In 450 days, you will have the power. It will be the first time in 5 years that you’ve been truly empowered. You will be able to change your community, your country and perhaps, just perhaps, the world. Your vote counts.
Just kidding. If you live in a ‘safe’ constituency and vote against the grain, your vote will achieve precisely nothing. Even in a marginal constituency, you only have power if your townspeople share your ideology and vote with you en masse.
Crucially, the idea of voting having any power relies on there being a candidate you can support, for the most part, both in their local and national policies. Many voters feel they have no choice but to vote for established parties, as there seem no other credible options, but many more will stay away from the polling booth, disillusioned with the options available. If no-one is speaking for you, why bother to vote? 25% of voters in an ICM poll in December named the lack of a party that reflected their views as a reason for their apathy towards voting, while 26% answered that the parties were so similar that it doesn’t matter who you vote for.
This “to vote or not to vote?” quandary has reached new heights since Russell Brand’s call to arms on Newsnight went viral in October. He demanded a revolution of not voting, as voting supports wilful financial inequality and greed, but has faced criticism in the media for failing to articulate what this would achieve, or what the next steps should be. Comedian Robert Webb responded in an open letter on the New Statesman website, counter-argued that by not voting, you support these things anyway. Those either benefited by the current government or too naïve to see that they are being failed by it will vote anyway, and your boycott will go unnoticed. Essentially, all that will be achieved by not voting is that the status quo will be maintained. He suggested that the only way to stop the current government was to vote Labour.
But this is no solution. Voters are wary of the previous administration’s legacy, particularly the Iraq war and economic mismanagement. Rightly or wrongly, history usually comes into a voter’s decision. How many voters won’t vote Tory because of Thatcher’s politics, or Labour because of Blair? How many voters are dissuaded from voting at all because the only two parties likely to win a majority are tarnished by track records of greed, incompetence and failure?
In addition to historical baggage, parties often hinder progress, especially in effectively two-party states. We see this in America, a country almost brought to a standstill by the Republicans’ refusal to cede ground to the Democrats on the national budget in October. In the UK, meanwhile, each argument a politician cannot counter is petulantly rebuffed with “It’s all (the other party’s) fault”, meaning the problem is rarely addressed – and even more rarely solved.
Surely the answer is to vote in more independent candidates. By avoiding the tit-for-tat playground battle of Tory v Labour and the necessity of toeing the party line, independent MPs can spend more time meeting local residents, hearing their concerns, and addressing these issues. In session, they can speak freely without fear of rebuff by the party whip, or being undermined by members of their party if their voters want something that doesn’t sit with the party ethos. They become accountable only to their constituents.
Yet independent MPs are a rarity. Despite predictions of independent success at the 2010 General Election, only one of the 334 independent candidates who stood were elected (Lady Hermon, in the North Down constituency), and the few already in Parliament were ousted. While several minor party candidates snuck through – most notably, Caroline Lucas – it’s not a promising sign that independents are few and far between in the House of Commons, even after a potent political scandal like Expensesgate. But George Galloway’s utter annihilation of Labour’s majority in the 2012 Bradford West by-election suggests there may be a way in, especially in the constituencies most disillusioned with major parties.
Perhaps these figures could be improved if more independent candidates were encouraged. All that stands between you and running for Parliament is a £500 deposit that is reclaimed only if a candidate receives at least 5% of the vote. In a time of fragile recovery, welfare cuts (after all, the majority of those on benefits are in work) and wages failing to rise at the same rate as inflation, many people don’t have £500 to gamble with, alongside the added costs of campaigning. Campaign costs may be more offputting to potential independents, but with social media currently directing local news outlets, there are new ways for candidates to gain exposure cheaply through publicity stunts or original self-marketing concepts. There are, however, no clever ways of getting around a lump sum that is loose change to many frontbenchers, but to the average worker is not an amount to be spent lightly.
By slashing costs of a deposit, we not only encourage more people to lend their voices to disenchanted voters; we open up Parliament to intelligent, well-informed political enthusiasts who, crucially, may not have the financial advantages that so many politicians have. Opening the door to sincere, committed but less privileged unaffiliated candidates could help to form a more representative government that is in touch with voters and that takes responsibility for itself. Fewer blame games and more accountability could make for a more effective, well-respected government.
By neither explicitly supporting parties that have proven themselves failures, nor allowing those that continue to vote to maintain a status quo that, under this government, involves tax cuts for the richest, attempts to curb civil liberties, open support of privacy invasion, and propaganda that victimises the most powerless in society, in order to divide and rule, perhaps we can address Brand’s issues. It may not be the anarchic revolution his rhetoric suggested – but it may be a successful, representative one.