by Amit Singh at Consented
On social media there has been a surge in people posting links urging others to register to vote. Operation Black Vote has also been running a campaign to encourage ethnic minorities to register and vote. The idea is that the vote is a crucial tool in individual empowerment that ensures our voice is heard within the context of democracy.
When we think of democracy and democratic values the right to vote is probably the first thing that springs to mind. There is an almost unwavering faith in the idea that putting a piece of paper in a ballot box every five years means we live in the ultimate free society.
Anyone who advocates not voting is instantly vilified and we often here people say ‘if you don’t vote you don’t have the right to complain.’ This again reinforces the idea that voting is a powerful tool to bring about change. Not voting is seen as lazy, petulant and ineffective.
Russel Brand, for instance, famously declared ‘I’ve never voted, I never will.’ Brand went on to say “It is not that I am not voting out of apathy. I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations.” Yet in spite of the fact he followed up with this perfectly reasonable explanation he was set upon from all angles by political commentators and politicians.
Jeremy Paxman also attacked Brand on Newsnight for his refusal to vote. ‘People get power by being voted in’ said Paxman, ‘In a democracy that is how it works’.
The above graphic gives you a rough idea about the finances involved in winning an election. The Conservatives spent the most (double Labour) and won. How could a normal person on the street ever compete? They can’t. This idea of trying to change the system through the political institutions that already exist is nothing short of fantasy.
Labour and the Conservatives have shared power in the UK since 1922, that’s almost 100 years where two parties have ruled exclusively. To a large extent this is because of their financial muscle, which has only increased as a result of their longevity. Such a consolidation of power between the two major parties is hardly indicative of a thriving democracy.
It’s also worth noting that both parties agree on the major points. Both are pro-war, both are pro-corporations and pro-austerity. When Nick Clegg strayed from the accepted narrative in the 2010 leaders debate by denouncing Trident he was told by Gordon Brown to ‘get real.’ The Torys and Labour also both colluded in a bid to stop the Scottish independence bid. Gordon Brown notably supported David Cameron by giving a speech to help keep the union together. There is very little between these parties. Both are also dominated by white, Oxbridge educated men. The leaders of the three main parties even look identical!
The idea of choice is simply a myth and the suggestion that one can just set up their own alternative party and sweep the nation is also crazy. The corporate support one would need, as well as the incredible level of financing make this something completely unrealistic. This is why an elite of highly educated, privileged individuals dominate the political sphere. Let us not forget that Nigel Farage, despite his rhetoric to the contrary, is very much an establishment man with his Dulwich College education and career in the city behind him.
Because of this, voting is arguably incredibly dangerous. People are duped into thinking that they have a say every five years, even though they’re choosing between very similar candidates who represent the same set of interests. The fact that they do vote every five years tends to pacify any discontent.
The United States of America provides a good example of this. Many African-Americans went out to vote in 2008 and 2012 for Barack Obama on the proviso that ‘change’ was imminent. Did this improve the lives of most ordinary African Americans? No. It did not. Barack Obama hasn’t exactly been setting the pace in Ferguson. If anything the voting by African-Americans was prohibitive as it falsely led many to believe that they had a say and could influence domestic politics, when in reality they could not. Had they felt helpless and hopeless they may have taken to the streets and actually proactively brought about social change. Instead, they voted and entrenched institutionalized racism in the USA is still rife. Most famously in the case of Ferguson, continued police brutality and the absolutely scandalous case of George Zimmerman versus Trayvon Martin. This is something that Operation Black Vote might want to at least briefly ponder within the UK context.
Engaging with the system did not solve the entrenched nature of this institutionalized and structural racism. It did not address the huge income inequality between black and white-Americans. Of course it did not. But, it lulled people into thinking it would. This in turn pacified them and by voting they could not threaten the status quo. If people believe their vote can make a difference they will passively engage with the political system, rather than critiquing it and deconstructing current power structures. As Emma Goldman famously said ‘If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal.’ Voting, if anything, is useful to the establishment, as it gives people the false sense of empowerment that is crucial to placating them. Those with unwavering faith in the democratic, political institutions in the UK are unlikely to be out on the streets undertaking direct action, instead they’ll be waiting for the next time they can put a bit of paper in a box.
The person in 10 Downing Street might change. The make-up of the cabinet might be slightly different. But, it will still be dominated by millionaires, it will still be run by Oxbridge graduates. The government will still support selling arms to gross human rights abusers. The government will still be too close to the city.