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Why conscious abstention is a mistake in an election

Source: Evening Standard
Source: Evening Standard
Source: Evening Standard

“Born as I was the citizen of a free state and a member of its sovereign body, the very right to vote imposes on me the duty to instruct myself in public affairs, however little influence my voice may have in them.” [Rousseau, The Social Contract]. I am going to attempt to flesh out this sentiment by making it relevant to Thursday’s General Election, and to point out to those who are politically engaged but are planning on avoiding the polling station, or spoiling their ballot, that they are making a foolish mistake.

In 2015, voter turnout was 66%, the highest it has been since 1997. That still leaves a hugely significant 34% of the population who didn’t vote. 15,575,010 people were registered to vote but didn’t, compared to the 11,334,576 who voted for the Conservatives and gave them a majority in the House of Commons.

Do politicians and pundits see these fifteen and a half million people as principled political dissenters, actively rallying against our system of government? Of course not. Even if you think you match that description, you’ll be lumped in with the rest on June 9th. While it is true that some weight will be given to the parties failing to inspire voting, just as much weight will be given to the failure of the electorate to educate themselves. Most discussion of changing the current election and government system will be motivated by those who did vote, and whose parties are not proportionally represented. More than likely it will be the issue of the British weather that defines the debate on national turnout, and not genuinely political factors.

Evidently, the alternative is to technically ‘vote’, but vote for no one. However, intending to spoil your ballot is as moronic as intending to not turn up to vote at all. 0.3% of voters did this in 2015. Rightly or wrongly, no one cares about that 0.3%. At national level, it receives as good as no coverage. While many spoilt ballots in one constituency can cause a bit of a splash, as they did in John Bercow’s constituency in 2015, it still changes nothing. You could argue that voting for a party probably won’t bring about the change you want, and it might not. Spoiling your ballot definitely will not.

The argument I often hear for abstention is that people think that voting for a party is a tacit endorsement of the system and that they prefer to be politically active through methods other than the ballot box. While our system is far from perfect, we at least have the privilege of a higher degree of democracy than most of the world. As a bonus, we cast our ballots anonymously, so no one can know, or judge you for, the way you decided to vote. The fact that some people try and bring about political change in ways other than electorally is commendable, and there are several valuable avenues for change besides through the polling station, but pursuing these is not mutually exclusive with voting. Therefore, this line of argument does not stack up.

What I take most issue with is people not feeling that they can give their vote, and thus their support, to any of the candidates on offer. I can believe that one could be disillusioned by all the candidates on offer in their constituency, but it is surely impossible to be disillusioned by all the candidates to an equal extent. If you believe this to be true, then you clearly have not done adequate research. There are a great many variables open to consideration in a general election: the manifestos and policies, the party leaders and their records, the types of the people they choose to put around them in their top team, the personal politics, calibre and record of the local candidates, the past voter demographics and results of your constituency, and much more besides. If you don’t know who you want in power, but do know who you definitely don’t want, then vote tactically to try and stop them. There is always a lesser of evils. It is a sad truth that politics cannot always be about making improvements; sometimes it is about damage limitation.

In the 1951 election, Labour’s Clement Attlee and his Conservative opponent Edward du Cann chatted while awaiting the result in the seat they were contesting. According to du Cann, there were roughly 600 spoiled ballots and when he asked Attlee what they meant, the Labour Leader replied, “they think I’m not socialist enough”.  Attlee won his seat but the Conservatives won the election. All that was achieved by those 600 votes was a place as a footnote on the wrong side of history. Do your best to achieve more on June 8th.