To vote or not to vote. That is the question. And the debate did not start with Russell Brand. Here are a few a reasons to consider why voting does not equal democracy. You may be able to think of more.
(This article was sent to us by a local anarchist a while back, now’s a good time to run it!)
- It may be that voting is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem. Throwing all political energies into this channel for political change, in national elections that (fortunately) come around with miserly infrequency, blocks the development of real democratic alternatives to the present system. Siphoning power to a tiny ruling class means we can complain and blame others for social problems, thwarting self-activity and generating the apathy that the electorally-minded are said to deplore. 2. Voting is not the exercise of power but the relinquishment of responsibility. Citizens effectively pass on their decision-making powers to someone else, often a candidate they have never met, thus abdicating responsibility. To vote in a national election is to approve and endorse non-participation.
- The electoral system fosters the illusion that the political control of society is somehow divorced from the economic control of society. As long as the means of production are in the control of a tiny minority then the election is effectively rigged. Electors are terrified to vote for alternatives to capitalism because the economy will take a downturn if investors decide to move ‘their’ capital to more ‘friendly’ (low tax, low public spending) countries thus threatening unemployment and austerity. In Greece, where austerity has been so extreme that the electorate have voted for the more radical Syriza party because they feel that they have little left to lose, the economic power of creditors is ‘outvoting’ the democratic voice of the people. Under free-market capitalism economic competence means ensuring financial stability by encouraging profitable production and services. In a world where the richest 1% own 50% of the wealth, this means that economic activity must meet the needs and services of the ultra-rich rather than the needs of broader society, suffering reduced spending power under austerity.
- In a more democratic system, decision-making at higher levels could be made by delegates, empowered to put into practice people’s decisions and subject to recall if they fail to do so. Loosely empowered Members of Parliament have no such mandate and are under little obligation to deliver on the promises for which they were elected. Once in Parliament they are controlled by their own Party’s Whips.
- It is often said that campaigners such as the Chartists, the Suffragettes and the African National Congress during apartheid days took part in epic struggles and that we should at least be arsed to get out of bed and vote in order to honour their memory. What they were fighting for was political inclusion – this is now best achieved by fighting the parliamentary system. After 20 years of government South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world.
- For the radically minded, elections constitute a huge waste of effort and money and simply don’t work as a strategy for the social transformation that we desperately need. Candidates or parties representing progressive ideas have never been elected in the United Kingdom, a situation that will not be changed in the 2015 election. Historically when such governments have come to power, for example in Spain in 1936, and Chile in 1973, they have been overthrown by means of military coups. In the UK, worthy radical parties such as the Commonwealth Party have failed, historically, to gain electoral support even if their ideas and policies may find much sympathy with the general public. The Green Party has now been around for more than 40 years – its high point was gaining 15% of the vote in the European elections – right back in 1989! During this period the environment has spectacularly deteriorated and there is little evidence that there is more support for environmental causes or that behaviour is more environmentally friendly today than in the early 1970s.
- Elections took place under Soviet Communism but all candidates were Communist party members. Similarly in the UK today all parties are capitalist.
- You get to vote for a local candidate but have no say in the broader outcome of the election. The consequences of this process can be extremely unexpected. Nobody voted for a Conservative Liberal Democratic Coalition in 2010. This wasn’t even heralded as a possibility before polling day after which decisions were made behind closed doors. You may well have found that your Liberal Democratic vote against the Tories in fact ended up being a vote that helped David Cameron’s Conservative-led government into power.
- A savvy government can engineer a short-term upturn in the economy and ‘feel good’ factors by spending money on popular causes in the run up to a general election. They can favour the interests of particular demographic groups to boost their own electoral fortunes.
- It is often argued that, for example, young women should vote to challenge the situation in which wealthy older men dominate the political process. This is actually to concede that historically elections do not represent the interests of all of society equally. This is an argument against the present electoral system, not for it! Such unequal representation is deeply entrenched in the present electoral system. Given current levels of social exclusion the character and outcome of the game is highly unlikely to change in the 2015 election.
