Social media – and presumably RL media, but I don’t have as much access to that, being abroad – is currently full of people reminding everybody, and especially young people, to register to vote. And by implication (or outright demand) that they should cast their ballot in a few weeks. The first I broadly agree with, as it would be a terrible shame if anybody who wanted to vote missed out because they forgot or didn’t understand when or how they need to apply. Despite changes in the system, it’s still apparently remarkably easy. Just to clarify that I’m not actually against the whole thing, here’s the link:
Today’s the last day, but it only takes a few minutes. And while they’d like your NI number, you don’t actually require one. Anyway, that bit out of the way, let me explain why I’m slightly uncomfortable with the whole thing, and why choosing not to vote (as long as its a choice, rather than something forced upon you) is perfectly legitimate. So a few points.
Firstly, fundamental to every properly constituted right is the right not to *do or be* whatever that right allows. Freedoms of speech include the right to keep one’s own counsel. Freedom of religion requires the right to have no religion. Hell, even the right to bear arms needs to allow the choice to go unarmed, otherwise it’s not a right, it’s an obligation (as when you’re doing military service where that applies). To not participate is always a legitimate choice. Without wanting to get completely sidetracked, I’d say this even applies to the right to life itself.
Secondly, I’m really uncomfortable with all these people saying that people should vote because that’s why ‘your grandparents went to war’, ‘Emily Davison died’, or even, most absurdly, ‘Nelson Mandela went to jail.’ Obviously many of these things may not even vaguely be connected with the franchise. But even if they are, fighting for the right and freedom to *be able* to vote doesn’t in itself place any obligation on one’s successors. And there’s something vaguely unpalatable about trying to browbeat people in this fashion. How dare anybody who doesn’t know them use the actions and sacrifices of the dead to argue in this way? Moreover, why should the association with obligations to previous generations be a good one? There’s something extremely patronising about the whole process, especially in the broad use of the the term ‘young people.’ As a young(ish) person, I’m acutely aware of how the profligacy and greed of (some) older people has screwed the youth of today, as it will others for years to come. So maybe people need to be careful when advising those younger than themselves, as if age automatically brings wisdom.
Why you shouldn’t vote (unless you want to)
You might not want to vote is simply because you have no interest in doing so. Either you don’t think that your vote will have any effect, don’t care about the outcome, don’t fully understand the system, or believe that none of the candidates offered you are close enough to your views. These are all perfectly good reasons.
If you live in a safe constituency, the first is likely. You will still have people saying that your vote matters. Firstly, you may think this is bollocks, and that’s not unreasonable. But even if you do see your vote as having some weight, why should this be a good thing? Turnout will be used to legitimise the result, whoever wins (although it will also be conveniently ignored when it doesn’t suit purposes). And it might also serve to entrench the current system, as a high level of participation clearly shows that it works, right? Of course you might think the exact opposite, especially if you favour one of the smaller parties; if you support the Greens, say, then the higher the share of the national vote compared with the number of seat(s) they win, the stronger you might think the argument is for some form of electoral reform. If so, vote! But only if you think it’s the right thing to do.
Secondly, don’t vote unless you feel comfortable with your understanding of its effects. I don’t mean that you need to have scoured the manifesto of the party you intend to support, still less be prepared to predict how much of it they’ll actually adhere to in the event of success. But do try to make a genuine choice. I remember far too many people at my first election – ’97 – happily announcing that they would just vote the same way as their parents. This seems a waste. Not that you should just go another way to be rebellious. I’ve seen some of the arguments against the female franchise that observed that a woman’s vote would either cancel out her husband’s (because *obviously* any respectable woman would be married), or needlessly duplicate it. This conveniently ignored the fact that the whole point is to have the choice. If you vote, do so in the way that you think you should. Don’t just blindly follow somebody else. You might end up supporting somebody who will work against your interests. Listen to other people, and then make your decision.
Finally, remember that voting is far from the only way you can have an effect in a democratic society. In fact, it can be a negative one, in that it indicates support for the status quo. One of the ways I happen to think that things should change in the UK is the addition of a ‘None of the above’ option on the ballot. It should be possible to say, sorry, but all of these people are rubbish, and I’d like to be offered some better choices. And voting alone isn’t likely to change this, not least because our FPT (First Past the Post) system isn’t really equipped to deal with it.
Vote. Don’t vote. Write to your MP (it doesn’t matter if you voted for them or not), after the election. Organise. March. Do what you can to create the country that you want to see. But don’t feel like voting is either required or the only thing you can do to make your voice heard.
I am acutely aware that, even cautiously, endorsing not voting puts me on the same side as Russell Brand. And I’m fine with that. I don’t particularly like him, and I disagree with many of his opinions, but he’s right on much of this one. At the very least, he’s informed a lot of people about the various other ways you can exercise your democratic rights beyond marking your ballot paper. Don’t vote unless you want to, but do be political about the things that matter to you.