Yesterday was the annual local elections day in Britain. This meant that across the country, a lot of local council seats were up for re-election. The day also saw the election of a new Northern Irish Assembly. Turnout at these elections is traditionally low and has declined over the years, perhaps as a result of a combination of general apathy and a sense that local authorities have seen their power and responsibility severely curtailed over the years. Their ability to raise taxes is significantly controlled from the centre, some services have been privatised and schools are increasingly run by multi-academy trusts rather than by Local Education Authorities.
Last year, we had a Labour candidate who from what I could tell was conscientious, cared about the local community and was a Christian. I decided to give her my vote. This year I had a visit from a very eager and passionate Conservative Party candidate who was keen to tell me that our local Labour party had been in power for several decades, in an almost one-party state type context. She argued that there was much evidence of mismanagement and alluded to corruption. She believed that she was the one to bring about change.
On my doorstep, she was confronted with the problem that I’m sure she encountered on many doorsteps. We had a friendly conversation, I suspect friendlier than she will have experienced on many doorsteps given her political stance and the general voting habits of the ward. But I firmly refused her plea to lend her my vote. It may well be true that the Council is rotten to the core but my perception is that her own party is rotten. Fish rot from the head and we only have to look to the antics of the party leader in Westminster in order to see how rotten things are. I politely but firmly insisted that before they could think about sorting out our local council, the Tories needed to put their own house in order.
When it came to polling day, as it happened, our house was still under the affects of COVID. So we stayed home. I do normally like to try and vote in person -even if it is to spoil my ballot paper but I thought it wiser to stay home. I mentioned this on social media and got quite a lengthy telling off from someone I didn’t know. Now as it happens, it became clear in their little thread that they did have strong views about who I should be voting for but their starting point was that I must just exercise my democratic responsibility. Failing to vote would be letting down everyone else.
So, I want to challenge that here. You see, they weren’t able to offer a positive argument about why I must vote for a specific candidate or party. Instead they relied on what can be best described as a mix of personal insult and emotional blackmail. If I didn’t vote (and as became clear, this meant voting the way she wanted me to) then I must be ignorant and must be privileged. Furthermore, this was terrible because there are people around the world who are unable to vote and would love the freedom to do so.
Now here’s the thing. Many of those countries under tyrannical rule do give people the opportunity to vote. They have elections and they have parliaments. Presidents are elected, usually with anything between 98 and 100% of the popular vote. Because rather than lacking the freedom to cast their vote, they are ordered to vote and they are ordered who to vote for.
The point about true democracy is that I freely exercise my conscience and make a decision. My decision contributes to the decision we as the electorate make together. This means that I am able to freely assess the character, competency and policies of all of the candidates and choose my preference. This surely must mean that I have the option to say that none of the proposed candidates are suitable. You would hope that such a situation would be rare as we are not looking for perfection but it is possible. I believe this to have been the case for many of us at the 2019 General Election where my vote would have either helped put into office someone with a track record of lying, cheating and unfaithfulness or someone who had enabled antisemitism to reach the core of mainstream politics whilst continuing to support and offer a platform to some of the most violent, criminal terrorists.
The freedom to vote must include the freedom to not vote. It is the freedom to say “I refuse the dilemma you’ve set in front of me.” And here’s a further reason why. Usually the argument that we are under a moral obligation to vote comes with the strapline “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, as long as you vote.”
That is clearly untrue isn’t it. As mentioned above, it became clear that my friend really did care about who I voted for. The reality is that the choice does matter. The other Sunday France went to the polls. About 40% of those who voted opted for someone with a track record of far right, racist policies. Can we really pretend that it doesn’t matter who they voted for? Is the important thing really just that they voted? I would suggest not.
The high numbers of people saying that they won’t vote -either by spoiling their ballot papers – or by staying home is a problem but that problem lies with the political parties and those parties would do better to start understanding why it is that many people cannot vote for them rather than placing the blame with the voters.