- Only parties that do not challenge the interests of wealthy elites, and have their active sympathy and backing, can successfully participate in modern elections. Massive expenditure is required making candidates dependent upon a few wealthy sponsors.
- Elections reduce matters of public policy to the personal charisma and even the dress sense of individuals. The mainstream media mocked Neil Kinnock as a loser when he fell over on the beach during an election photo shoot, just as they had earlier ridiculed Michael Foot for his style faux pas when he wore a duffle coat. For the corporate press, the voting public demand nothing less than an action man or action woman wearing a grey suit and performing flawlessly as a robot.
- Political parties are only radical when they don’t stand a chance of election. As socialist and green parties have discovered elsewhere in Europe, the price of coalition is compromise and the neutralisation of radical policies.
- Real decision making takes place outside of Parliament. In all sectors business is run on oligarchical lines, where power rests with CEOs and shareholders. In a true participatory democracy there would be industrial democracy in every workplace.
- Parliament misrepresents society in the most blatant and outrageously disproportionate way. The British electoral system has always resulted in domination by a narrow, class-bound wealthy elite educated at Eton, Oxford and Cambridge.
- Although the United Kingdom is supposedly a constitutional democracy, it remains the case that the royal prerogative holds sway in policy decisions at the highest level, vesting substantial powers in the ministerial executive. Most notoriously the Prime Minister of the day can declare war with royal assent and without the requirement for Parliamentary backing, if they so wish.
- National elections foster sectional partisan interests rather than addressing the interests of humanity at large. Humans and, indeed, all other species are independent and our fate is bound up with that of the larger planet and ecosystems with which we live. While it is important to be concerned for our own community and locality, national elections encourage the approach that if we don’t seize resources and deregulate in areas such as public safety and environmental protection then our competitors will gain a market advantage over us. When scaled up globally, such an approach facilitates some collectively cataclysmic decision making, the consequence being feeble international coordination, failed environmental summits, unequal distribution of resources, forced migration and endless military conflicts.
- In the era of globalisation since the 1980’s Western-style democracy and neo-Liberalism have been the dominant political forces throughout the world. During this time prevailing electoral systems have failed to deliver positive change with the consequence being increased climate change, species extinctions and other forms of environmental degradation, greater social and economic inequality, an increase in migration coupled with widespread attacks upon the welfare of migrants, widespread military conflict and the growth of state surveillance, a resurgence of the racism, fundamentalist religion and extreme nationalism that divide communities against each other, loss of social gains in areas such as women’s rights and LGBT rights and other negative outcomes.
- Industry lobby groups and think tanks have greater influence in determining public policy than election debates.
- In many elections voting is a minority activity where most people don’t vote anyway. We agree that not voting is not enough to express dissatisfaction. Instead, anarchists are proposing an opt-in to positive alternatives. The anarchist approach moves beyond the gesture politics of abstention to other possibilities. Writers including Michael Albert, Murray Bookchin. Noam Chomsky and Starhawk have set out structures for creating more authentic democracy through inclusive, non-hierarchical, participatory decision-making processes.
- In a mature, functioning society, conscious social engagement would be a part of the fabric of our daily life and ordinary citizens would be empowered to take part in decision making at all levels. Participation should not just be something that happens on a wet polling day on a Thursday in May every few years. Direct democracy would make engagement not only relevant but fresh, vital and living, making us active citizens responsible for the conditions of our own lives not alienated objects. There are few problems that cannot be solved by collective action. Greater participation in forums such as neighbourhood assemblies will increase public confidence and competence. Anarchism is what a society that was self-realising its full potential would be like. It seeks the gradual cultivation and spread of empathy and human solidarity so that citizens maximise personal empowerment and fulfilment by engaging in the circumstances and conditions of their existence.
