbours in the flats, and our communities, sob and hug each other and get drunk, we felt that something monumental had happened. I remember looking at that grinning politician and thinking that he would make all our lives better.
When I first was able to vote, I put a cross in the box for the Labour party, because that was what all my family had done their entire lives. A short while later, all those people from my village who were at the street parties - the parents of the friends I had grown up with, were being sent to the war that the party I had voted for was waging.
Now of course it was not just the Iraq war that led to my disillusionment with Parliamentarianism and my decision not to vote, but that was the first time I suppose I was really aware of the abject failure of the supposed democracy of the political system.
This blog would be too boring, and neither do I have the time, to write an autobiographical account of my changing political views over the course of a decade, but formative experiences of what leads people to certain conclusions are important, so I will relay a short experience that planted the seeds in my mind that there were other, more constructive ways to effect change.
I had a crappy job at a call centre. It was a very target driven environment, and we were constantly pressured to take more phone calls, make more sales. They floated a rule that all staff were only allowed two timed toilet breaks in the course of a shift, and if you went over your allocated time they would instigate the disciplinary process, which could result in being sacked. This rule was applied for all staff, therefore indirectly discriminating against disabled people, pregnant women (one of whom was on my team), or just people who drank a lot! Everyone was grumbling about this, and raising it with line managers who promised to look into it but did nothing, so I decided to do something about it. At an agreed time, me, and many other women on my floor, went into the female toilets and vowed to stay there until they changed the rule. They did.
I’m sure that there are amazing stories of political awakenings that happened to people of my generation, or people a bit older than me - the anti-poll tax movement, the anti-WTO battles in Seattle, and many other important struggles, but for 19 year old me, having never heard of any of those things, and not being in education and wet behind the ears, then our little toilet protest was an awakening in the sense that I saw that when people took collective action, they could force change, and this led me to trying to find more ways in which I could do this.
So how did that make me decide not to vote? It didn’t. But it was the first stage of the process that over a decade has led me to conclude that a) mass action by the working class is the best way to effect change in our society, and b) that people should take control of their own lives, rather than picking someone to rely on to do it for us.
There are other reasons too, of course, which I summarised in the initial twitter conversation with Duncan. You can read those brief points here (which count as ‘ranting’ apparently) http://blog.scrapperduncan.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/@HollySmither_Ranting_At_Scrapper_Duncan.jpg
I’ll summarise those points quickly, and will then respond to each of Duncan’s points in turn.
In his blog, Duncan rolls out the tired ‘if you don’t vote, you can’t moan about it’ line, and even goes further than that to say that people who don’t vote deserve whatever it is that the politicians throw at them. Actually Duncan, it’s you, and others like you, who deserve what politicians throw at them, as you are the ones that allowed politicians in that position to be able to do so in the first place. The state wants people to vote as it encourages people to give their willing consent to being governed. If you play the game you have to accept the outcome.
I am pretty bored of everyone exclaiming indignantly “but women died so you can vote!” People died for a lot of things, including the right to own slaves, therefore this in itself is not an argument. However, women died for my choice to vote – I am exercising that choice. And please be assured that if it was taken away, I’d be amongst the people fighting for it back. Plus, people have died for the right to strike, but I don’t see Duncan writing a blog on how scabs are the scum of the earth.
I’ll go through Duncan’s points in turn, and expand on the further arguments as they arise.
He puts people who don’t vote into certain categories:
“People Who Couldn’t Be Bothered To Vote You deserve everything which is foisted upon you by elected politicians. You have no right to complain about anything. Your contribution to the national debate equals zero. You couldn’t care less, literally. You’re lucky that people care about you. Some people anyway. Personally, I have less respect for you than I do for someone who casts a vote for the thieving Tory bastards.”
Whilst I have no doubts that there genuinely are people who cannot be bothered, and live in their isolated bubble, I think this category fails to recognise the amount of people who feel alienated by the political process, and can’t be bothered to vote because they fail to see the effect that it may have on their lives. Imagine an individual called Dave who is unemployed and living off benefits and being forced to participate in the workfare scheme – which all of the mainstream political parties support. If the one thing that Dave really cared about and wanted politicians to do was to create jobs for him so he wasn’t forced to exchange his labour for his meagre benefits just so he wouldn’t starve, what could he do here? Dave knows that whoever he votes for will continue to support a scheme that is making his life a misery. So he shrugs his shoulders and doesn’t go out into the rain to put a cross in a box to choose between someone who will punch him in the right eye and someone who will punch him in the left.
Unlike Duncan’s harsh, uncompassionate, dismissive view that Dave “deserves what is foisted upon him” and has “no right to complain”, I feel for Dave, and for the millions of others who feel so disenfranchised and ‘couldn’t be bothered’.
