Vote Defensively (But Voting Isn’t Enough)

Generic voting image
Generic voting image

The biggest political event of the year, if not the decade, is obviously going to be the General Election in May. You’d struggle to describe the mangled, dystopian thing we’d be left with after another five years of the present government as ‘a society’.

The Bemolution’s political views aren’t especially well represented within the Westminster mainstream, what with pledges to essentially dismantle modern civilisation and start again tending to go down like a lead zeppelin in the key marginals. This makes elections morally challenging.

A lot of fuss was made in the media last year when Russell Brand supposedly endorsed not voting. Brand – someone we unashamedly like – clarified his position after a fusillade of criticism from across the political spectrum: he doesn’t vote, he said, because there’s nothing worth voting for.

Broadly, in our irrelevant opinion, he was right. But we’ll still vote, and would encourage other similar-minded types to do the same. It’s what we call ‘defensive voting’.re

There are people who view elections in grand, romantic, histrionic terms that they most definitely don’t deserve. By putting your little ‘x’ in the box, they think, you’re giving that party, that representative, your hard-won democratic consent, and sort of metaphysically nailing yourself to whatever happens as a result.

In a working democracy, perhaps that’s how elections would work. But we don’t live in a working democracy. Modern-day elections are just grubby little mechanisms in which one wing of a virtually interchangeable elite is switched for another.

They’re not about projecting your vision of what society should be like to high office, because everyone with a chance of getting in has practically the same vision – one skewed in the favour of the continuing dominance of corporate power, and the promotion of the interests of the richest over the wellbeing of the vast majority.

Defensive voting means voting cynically and reluctantly for the least-worst of the realistic options on offer to try and slow up the neoliberal juggernaut.

For the sake of a species facing near-extinction if our impact on the environment isn’t urgently reduced, we need the most radical overhaul of the way we live as individuals, and the way societies work.

No political party offers anything approaching that. We need time to try and hammer together that ecologically viable political alternative. By voting defensively, we might be able to buy ourselves some of that all-important breathing space.

Defensive Voting

People should vote however the hell they want to vote, and they will. But here’s the formula we use to decide which box to cross, from a left-wing least-worstist, defensive voting standpoint.

In Brighton, and in seats the Greens have a genuine shot at winning, like Norwich South, Bristol West, St Ives in Cornwall and others (they’ll claim they’ve got one in every seat they stand in, of course, but politics demands they say that), vote Green.

Everywhere else, if there’s a Labour candidate with a realistic chance, vote Labour. If it’s between the Liberals and the Tories where you live, vote Liberal. If it’s between the Tories and UKIP, throw yourself in the sea.

There’s a basic dividing line we can use to cleave apart the breeds of left-wingers that might conceivably come across this post – those who think Labour is a neoliberalised sham of what it used to be, but is still better than the Tories, and those who think Labour is a neoliberalised sham of what it used to be, and is no better than the Tories.

We’re – just about – in the first camp. The main three parties, and now UKIP, might be so close that they might as well be different wings of the same party, but they’re still not exactly the same.

In line with the political climate in our constituency (impenetrably Tory safe seat), the Bemolution will vote Labour, cynically and reluctantly, with absolutely no expectation of substantial change if Ed Miliband ends up at Number Ten.

He’s taken Labour a millimetre or so leftwards of where it was under Blair and Brown – and we have no proof whatsoever that the rhetoric will come to anything if he gets into power. Who knows what kind of Prime Minister he’d be, and what kind of government he’d lead. But at very, very least, five years of Labour is likely to be not quite as bad as five more years of the Coalition. Still fairly terrible. But not Cameron-Osborne-grade terrible.

What about the Greens? We’ve already said vote for them in seats they’ve got a decent chance of winning. They’re much better than anything else offered by our rubbish party-political system. And if we had a sensible, proportional voting system we’d unequivocally tell everyone to vote for them. But we don’t, and we don’t.

As things stand now, the Greens have absolutely no chance of winning the general election. Even with their much banged-on-about ‘surge’ in popular support, they’ll barely dent the House of Commons in May. We’ll be lucky if we get two or three more Green MPs, and Caroline Lucas keeps her seat.

First Past the Post

Why? Because of the absurdities of our voting system. It’s called First Past The Post, it’s used by hardly anyone except us, the Americans, the Canadians and a string of other former British colonies, and it’s rubbish.

It splits the country up into hundreds of bits – ‘constituencies’. 650 of them. In each one, various political parties put forward candidates who want to represent it in parliament. Then, come the general election, the residents of that constituency vote for which candidate they like the best (or dislike the least). The candidate who gets the most votes wins, and becomes an MP.

The media portrays the general election as some titanic clash between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition. But in reality, the only people in the country who will genuinely ‘vote’ for David Cameron and Ed Miliband are those living in the constituencies they represent as MPs – Witney and Doncaster North respectively. The ‘general’ election is actually 650 elections. The party that ends up with the most MPs forms the government, and the leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister.

Now, superficially, that doesn’t sound too bad. But it is, for several reasons. First and foremost, it warps the public mood. The make-up of the House of Commons after a general election doesn’t really represent the way people voted at all.

