UK General Election: The Battle Against Proportional Renunciation
It’s a strange time we live in: the General Election to determine the direction of the United Kingdom’s fortunes will take over the next 5 years gets arguably less hype than a boxing match on the other side of the Atlantic between two half-pint heavyweights—although perhaps, in the case of the boxing, it’s much easier to pick your favourite.
The way I interpret my generation—the Gen Y, the Millennials—is that they seem so turned off from politics that the concept of travelling to a polling station and ticking a box is viewed as a considerable inconvenience. It’s difficult to find anyone in the same age bracket who is truly politically aware, and not just spouting media platitudes and ignorance. But who can blame us? Over the last 6 months especially, we have become incredibly frustrated watching the endless stream of spin, counter-spin, petty, “he-said-she-said” political one-upmanship in full force. Whether you were for or against, the Scottish Independence debate was undoubtably a powerful demonstration of democracy. It supercharged a nation into discussion, but the UK has gone backwards with Westminster relegating the real point of politics to the second tier of issues.
This has to be addressed, urgently. Whilst the next leaders will be decided by the system of first-past-the-post, we are in danger of undermining the very fabric of the UK with a system of proportional renunciation, where people choose to throw away one of the most important democratic rights given to a citizen. To tackle this we look at the first logical question: why could you possibly choose not to vote come the 7th of May?
“Politics” is derived from the Greek “of, for, or relating to the polis” (where “polis” refers to “city,” i.e. the collective will of inhabitants). You would think, then, that focus would be given to issues that affect the everyday man and woman. If this UK election campaign is anything to go by, you’d be wrong.
The UK airs Leaders’ Debates, Leaders Interviews, “An Audience with [insert leader here],” photo opportunities and personal attacks. I tune into these intently (even if just to fulfil my masochistic tendencies) and have an interesting reflection on the content: someone can absorb all that is said, turn their television off and feel more confused than before they started.
Politicians are a funny species: at once trying to sound not-too-intellectual to appeal to the working class, whilst also trying to sound semi-intellectual to appeal to the upper class. What therefore manifests itself is a strange combination of talking entirely in circles, clichés, and rehearsed sound bites, coming across as out-of-touch at best (and creepy at worst).
British politics has become heavily Americanised, with great focus being placed on the personal merits of the figureheads of the political parties. The great electoral “spin” machine is therefore in full flow, with every gaffe and mistake magnified to epic proportions. I am a fan of the genius of Armando Iannucci, but his show “The Thick of It,” following a group of hapless MPs and their struggles with “spin,” is probably (and worryingly) spot on. The pressure on these leaders is intense, and the nature of disagreements between them often highly personal. Whilst a strong leader can be important, surely we must focus more on promises and pledges? That being said, this bunch of leaders is one special group.
The great pretender, beacon for the working classes. He uses an Oxford education and a nice-guy nature to try and convince everyone he’s hard enough whilst seemingly being incapable of talking without pinching mid-air.
Former golden boy, now gallantly trying to regain all credibility lost over the course of an abusive marriage with the Tories.
The Glesga Bauchle, holding her own with the support of an entire country, but with the ominous double-edge of wanting to tear down the institution for which she is campaigning.
The alternative-alternative choice, fighting against the big parties’ oppression.
Standing her ground for The Valleys, but with less muscle than the other nationalists.
(And then, of course, the Pantomime Villain)
Polariser of opinions, pint-on-head-man-at-pub layman, frantically trying to politicise prejudice.
It’s no surprise that some of the electorate, myself included, struggle to relate to any of the above. Listening to them one-up each other through debates sees real issues being side tracked (hence the state of confusion and irritation after viewing). That the election has become all about personality is a poor reflection on the intelligence of the British people, but it seems to be the outcome the media has wanted all along.
Glancing over the ability to relate to the figureheads on a personal level, some of us struggle to identify with the values of any party anymore. Labour was established as the party of the working man, but was since managed to blur the line between themselves and the traditionalist Tories. The Tories—big on business, banking, and the bourgeois—have little to link them to working class families or students. The nationalists benefit from fervent passion from their own countries but, by definition, should not succeed at a UK level. The Lib Dems, previously a genuine alternative to the Big Two—especially for students—have done exactly what was expected and traded principles for power, losing the trust of the majority of their support. UKIP, often misrepresented by the media, still harbour a dangerous right-wing angle and threaten to cut us off into splendid isolation once more. The Greens promise the world in their manifesto, safe in the knowledge they are unlikely to have to deliver on any of it. It’s safe to say that the ‘undecideds’ have a hard choice, with a veto vote looking ever more appealing.
Our political system is still (somewhat controversially) first-past-the-post (FPTP). To break the traditional duopoly of the Big Two—Labour and Conservative—some call for proportional representation (PR). The PR system is far more egalitarian, especially in our current system where more than two parties will have an influence. At the moment, the FPTP system has precipitated a Games Of Thrones-esque jostling for position amongst all political parties, with deals being offered, denied, and countered before the election has even begun, with the SNP even offering to prop up a minority government. A commonly held view of FPTP is that your vote does not matter if your candidate does not win your local ‘seat.’ Therefore, for example, the majority of young, liberal left wing constituents in Tory-Heartland areas in the South could be likely to spend election day somewhere else than in a polling station.