If I was a politician, or even in a political party (like Duncan is) then rather than sitting around writing blogs that heap scorn on these alienated people, I would be putting all my efforts into working out what I can do to engage them, and what I can do to make their lives better. These are the people that a) I should be fighting for the most and b) trying to engage. Not just pointing and shouting at them that they deserve it. And Duncan wonders why so many people fall into this category? Glaringly obvious with sneering attitudes like his wouldn’t you say?
“No Candidates Or Parties Worth Voting For This is an excuse. You could have turned up at the polling station and registered your disgust by spoiling your ballot paper. Spoilt ballots are counted and declared. I suspect that there are so very many people in your category that you form the bulk of the non-voters. Had you spoilt your ballot paper, your frustration with the politics on offer would have become the main story for years to come. Politicians would have been put into panic mode because they would have seen that you had made the effort to get to the polling station and are therefore capable of being persuaded to vote for someone in future. Democratic politics is a competition. Politicians compete for the voters, not the non-voters. Ballot spoilers are competed for more than people who object silently. You want perfection! You’re only prepared to vote for someone or a party which mirrors your views very closely, even though that is practically impossible. As in the rest of your life, you have to make some compromises. Assuming that you want to have relationships with other people, that is. You have no relationship with democratically elected politicians precisely because you’re not willing to compromise. Fuck you.”
Hey Duncan. So you’re in the Green party right? So by your logic above, people who went out and spoiled their ballot paper might be persuaded to vote for your lot right? So here’s a bright idea - why not shout “fuck you” at them?? Way to get them on side!
Firstly, I’ll address the implicit statement in this section – Duncan is perpetuating the myth that therefore even though no party represents your views, you have a duty to choose the ‘lesser evil’, which I imagine is what he means by ‘compromise’. The ‘lesser evil’ argument developed in politics after the second world war, when the US formed alliances with certain pro-capitalist dictators, which was seen as ‘the lesser evil’ than a communist revolution. Western allies justified their support for Stalin under this principle. Outside of politics, the actual logic of this position can also be used to justify torture and any number of other horrific things, therefore, that’s not the kind of logic I’m comfortable with using. Also, I believe that the more the logic of lesser-evilism grows and is accepted in political discourse as an ethically justifiable position, the more the ‘lesser-evil’ can become more evil.
Duncan says that when people say there are no candidates and parties worth voting for this is an excuse, and that people have to be ‘willing to compromise’. We live in Brighton, which is currently a Green led Council. Therefore Duncan can vote for a party which he is a member of, which stands candidates that have a reasonable chance of getting elected. Not much of a compromise there for him. So here’s a little dilemma for you Duncan: In this scenario, you can still be a member of the Green party. But you don’t live in Brighton. Imagine you live in a constituency where the only representatives standing were: a) the Tories b) UKIP c) the British Freedom Party d) the BNP. Now I’m (hopefully) assuming that you would never advocate a vote for an extreme right-wing party, so what would you do here? Where’s your compromise? Would you hold your nose and vote Tories? I’m still guessing no. Can you not see that this is the position that millions of people, especially working class people, face? When you’re faced with an entirely unpalatable choice then it’s not much of a choice at all is it? No wonder people don’t want to play a part in that ‘compromise’.
I’m guessing your cop-out answer to this dilemma will be ‘well, I’d spoil my ballot paper’. You seem to be fairly fixated on this tactic, but you’re putting much too much faith in it. I’ve actually been at a count before. In Lewes last year my friend stood as a local councillor and he gave me a ticket to the count, so I went along with him. Of course you are right in that spoiled ballots get counted, but they get counted in with people who write their name on their ballot paper, or people who vote too many times – people who do it wrong basically. And even when the spoiled ballot papers were declared, I didn’t see any of the parties present going “oh goodness me, 200 people came along and spoiled their paper, isn’t that a sad indictment of how people feel about this process, what can we do to get them on board?” or “Oh look, that person drew a massive willy on their ballot paper cos they’re so frustrated with this crappy system – how can I get them to vote for me instead?” Of course not. The turnout in elections constantly drop, no parties ever mention addressing it, because they’re too busy chasing the ‘floating voters’, or ‘middle England’, because they know that’s where the power of the voting base lies.
I think it’s important to address the truism in Duncan’s heading of this section – ‘No Candidates Or Parties Worth Voting For’. This is so obviously self-evident that I can’t really see how he could argue against it. Take his party as an example – the Brighton Greens campaigned on a basis that if elected they would ‘fight the cuts’. They got elected, run Brighton Council, and voted through millions of pounds of cuts. I work for Brighton Council, and many, many of my fellow trade union members and colleagues said “I voted for the Greens as the least worst option but they’re just the bloody same as the rest of them.” Quite. So when it comes to being made redundant this year or the next then is that the compromise that you’re talking about Duncan?
