Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

The “obligation to vote”

Listening to Broadcasting House just now an interviewer asked someone in Liverpool Riverside “Don’t you have an obligation to take part in the democratic process?” and received the reply “But it’s not democratic”.

I have been chewing over the issue of one’s obligation to vote – or indeed to register.  I don’t think I registered this year – I certainly did not feel the obligation to do so, yet I have received a polling card and, so far, one election address (through the post), so I guess that I am still on the register.

So will I vote – make use of “That great freedom fought for by previous reformers etc.”, or will I say “*** it”?  My vote has never made a difference; with the exception of one election I have always lived outside the marginals, and even when I was in theory in a marginal, the challenging party’s attitude was such that you knew they were going to drop back on their previous result (they did).

So what to do?

  1. Go, vote for who you really want and waste your vote
  2. Go, make a protest vote and waste your vote
  3. Go, and spoil your vote
  4. Stay at home

Outside the marginals, option one is actually pointless; the tribal party does not need your vote to stay in office, and voting for them will not increase the number of MPs of that party; voting for one of the others will have no impact because the tribal party always wins.

Option two has something to be said for it in that the protest vote may send a message, but you cannot control that message.  The Liberals used to be the home of protest votes and voting for them now may offer them some level of encouragement for local elections (if your local council has not been abolished).  Substantial Liberal votes will increase the pressure for electoral reform, but whilst the two main parties do not see electoral reform as being in their interests they will continue to resist.  The repeated promise from Labour to consider limited reform is probably a ploy to get the Liberals to support them either at the polls or in negotiating a hung parliament.  I am always suspicious of repeated promises from the governing party (if they did not keep the promise last time, why now?) and Labour’s current proposal for AV is an inadequate fig leaf to cover the bankruptcy of the current system.  Protest voting also opens the dangerous possibility of voting for the BNP; no matter how much people may be concerned about apparent “taking of British Jobs”, “immigrants living on welfare”, etc. (usually based on some highly inaccurate reporting), a vote for the BNP will encourage racism and the advocates of racism.

Spoiling your vote has something to be said for it (and I have done so previously).  Such votes get closely examined in close contests – which is not the case outside the marginals. However, there is another instance where they do get examined; where a candidate is at risk of losing his or her deposit, they will try to determine whether any of the spoilt votes are actually votes for them.  In such circumstances their agents will at least see my vote and may even read any opinion that I write on the ballot paper.  Perhaps if the total of spoilt votes (which is rarely reported) starts to approach the size of a majority, the political classes (both in Westminster, “Fleet Street” and White City etc.) may start taking an interest.  Spoiling a vote also offers the chance to obliterate the name of any candidate or party to which you really object.

Option four, not bothering, is actually the most popular and the number staying at home often exceeds the vote of the winner; however it does not seem to be succeeding in sending any message.  For the parties, if you can win an election not just with a minority of the vote, but also potentially with a minority of the electorate taking part, why bother changing?

So my “obligation to vote”?  Depends what you mean by “vote”; if a vote is a genuine opportunity to take part in the democratic process and “have a say”, then perhaps I ought to.  But if it is merely a chance to put the mark of illiteracy on a piece of paper which will make no difference, then I feel no obligation.  And I do not feel that if I don’t take part “I have no right to complain afterwards if I do not like the result”.  In fact quite the opposite; if I cannot make my views known at the ballot box, perhaps I should feel an obligation to join with others to protest against policies that I do not like.  “Not in my name” etc.

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