Russell Brand has risen to fame recently for expressing the disillusionment and dissatisfaction felt by many who are politically engaged. With the famous U-turns of Nick Clegg, the UKIP-pandering of the Conservatives, and Labour’s failure to act remotely like a leftist party, disdain for politicians and their work is running high. Brand’s solution is to not vote, to turn his back on the system until it changes into something he will participate in. But this does not empower someone to demand change; quite the opposite.
Supporters of the idea feel that voting within a flawed system is futile. There is no party, or no mainstream party, that represents them, and so they will not give their support to the undeserving. They point out that there is no way to guarantee a party will stick to its manifesto once it is in government, so the vote is a false choice between equally amorphous policies.
However, nobody has to listen to someone being silent. Under Brand’s movement, voters disillusioned with politics, and voters who can’t be bothered to engage, are indistinguishable. It’s impossible to determine, from one low-turnout figure, how many are making a conscious decision to withhold their democratic power.
Regardless of how many people refuse to vote, there will still be a government. All that happens when you refuse to vote is you give up your small share in the process. Your stake in the outcome remains the same. There will be a parliament, and it will pass reforms that affect your life. But if you don’t vote, you have absolutely no influence over who gets to make these necessary decisions.
At the moment, almost everybody feels like there is no real choice for representation. UKIP, the Greens and the SNP are gaining support, but cannot yet be called mainstream competitors. Yet, no matter how bad the selection is, nobody can find them all equally bad. They do have differing policies and slightly different leanings. Since there is going to be a government, whether or not you give it your input, it’s vital that voters compromise. There will never be a party that will wholly embody one person’s principles, because the purpose of a party is mass appeal. Yes, it’s not ideal, but democracy is about compromise. Vote for the least objectionable and campaign for reform in the meanwhile. Brand’s principle is only applicable at election time; for the rest of the year, it offers nothing.
Ultimately, for a politician to get in power, they have to appeal to voters. By declaring yourself a non-voter, you mark yourself as somebody they don’t have to worry about, and so why would they reform for you? Brand, and anyone else who won’t vote, will be lumped in with those who didn’t for other reasons, particularly apathy.
I propose an alternative to Brand’s view. If you absolutely will not give your vote to any party on offer, spoil your ballot. That way, the deliberate abstainers can at least stand up and be counted.