Ultimately, I believe in what I think is best for the working class. Therefore I am an anti-capitalist. If Duncan isn’t, then I guess we’re always going to have to agree to disagree. But all parties, whenever they get into power, defend and uphold capitalism.
Brighton Solidarity Federation wrote a post before the General Election in 2010 entitled ‘Should you vote Green?’ which illustrates the above point:
“Faced with such ‘choice’, the opportunity to vote for Caroline Lucas – in a town where the Greens have previously polled 23% against a national average of 1% – seems at first glance appealing. The Greens are perhaps the only left-wing party with a chance of getting an MP, and Lucas herself enjoys a certain respect amongst local activists and trade unionists.
However, we should sound a note of caution. It is true that Caroline Lucas shows her face at campaign meetings for more than just a photoshoot and some self-promotion (yes, we’re looking at you Nancy Platt), but history shows that wherever the Greens have got into power they have behaved just like any other capitalist party.
In Germany, the Green Party in government sent riot police against protesters trying to stop nuclear waste being transported through their communities – precisely the kind of green activism they had once supported. In 2001 they supported the invasion of Afghanistan as part of a coalition government. In Ireland too the Green Party went from vocal supporters of the ‘Shell to Sea’ movement against the Corrib gas project to actually implementing it. Green minister Eamon Ryan is now in charge of the project, the Greens having dropped their election promises in order to enter a coalition government.
Much the same can be said of the new Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. We all know what happened the last time a party of union bureaucrats got into power: the Labour Party. And we should dispel any nostalgia for ‘Old Labour’ from the off – they supported imperialist wars, opposed strikes and imposed austerity measures on the working class from their very inception: just like every other party that finds itself trying to balance the budget of the capitalist state.
The closer politicians get to power, the more like the rest they become, however well-intentioned and full of integrity they may start out. If Caroline Lucas does get in, she’ll be a lone voice of dissent. This will do her credibility on the left a lot of good, but will mean she’s not able to actually deliver any of her election promises. That would require a larger contingent of Green MPs… and if we got that, we’re back to the ‘power corrupts’ German/Irish scenario. This takes us to the heart of the matter. The cuts will not be defeated at the ballot box, but on the picket lines and in the streets. Precisely because voting doesn’t really make any difference, we aren’t calling for a boycott. But if you are thinking of voting, don’t have any illusions in the political process. It’s a circus designed to give us the illusion control over those who rule us, when in reality the change we are promised is forever delayed. If you want to make your voice heard don’t vote for a different ruler, vote to strike with your fellow workers. That’s the way we’ll beat the cuts, and start creating the basis for a world without politicians and rulers altogether.
“People Who Prefer A Different Form Of Democracy I’d like to see a different system of elections too. The question is, how to obtain it? You’re doomed to forever suffer the system we have if you don’t vote because when the politicians come around to canvass your vote, they’ll realise that you’re not going to vote and simply ignore your opinion. It really is as simple as that. Your opinions are worthless to those standing for office. Whereas, if you expressed that opinion strongly, at least one political party would include it in its manifesto to try to win your vote. I suspect that if a different system of democracy was introduced, you’d find some other excuse not to vote. Do you really think that your personal opinion is so precious that it cannot be tarnished by joining in with the system we’ve got? You’ll never get what you want with this attitude. You’re smug. You’re useless.”
Do you have any evidence to your claim that if a different system of democracy was introduced then people would still not vote? Thought not.
“People Who Don’t Like Democracy At All This is probably the only justifiable reason for not voting. This is the reason given by many anarchists for not voting. If you’re an anarchist who doesn’t vote, you’d do well to remember that fascists do vote even though they’d prefer a regime which would round you up and shoot you. It’s only a vote, for Kropotkin’s sake! Voting doesn’t preclude you from taking many other types of political action. It’s just one method of expressing your opinion. Using the others but avoiding the vote is like romance without seduction. Feels nice doesn’t it? What a loverly comfortable world you live in. Next time you get the chance to vote, please consider the rest of us more than yourself!”
This section is so stupid it’s difficult to know where to start.
Duncan has used the lazy hyperbolic example of fascism to try and make a point, so let’s continue with that theme for a minute and look back through history when all those fascists were voted out of power…..Oh hang on.
It’s some lazy logic to assume that just because some individuals choose not to participate in parliamentarianism this therefore means that they don’t like democracy itself.
So let’s try and get rid of Duncan’s strawman: let me get this clear - I love voting. I vote all the time. I am a trade union shop steward, and we have workplace meetings where I’m constantly having to stick my hand up for or against something. Voting and democracy is not a bad thing in itself, quite the opposite, hence why I am opposed to the supposed ‘democracy’ of bourgeois politics – because it is anything but. I vote when the organisation that I am part of needs to make a collective decision, or to choose a representative, which is how I got into position. People voted for me to be their trade union representative because they knew me as an individual, and so could make an informed decision about whether I was the right person to do the job or not. I am there to represent their views. Sometimes in meetings or hearings that I attend then I personally disagree with what members want me to say, but I say it anyway because that’s what I’ve been voted to do. If I didn’t, and went against their wishes, or just if I do a crap job, and they are unhappy with me for whatever reason, then they can vote me out just as quickly. I am directly accountable to my members, therefore this is direct democracy in the way that electoral politics is not.