This snapshot could be a reason why a large majority of the population does not vote. Disengaging leaders, ambiguity in values and an unfit-for-purpose political system has lead to increasing levels of voluntary disenfranchisement in each election since 1945 (we have, at least, seen an increased number in the last two elections). Given the history of the Lib Dems in particular, if our chosen party does win some influence, there is no guarantee that they will be able, or willing, to keep their promises. If we feel it won’t make a difference, why bother?
Brand new world, why should we vote?
Russell Brand has morphed himself from abstract comedian to a modern day political Che Guevara, the prominent voice encouraging society to turn their backs on the democratic system pandering to the “lies, treachery and deceit of the political class” and forego their right to a vote. Although an admirer of Brand’s easily-placed wit, lexicon and passion for his cause, this author believes we must not be convinced that this is the way to go.
To forego one’s right to vote is a complete insult to the history of enfranchisement. It is an insult to the countless working people who presented Parliament with petitions to tackle the voting monopoly of the landowners; to the African-American Civil Rights campaigners in the 19th and 20th centuries; to Emily Wilding Davison who gave her life in the cause of Women’s Suffrage alongside the Suffragettes; to the victims of World Wars who contributed to freedom from Fascism, and countless more. Whilst we take our votes for granted and often see the whole election coverage as an annoyance, we forget the plight which our ancestors have gone through to get us here. We forget that there are countries in the world today where the citizens are crying out for the same freedoms: Saudi Arabia, Central African Republic and North Korea to name but a few. Yes, it is ironically also our democratic right not to use our vote, but it seems such an inconsiderate waste given all the sacrifices that have gone before.
The decreasing feeling of community in Britain today could be another reason for a low turnout. Culturally, we see ourselves far more disconnected from our neighbours and countrymen than ever before, whether due to technology, immigration, fear, or other. With individualistic outlook comes a lack of perspective as part of a collective, leading to the view “well, my one little vote won’t matter.” What if thought that? Democracy would collapse. Imagine the opposite: everyone in the country turns up to vote. Every vote is a demonstration of opinion and when banded together, political movements take shape. The Scottish referendum debate broke records for turnout, with nearly 85% of eligible people casting their votes, which was precipitated by the flagrant support for the SNP at the polls, confirming their mandate for Independence. The result was therefore highly credible. Whatever you think about the political system and political parties, the only way to change it is to use your vote for the group who will represent your opinions and values on your behalf.
Go out and vote
Getting yourself to the polling station is only half the battle. It’s sometimes even literally a battle, with desperate campaigners at the gates forming a human barricade of leaflets and flags. Is anyone actually so impressionable to actually have their minds changed at the door to the ballot box?
The term “protest vote” is banded about almost daily these days. The alternative parties have gathered support, with a lack of belief in the Conservative-Labour dynasties, but a commonly held view is that a vote for any of these is simply a wasted vote in terms of keeping the lesser of two evils out of Downing Street. How can it be that votes are cast pessimistically as this? “I’ll vote against what I don’t want, rather than what I do;” the concept of the “protest vote” needs to be removed. Having been given the freedom to elect, we now have the responsibility to research as much relevant information as possible, consider what meets our values, and vote accordingly, both at a local and national level. Even comedian Al Murray is running with his FUKP party, although some of his “policies” are rather suspicious—but hey, whatever floats your political boat.
Some commentators have even argued for “none of the above” to be included in the ballot box, an interesting option given the reservations I have previously laid out over the current choices. The reason for this is highlighted strongly in our current election campaign, with antipathy for the Big Two meeting lack of genuine alternatives for a large proportion of the electorate. Whilst some would say that picking this option is a wasted vote, if millions of people around the country did the same, this could not be ignored by the ruling parties. The ignominy of an MP trudging to Parliament as second-placed in his constituency to a “none of the above” winner could also inspire powerful action on that representative’s part to justify their position ahead of the next election.
In general, the mindset for the average voter is interesting. We have to, at once, consider ourselves independent individuals casting a vote for who we want to see, but also know that we are part of a collective and our vote only really counts when banded with the others across the country. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with that one. The crucial principle is that, for whatever reason, we do actually go out and cast our vote, even if it’s just to get out of the house at midday on a Thursday.
Although I have discussed the limitations of TV debates, where arguments are lost amongst back talking and guffawing, it is at least an attempt to bring politics back to the masses. They’ve even started using social media, with each main party having their own Twitter account, probably contributing to the increase in turnout over the previous two elections. Politics is still often seen as a boring topic, rivalling “oh, this is my axe-wielding hand” and “I’m an accountant” for conversation stoppers at a social gathering. One of the greatest aspects of politics is that people can have such differing opinions on the same issues. Luckily, discussion amongst ourselves is one of the best way to become informed and clear in your own views. Whether the discussion takes place on social media, in the pub, or on a bus with a stranger, it has the potential to broaden our understanding of society and each other. After all, Brits love to complain, there is nothing worse than complaining about “the state this country is in” when you have not even taken your chance, every 4–5 years, to tell the government exactly what you think.
If all else fails, I say we just take a leaf out of the Mayweather-Pacquiao guidebook and put all the leaders in a ring with a set of boxing gloves each. Apparently, we’d never have to worry about hyping up the election then. In the fight against the widespread renunciation of the voting right, one must turn the tide for the sake of ourselves and our children. The next generation may even take a different form of political system or democracy to dissuade feelings of apathy and indifference. Regardless of the result, you will have exercised a freedom that forms the foundation of the civilised world; you will have made your contribution to the future of your country.
As for who to vote for, I’ll let you decide.