Politics is important – voting isn’t
'Nobody need feel any obligation to vote in an election that has become little more than a coronation ceremony for the new oligarchy.'
The central issue in the UK general election is the election itself. It looks as if, for the first time ever in this country, the ‘Apathy Party’ might top the polls; that is, a larger proportion of the electorate will abstain than will vote for the winning party.
As the campaign gets underway, the biggest question New Labour has to answer is ‘why should we bother on 7 June?’.
That is a good question, to which none of the parties has any convincing answer. The bad news is that people’s perfectly reasonable lack of enthusiasm for Tony Blair, William Hague and the rest now often reflects a broader rejection of politics. But while voting might not be important today, politics certainly is.
The 2001 general election is a no-contest: there is only one party in it, and that one is not offering the electorate any real political choice.
The Tories are in a worse position than Labour was at its nadir in the early 1980s. Lacking any conviction in their own cause, deserted by their most influential supporters in the establishment, and reduced to objects of national derision, Hague’s Conservatives are facing a potential meltdown.
As for New Labour, the party in this one-party state, the mind-numbing manifesto trailed in today’s newspapers offers no hint of a new vision for society. With reports that the manifesto ‘divides Labour’s programme into 25 steps covering 10 goals in five chapters’, it sounds depressingly like a collaboration between a counsellor and an accountant.
The only live issue in town is the debate about ‘voter apathy’, and New Labour’s desperation to persuade more of us to vote. For Blair, this election is the next step in consolidating the authority of the new political elite. As part of this process New Labour needs to show that it has educated a significant part of the electorate in the ethos of New Britain.
That is one reason why, for example, Labour has played the anti-racist card, in order to distance its image from the politics of the past. It also helps to explain why, even though it is in no danger of losing the election, New Labour is so focused on the problem of apathy and the prospect of a low turnout. Blair and co will find it hard to demonstrate that they have signed the British people up to their project if they receive the votes of, say, less than 30 per cent of the available electorate.
Nobody need feel any obligation to vote in an election that has become little more than a coronation ceremony for the new oligarchy. The fact that so many powerful people are demanding that we turn out should itself raise suspicions. When people fought for the right to cast their ballots, and the authorities did all in their power to stop them, it was a sure sign that voting mattered. In those days, nobody in high office complained about apathy – the less the masses took part in politics, the better they liked it.
The fact that most people are now indifferent about elections, while those in authority try to coax or cajole us into the polling booths by invoking our moral responsibility to exercise this historic right, suggests that the vote has lost its meaning in modern Britain.
That is not the same thing, however, as saying that politics no longer matters. Those who claim that the decay of parliamentary democracy signals ‘the end of politics’ are going down a dangerous path. These days, the rejection of politics is presented as a radical departure. Yet it has a long history as a highly conservative stance. The notion that people should ignore politics has always been used by the right, to justify allowing the rich and powerful to get on with running things quietly. Today, the argument that we should let politics rot in Westminster while we get on with life ‘in the real world’ also has elitist overtones, since it would leave the political class with its hands on the levers of power, in control of our destiny.
Politics is important. It should be a passionate contest between competing visions of the good society (by which we do not mean a bun-fight over pennies on or off taxes), a total war of ideas. That is the precondition for bringing democracy to life.
spiked wants to use this dead-end election as a chance to debate how politics can be important to all of our lives, outside of the party non-contest. Starting next week, we will be giving individual writers the opportunity to propose the kind of politics that might be fit for people in the UK to support. We are not talking about Utopian visions of a rose-tinted tomorrow, but things that could be done to make a real difference even within the constraints of today.
You do not have any moral responsibility to take part in this discussion. But if you do, you might discover something to your advantage.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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