(Also, as an aside here, Duncan says later on that “I’ve never heard of a trades unionist who doesn’t vote before”, expressing better than I ever could how out of touch with people he is.)
What I am opposed to is not the act of voting, or democracy itself, but electoral politics, where a cross section of the public gets a say every few years in who rules us, and that body (assuming they had the required financial means to stand for election in the first place!), once elected, holds autonomy to make decisions as it sees fit, regardless of those they supposedly answer to. This is not democratic. Nor is it exercising power – it is surrendering it. Which leads us onto….
“All Politicians Are Bastards Why shouldn’t they be? After all, you’re not offering any incentives to be different are you? Many of them are self-serving wankers, I agree. These people populate all political parties, sadly. However, the trick is to realise that you can chop and change your vote, which produces political change. You have a paranoid complex. You probably fear everyone in authority and prefer a life of constant struggle to one where you contribute. Getting involved, even to the extent of ticking a box on a piece of paper or spoiling the ballot, is a pretty easy contribution to make. You can’t even manage that. You’re the bastard here”.
This section is pretty funny. So the ‘trick’ is, if I change between voting Labour and then voting Green this will produce political change and stop politicians being bastards? Gotcha. Some tenuous logic there.
And yes Duncan, you’re right, I do fear people in authority. Why? Because they have the power to ruin people’s lives and the planet we’re living on. I’d call that a rational fear.
And uh oh – the strawman rears his ugly head again in this section: the main thing that angers me about Duncan’s ignorant views overall is perfectly expressed in this section - his insinuation that because people don’t ‘tick a box on a piece of paper’ this means they don’t ‘contribute’. He assumes that choosing to not participate in the framework of mainstream politics means that people just sit around watching the telly and doing nothing. Quite the opposite. The alternative is people taking control of their own lives, and being active in their communities, rather than expecting representatives to do things on their behalf.
I’m going to list a few real life examples of the kind of action that I mean:
My own workplace. Years ago, the department where I work took collective action over privatisation and newly imposed work routines, occupying our canteen and working with the local community to ensure the Council gave into our demands. You can read an honest account of the action here: http://libcom.org/history/2001-brighton-bin-mens-strike-and-occupation
The amazing victory of the cleaners in the City of London, organised by the IWW union, who fought for a London living wage: http://iww.org.uk/node/676
‘Good work strikes’ like that at Mercy Hospital in France, where workers refused to file the billing slips for drugs, lab tests, treatments, and therapy. As a result, the patients got better care (since time was being spent caring for them instead of doing paperwork), for free. The hospital’s income was cut in half, and panic-stricken administrators gave in to all of the workers’ demands after three days. http://iww.org.uk/organise/direct_action
Or more community-based campaigns, such as the rather incredible Occupy Homes movement in America, with numerous other affiliated grassroots campaign groups, that are occupying and protecting buildings foreclosed by US banks, and enabling homeless and low income families to live there - http://occupyourhomes.org/about/
Or campaigns like the one that overturned the poll tax; many people, including the trade union bureaucracy and some far-left groups even, simply advocated a vote for Labour so they could overturn the legislation, but it was done by a mass of people participating in a non-payment, and court blockades, until it was finally withdrawn.
There are many, many, more examples like this I could choose.
Duncan’s main criticism seems to be that people who don’t vote are apathetic or lazy. I believe that by encouraging people to participate in an undemocratic process that selects an unaccountable individual into a position of power and relying on them to change things, is the epitome of laziness and allows them to feel smug about ‘doing their bit’ and then go home and sit on their arse until the next one comes round in four years time. Now I know that many voters are activists too (I won’t engage in lazy generalisations about people, unlike Duncan), but until we change the attitude that we need people to do things on our behalf, I don’t believe we’ll solve our problems.
Duncan says it’s a ‘pretty easy contribution to make’ to vote. Of course it is. But a) by doing so I would be perpetuating the system that I am fighting against and b) surely this contradicts his anger at being angry at people for being lazy? If you want to encourage people to not be apathetic Duncan, don’t just tell them that it’s ‘easy’ to tick a box and that’s their duty done.
If we look back at the gains made by working class people in the last hundred years or so, they have come about by people collectively organising and fighting their own battles. That’s what I would rather be encouraging and participating in. And I am, and will be, joining with many other people fighting to protect the jobs and services that the electorate rely on, that his party are destroying. And I certainly don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of.