Sunday, September 4, 2011

Never Mind The Ballots

It's that time of year when the form to renew your entry on the Register of Electors drops through your letterbox. You might just be wondering whether it's anything worth registering for. At the General Election in May 2010, for the first time in my adult life, I didn’t vote. My sixteen year-old self would be pleased with me. That sixteen year-old used to hand write labels bearing slogans such as “Whoever you vote for the government will get in”; and, in a corruption of a Bertrand Russell quotation, “If voting changed anything it would be illegal”. He used to stick them on buses and trains as part of a sketchy grasp of anarchism derived from a Sex Pistols song – disobedience and anti-authority were the order of the day. If he wasn’t eligible to vote in 1979, he had long been by the time of the following General Election; he duly put his ‘X’ against the longest suicide note in history, Thatcher having convinced him that she must be voted out. At any point in the following years, my adult self would have been appalled at the idea of not voting. That adult dismissed non-voters as having disallowed themselves from a point of view - he even advocated compulsory voting.
In recent years, I have voted with a heavy heart until, in May last year, I finally decided that there was no-one I could vote for: a collection of centre ground parties with each other’s policies or single issue fringe parties peopled by splenetic weirdos. Not a real radical vision to be seen anywhere; not an idea that might close the widening gap between rich and poor; not an aspiration beyond the narrow life of ‘choice’ for ‘hard-working families’; the leaders, a collection of career showroom dummies. (How dare the hapless Gordon Brown be awkward and grey, have a strange grin and poor eye-sight!) Since then, Ed Milliband has completed the line-up of forty-something Oxbridge educated, career politicians with thick hair and winning smiles. And if they all look like salesmen and accountants in their ubiquitous navy suits, they kind of are. Voting is presented like a Which? magazine consumer test of vacuum cleaners; not for the common good but what is right for you. Every idea or policy is subject to a cost benefit analysis: if it doesn’t pay, it doesn’t work. The bean counters have truly taken over.
It’s not just me, the whole country could not make a decisive choice from what was on offer; which is why we have the coalition government, the very embodiment of the insincerity of career politicians. Two parties, supposedly ideologically opposed, turn out to be indistinguishable from each other and prepared to sacrifice anything to sniff the mantle of power. The Tories, pleading austerity to cloak their good old-fashioned ideology of hatred of the weak, dragging along a willing hostage to fortune; the Smilesian self-help of the ‘big society’ as a cover for the abdication of responsibility to provide the cornerstones of the Beveridge/Atlee model of the civilised state. Meanwhile from the sidelines, Labour heckles the sort of Blairite policies of the new government (creeping NHS privatisation, fixed-term council tenancies) that it wished it had had the brass neck to go through with in the previous thirteen years. And the price the Liberals are being paid for their complicity in this Vichy government? Some ministerial positions and a referendum on the Alternative Vote system – not even the Single Transferable Vote! If we voters struggle to make a first choice, what good is a second choice? AV was proven to be an alternative that neither pro nor anti electoral reformists desire. Whatever the system, voting now merely props up the privileged MPs, who in turn prop up the bankers that none dare turn out of the temple. When 17 of the 23 cabinet members are millionaires, it is clear that elected power is the desired gift of the man who has everything. Socrates’ idea, that those who seek power should be the very people prevented from acquiring it, spurs me onwards in my rediscovered, nascent anarchism: we should seek no dominion over others, but instead have responsibility for, and co-operation with, each other. Party politics and voting do nothing to alleviate the random and absurd nature of modern life; taking an existential approach, realising that we can shape our own lives despite a context that we have no control over, emancipates us from the ballot box. There is nothing wrong in not voting when there is nothing to vote for. Elections are a farce, be free, don’t vote.

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