Russell Brand got a grilling from Paxman after, writing an article in the New Statesmen, and saying he didn’t vote and telling people there is no point voting. Brand’s central argument is that the current system of democracy in the UK (at least) is a sham, a charade, a pantomime. That its purpose is in maintaining the status quo and to keep the power with those in power. Paxman’s retort was that if you don’t engage then what hope is there to change this system? Brand admits he doesn’t know.
Brand’s rhetoric has struck a chord. He works by splitting the country into two camps: the poor, disengaged and thus disenfranchised, and the rich, elite and corporates who run the show and want to keep running it. Brand agrees with the Occupy movement that this is ninety-nine/one percent split. He argues that the challenge to go and vote is for the privileged one percent, not the rest of us. Since the interview, it turns out that Paxman isn’t impervious to Brand’s reasoning and has experienced similar disenfranchisement.
Now I’m more a Paxman than a Brand. I am politically engaged, I am a card carrying member of a political party, I am a local political activist and have run for the party and have represented it at Parish level. And - because I understand at quite a level of detail how politics really works and how it is essentially gamed and won - I agree, mostly, with Brand.
Here’s the problem. The ‘you can’t have change unless you vote’ rhetoric doesn’t refute Brand’s central point. Also, it places the responsibility for disengagement onto the electorate. Apathy is their crime, not our responsibility is the implication from the political class. However, the truth is that it is the political class that have disengaged from the electorate and that the design of the current democratic system, that Brand attacks manufactures that disengagement.
The disengagement starts when you consider that our democratic system is non-representative. The result is that for many people in the UK the power of the vote wields little to no value. Due to the political makeup of the country in many wards (at all levels: from parish to parliament) the swing is so strong - by orders of magnitude - in one or another party’s direction, that your vote is worthless. In my particular borough, categorised as an ultra safe seat, my vote has the equivalent of 0.044 votes. The average UK voter has 0.253 votes. We can be almost certain that 60% of seats will NOT change hands in the general election. This exacerbates itself as those in key swing wards wield disproportionate power over the national political landscape (about 5.17 times more power than the average voter and nearly 30 times more power than I have in my ward). Because of this all the political activity centres itself around those wards.
To demonstrate the real effect of this look to Kent as an example. In the 2005 election the Conservatives held 74 out of 84 seats regardless of the fact that nearly half the Kent population didn’t vote Conservative. There isn’t even an effective opposition. The Conservatives can do as they will as they wield so much of the power (disproportionately to the votes they received) - evidence of this is how safe seats and dishonest behaviour, such as the expenses scandal correlate. This is a pattern that repeats over the country (in favour of both the Labour and Conservative parties). This is a clear example of how the system is disengaged from the people, not the other way round.
In these safe wards so entrenched is the voting that parties don’t even bother engaging with their voters come election time (apart from the lip service of the odd leaflet). For those in safe seats the parties disengage, quite deliberately, from the voters in that area. This disengagement is an economic and pragmatic decision. The inertia in a safe seat is so great that to dislodge a party in that ward requires serious investment. It takes years of campaigning and parties have to be in it over the long haul (if it takes even two elections that can be over a decade of investment). That means some serious cash and remember you’ll be playing against people with some big funding. Any political party would be crazy to invest in making these investments. Better put your efforts and money into the swing seats or areas where there could be a shift and leave the safe seats to rot. And that’s a slippery slope because the area becomes more and more entrenched to the main party: hence why the trend is for councils like KCC to become increasingly dominated by one single party.
Now, here’s the other bit where the system corrupts. Let’s say you are a high flyer in a political party, though not an MP, but the party wants you on the front benches what do you do? Well, you wait for a retiring MP in a safe seat (or gently suggest they make way) and move your favourite into their seat. They’re guaranteed to get in. This works at all levels. If you want power at a local level (for whatever motivation) in say Kent, the pragmatic thing to do is join the Conservative party - with party membership falling across the main parties this isn’t an especially difficult thing to achieve. Join the Tories in Kent and you are guaranteed a seat on the council regardless of who you are and what you stand for.
Telling people to go vote for change is hollow rhetoric and a means of distraction. Look over here, not at the real problem. Voting (at a parliamentary level which is where Brand’s point lies) is an activity that occurs once every five years. For some that means by the time they reach their thirty-third birthday they’d have had only two opportunities to vote in their lifetime. To pass a period of fifteen years of adult life and only had two measly opportunities to instigate change is nothing short of a mockery, a two finger salute to the electorate. In the same period of time they would have had three chances of entering the Olympics or World Cup. And, given the odds stacked against them in my ward, they would have had more chance representing Britain in the Olympic stadium than they would have instigating any form of change through their vote.
The reason voting is a hollow call is that much of what happens in government happens outside the democratic process. This is where we have evidence of the political system disengaging the ninety-nine percent of the electorate in favour of the one percent. We have donors getting positions as special advisors thus bypassing the democratic process completely, hereditary piers and donors being given titles to get them in the Lords, without even lip service to democracy. We have lobbyists with special access to ministers and parliament. And we’re not talking people getting only a little bit of power here, where talking real influence. Now compare their non-democratic power to influence change compared to my measly 0.044% when voting. Again, it’s a complete mockery and insult to the electorate.
On top of that, and on top of that, we have massive parts of how the country is run which operate entirely outside of the democratic process. Lets take arms deals: in which governments manifesto, past of present, does it say ‘if you vote for us we’ll sell arms to dictators with human rights violations’? And yet, if you put it on a ballet paper do you think that would get through. Oh yes, then there’s all this spying stuff: who voted for that? what manifesto was that in? Erm? Worse than that, it was an active decision to hide it from the public in order to avoid stimulating public debate. Worse than that but when public debate is stimulated those that are stimulated it get threatened with law courts and notices, held under terrorism laws, property destroyed etc. etc. What part of the vote endorsed that?
The claim that parliament/government represents us is exposed from time to time. Probably at no clearer time than the war in Iraq. The majority of the public were against the war. So incredibly strongly was their feeling that it motivated record turnouts to several marches some of which were the largest in the UK’s history. Yet the government completely ignored the people. Worse than that it lied and blackmailed them. And then there’s broken manifesto promises: no top down reorganisation of the NHS, scrap tuition fees; the coalition agreement, and manifesto promise, to create a democratically elected House of Lords. For those votes that were obtained, on the basis they were obtained, is ignored and disregarded on whim with no consequence (no really, no consequence).
So back to the central point. Voting is a sham, a charade, a pantomime and the system is heavily skewed to keep those with power in power. Not only that but the political parties actively disengage from large areas of the country. On top of that they actively campaign against reform to give voters more power. On top of that they have created systems that allow a very small percentage of the population to wield far greater influence over the democratic process than the voter.
Where Brand is wrong though is on apathy having power. That the vote legitimises and therefore if enough don’t vote power will not be legitimate. Recently there was the Police Commissioners elections. Where a democratic process (a referendum) was used to decide whether to have a Police Commissioner the public dismissed them. Where the system was forced upon them the public refused to acknowledge it resulting in record low turnouts (14.9%) with some polling stations not having one single vote cast. Yet the government defended the outcomes and claimed legitimacy. In the absence of votes they fell back on hollow rhetoric. How low would the vote have to go before the system crumbles? Under ten percent? And what would the reaction be? The idea to force people to vote has been floated before and will likely come up again.
So yes, your vote is pointless but the problem is you have to keep doing it. You have to prop up the little democracy there is left in the system in the only way the political class will allow. In the meantime seek alternatives to wield legitimate democratic power to create real change. However you decide that may be.