Take the general election of 1997, for instance – when Tony Blair helmed New Labour to a ‘landslide’ victory, and one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in history. Look at the statistics, and you see the distorting effects of First Past the Post at work.

In ’97, the Labour Party received 43% of the votes cast – but they ended up with 63% of the seats in the House of Commons.

Under proportional representation, a different, infinitely better voting system, 43% of the vote would’ve given Blair 43% of the seats in the House of Commons.

In 2010, the Green Party received 1% of the vote. They got one MP, the first in their history. Under proportional representation, they would’ve got 1% of all the seats in the House of Commons – at least 6 MPs.

This is because First Past the Post is an all or nothing system. If a constituency candidate gets the most votes, they win – even if they won 2,000 votes and the person in second place got 1,999.

If large numbers of people voted for the candidate in second place, or third place, or fourth place, the current system completely ignores them. Those people might as well have stayed at home. This is what happens if you vote anything other than Labour in Wigan, or anything but Tory in Kensington, or anything not Lib Dem in Orkney & Shetland.

And this is why First Past the Post massively favours big, established political parties – predominantly Labour and the Conservatives – and punishes smaller ones like the Greens. Labour and the Tories have been contesting elections for a hundred years. They have large, loyal blocs of voters geographically concentrated in certain areas of the country, which easily swing the safe-seat constituencies they’re packed in to.

But surely if you don’t start voting for something outside the Labour-Tory duopoly at some stage or other, nothing is ever going to change? Absolutely right. The Greens need to replace Labour as the UK’s pre-eminent non-Tory option.

But that transition needs to be handled in such a way that doesn’t hand power to the Tories for decades – during which time they could reshape society so fundamentally that there’d be little anything a government of any colour could do to try and improve the situation.

The Green Party will not win the general election. Even with its much-vaunted surge, we’ll be lucky if we get two or three more Green MPs, and Caroline Lucas keeps her seat.

Under First Past The Post, the only really viable electoral strategy for minor parties is to concentrate their resources on a few target seats in the hope they get in, which in turn convinces more people they’re a serious option and, over time, might lead to people deserting the establishment parties in their favour. This is what the Greens should do.

About the best outcome we can hope for from May is a minority Labour government reliant on, and dragged leftwards by, an anti-austerity bloc made up of Plaid Cymru, the SNP and a new batch of Green MPs. The best chance we have of getting that is if people vote Green in the seats they’ve got the strongest chance of victory in – and, in England, vote Labour everywhere else.

It’s the latest variation of the most dispiriting, nauseating, undemocratic slogan going in modern politics – and worst of all, it’s true: as things stand now, at least, voting Green everywhere risks handing victory to the Tories.

The Greens aren’t going to win many seats – but they could come a strong second or third in many constituencies, sapping support from Labour and increasing the likelihood of Tories sneaking to victory. And that would be as catastrophic for the Greens, given the kind of society they want to see, as it would be for Labour, and, above all else, the vast majority of people in the country.

Voting Isn’t Enough

For a lot of left-wingers, this kind of argument is unthinkably cynical. They’ve ‘had enough’ of voting for least-worsts. Haven’t we all. But just because you’re unutterably pissed off with the status quo doesn’t change the realities of our electoral system one bit. Have a pseudo-adolescent strop about how unfair it all is if you like – it won’t get you anywhere. Cool-headed tactical voting might.

There’s often a strange doublethink at work among people who can’t stomach voting for the ‘Red Tories’, because they’ve unquestioningly accepted neoliberalism (which they have), and screwed over the millions and millions of ordinary working people who loyally voted for them for generations (which they have).

They can think all that, and still see voting, and who they vote for, as some grand, mystical, democratic exercise. But we don’t live in a democracy. That’s what all electoral politics is nowadays – just different shades of unquestioning neoliberal-acceptance and masses-screwing-over. Surely, that knowledge should lead people to be more cynical and pragmatic when it comes to voting?

Which brings us nicely to our final point: vote defensively – because voting isn’t enough. Even among a lot of left-wingers, there’s still this fixation with voting as the political be all and end all. We think you should vote – but only to try and cynically work the system to slow up the grim, gradual commodification of everything.

We need to radically restructure the way we live, not just to make society nicer for the people living in it, but to survive. That’s not something you can just vote in. That’s the great flaw of the chirpy, surge-era Green Party – acting as if just by voting for them, the colossal problems facing the species will be sorted.

In fact, we need something tantamount to a revolution. Something that essentially is a revolution. It’s a word we’ve shrunk from a bit in the past, because after years of misuse and abuse it smacks of nineteen year-olds in Che Guevara T-shirts, and people running up Pall Mall with muskets.

But what we mean is organised popular dissent – a refusal to co-operate with consumerism, mainstream society, the whole neoliberal, ecocidal status quo, from a large enough chunk of the population over a long enough period of time to force radical political change. Setting up organisations of the like-minded, to support each other in an age where the state is turning increasingly hostile to the people it supposedly exists to serve. Pooling resources to help each other shift towards sustainable ways of feeding and housing ourselves.

Getting radicals elected might well play a part. But if a sustainable, egalitarian society ever does come about, it won’t have been because people voted a certain way in a certain election.