You may have missed it but there’s a General Election taking place in the UK on June 8th.
Now, it is not my intention to tell you how to vote. I’ve previously suggested that we might want to think about a more compassionate politics, and that we should prioritise the eradication of poverty, I’ll leave it to you to decide which party is most likely to achieve those things.
We know that, generally speaking, politics and politicians are not held in high esteem. Despite this, you might think that, of course, most people vote. Very few people admit to not voting, and those that do are not usually proud of the fact. But, at the last General Election (in 2015) 15 million people (some 34% of the electorate) did not vote. At no election in recent history has turnout exceeded 80% (it was 78% in 1992). And, whilst that figure might sound high it means that somewhere between 10 and 15 million potential voters do not vote in General Elections.
Is this something we should be concerned about?
After all, voting is not compulsory in the UK. Surely it is a persons’ right to decide not to vote? It is worth noting however that where voting is compulsory, such as in Australia, turnout still doesn’t reach 100%. Having said that over a comparable time period turnout at General Elections in Australia never fell below 91% and is usually around 95%.
Voting is not just the process of putting a cross on a ballot paper every few years, but a reminder that the voter is a member of a social and political community. Democratic processes are a means, albeit often flawed, whereby ordinary citizens get to shape the kind of society they live in.
According to the political philosopher John Rawls in his highly influential books A Theory of Justice and Justice as Fairness, the most important of what he termed primary goods was ‘self-respect’. Self-respect matters to people for as Rawls says in its absence “nothing may seem worth doing, or if some things have value for us, we lack the will to strive for them. All desire and activity becomes empty and vain and we sink into apathy and cynicism.”
Of course, when we think about voting it is not usual to think of it as related to self-respect. It is more often seen as a ‘device’ to choose representatives, parties or particular policies.
Which of these depends on the type of vote and the voting system employed. Robert Dahl’s excellent book On Democracy points out that democratic systems rely on voters and votes being equal. Each voter has one vote and each vote is equal to any other vote. Nobody’s vote counts more than anybody elses and nobody has more votes than any other citizen. Ordinary citizens have exactly the same say as the rich and powerful.
The advantage of such a system was described as long ago as 431 B.C. by Pericles who reportedly said: “Our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters.”
The idea that each vote is equal is the basis of a recognition that in democracies all citizens are, nominally, equal. Being an equal citizen in terms of rights (and responsibilities) reminds us that despite differences in wealth, income and life chances we each have a stake in society. As Rawls notes our self-respect is a recognition that “what we do in everyday life is worthwhile.”
Voting is one way in which self-respecting citizens present themselves as equal to others in their community.
A person who fails to use their vote is doing more than abstaining from the democratic process they are undermining the basis of their own self-respect. What is important in this sense is the way in which our self-respect is, in part, a reflection of the respect we perceive from others. In the act of abstention a non-voter is usually not making a positive critique of democracy. If they wanted to do so they could ‘spoil’ their paper. Rather, they are saying that their vote does not matter. That all the democratic decisions taken in their name, from going to war to reducing (or increasing) the benefits of those in poverty, do not concern them. Or, if they do, they have no right to a say in them. In effect, they are saying that they are not a mature, self-respecting member of their political community. By undermining their self-respect they infantilise themselves in a way which is inconsistent with their being the type of person who should be respected.
This may sound a rather harsh judgement as there may well be good reasons for not voting. The non-voters may feel that their decision is rational and, in some cases, even a political act in itself. A survey by Survation in 2014 finds that in many ways non-voters are similar to voters in terms of their general attitudes. The reasons they gave for not voting included not believing that their vote will make any difference, that the parties and candidates are all the same, a lack of interest in politics, and not having enough information or knowledge to choose. In addition to these factors, a large percentage of those who did not vote in the last election and do not intend to vote in the next election said their main reason for not voting was that their beliefs are not represented by the parties and candidates. All of which sound like good reasons.
There is certainly a sense that in some constituencies the same party always wins, or that there is very little difference between the parties (though that is certainly not the case in the forthcoming election), but it is also instructive to note that in the last four general elections, the number of non-voters was significantly higher than the number of votes for the winning party. If the non-voters had got together, formed their own party and stood they would probably have won! Of course, that would never happen partly because of the lack of self-respect that non-voters have and partly, perhaps more importantly, it is unlikely that non-voters would be able to agree a platform that all of them could sign up to.
Whilst non-voters tend to justify their inactivity it is difficult to know how to overcome their apparent apathy. If they have a lack of interest in politics it does seem that they have a lack of interest in decisions which directly affect them. If they claim not to have enough information in an information age it can only be that they are deliberately switching off from the barrage of information that is made available particularly at election times. It is more likely that they see themselves as powerless, and the decision to disengage politically would not be affected, on the whole, by politics being conducted in any other way.
Research conducted by the Hansard Society in 2002 following the low turnout in the 2001 General Election suggested that people who do not vote have made that decision long before the election. The election campaign, if they noticed it at all, made no difference to their decision to abstain.
We might argue about whether the present voting system (first past the post) is fair or not. We might argue whether those who stand for office are the best people for the job (almost by definition anybody who wants to be an MP is unsuited for the job!). We might argue whether the current political party system allows for minority views to get a hearing. We might argue whether the influence of the media (print and broadcast) is a force for good or not. In other words, there is a perfectly legitimate argument along the lines of ‘if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it’. Nevertheless, if a person is to be a part of a community and if they believe that they are equal to others in their community that comes not just with benefits but responsibilities.
A self-respecting person is one who feels that they are a legitimate member of society with all the rights and benefits that entails. One of the benefits of living in a democracy is the ability to both stand for office and vote for those who do stand.
Elections, whilst often conducted on the personalities of the leaders, are in reality about the shape of society. They ask the question: what type of society do you want to live in? Sometimes, and I believe it is the case in this coming election, voters are presented with alternatives that are very stark. For the sake of their own self-respect every potential voter should take sides.
This article was originally published at Dave's blog, Thinking And Doing, and is reprinted with permission