- Pragmatically, if you don’t live in a marginal constituency your vote will have minimal impact. The UK’s ‘first past the past the post’ electoral system throws up all kinds of anomalies. The famous ‘landslide’ victory by Attlee’s Labour Party in 1945 was actually based upon less than 48% of votes cast. When Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party regained power in 1951 they actually attracted fewer votes than their Labour opponents.
- You may nurture a sceptical attitude towards all politicians by voting on the principle of supporting the least of the evils on offer. In reality, due to the party system and the use of the party ‘whip’ to retain discipline, there are few independent-minded MPs who will challenge the party line. The radical Nottingham MP Alan Simpson decided that his efforts for change were better spent outside of Parliament. In the recent Parliamentary vote on hydraulic fracturing not only did Bristol’s Conservative MPs support ‘fracking’ but also Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat MP for West Bristol who likes to present himself as environmentally friendly, while Kerry McCarthy, our greener than the Greens vegan Labour MP, could only bring herself to abstain on the matter.
- Those that enter Parliament with good intentions will inevitably be corrupted by the norms that prevail there. It has even been suggested that some politicians don’t always observe the utmost probity in their personal financial transactions. Just look at the MP’s expenses scandal & the cash for peerages scandals for examples!
- During the run-up to elections in particular, the mass media, controlled by, and in the interests of, big business and the government, determine the terms of public debate, using their control of information and communication to dictate the issues deemed most worthy of discussion. Opinion polls indicate that the community ownership of public transport, for example, is favoured by 80% of the population and yet it remains a political impossibility.
- Ultimately a more egalitarian society will only be achieved by egalitarian means. The Green Party and left-wing parties are trying to operate within an inherently authoritarian, centralist and hierarchical structure in which decision-making is left to a few hundred. Entrist parties like the Militant Tendency tried to create radical change by hoping to win the Labour Party over to a socialist agenda, even though they regarded it as a party of the bourgeois capitalist system they despised. Dodgy sexists like the vanguardist SWP have called for a ‘vote for Labour with no illusions’. Their opportunism came badly unstuck when the Labour Party took up policies of neo-Liberalism and imperialism during the Blair and Brown administrations.
- Organisations campaigning for social justice and a better environment often carry out excellent research only to offer the disempowering and demoralising strategy of sending a postcard to your local MP. Working for change through direct action and direct democracy offers the positivity of the here and now.
- Elections tend to be dominated by arguments about which party is most likely to increase economic growth and encourage wealth creation and so-called entrepreneurship. Many economists recognise that this obsession with profit is an inefficient and unsustainable means to meet real social needs. Climate change, perhaps the most important threat to human well being in the present day, is unlikely to be a leading topic of discussion during the election. Naomi Klein’s recent book on the subject This Changes Everything provides evidence that oil companies are confidently betting that governments will not regulate them effectively to prevent the profligate burning of fossil fuels during coming decades. During this timespan we face challenges of such severity that a major social transformation is required to adapt and survive. The present electoral system counters necessary change and does not facilitate it.
- Decentralisation of power to communities from central government can dilute the wielding of power and lessen the consequences of oppression. In any system we must be ever vigilant against reactionary and racist forces and federate widely to prevent parochialism and narrow self-interest. Real social change often takes place at historic moments of extreme crisis and upheaval. We need to anticipate and be savvy at such moments to ensure that upheavals do not degenerate into genocide and oppression.
- The wider state apparatus ensures that any unreliable election results would not challenge the status quo. It has been said, for example (Andrew Simms, Cancel the Apocalypse), that the protection of the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism is considered to be one of the main objectives of the domestic secret services. State interests control any incoming government and will take measures to control and defang any radical initiatives.
Anyone who is convinced at the need for real change and is serious about its furtherance has no business loitering about a polling booth with disreputables in suits. So go back to your constituencies and prepare for no government. Voting is a means to an end. Not voting is a beginning.
Victory to the conscious non-voters & spoilers! In anarchy we trust!