I find it enormously galling when an artist effectively disowns a piece of their work; if I remember correctly, George Michael once described one of his singles as ‘the biggest piece of rubbish I’ve ever done’, and Irvine Welsh said much the same about his book Ecstasy. Mind you, despite these admissions, neither of the chaps in question offered to refund the money they’d earned from these items. Which says something about the purity of their motives, I’m sure, and of course puts their fans in an awkward situation – they’ve effectively thrown their support behind someone who’s not come up with the goods.
Often, when this happens, fans will over-compensate, as if in an attempt to convince themselves, as well as everyone else, that they’ve backed the right horse after all. The recent Star Wars films provide more than a handful of examples of this, but you can see it in many other situations, where people ally themselves with something, even if it turns out to be different from their expectations. I know people who’ve watched soap operas for decades, or supported the same football team for the whole of their lives, despite the fact that the characters and the players have completely changed, as have those behind the scenes orchestrating the events. It’s actually more true to say that people like the overall idea of Coronation Street or Aston Villa, than that they wholeheartedly endorse all of the specifics. Even the most diehard fan would be hard-pressed to sincerely make an argument supporting the weaker aspects of any of these examples, and it would be foolish to do so, suggesting that proper judgment faculties are suspended because you’ll decided this is the thing for you.
And so to matters party political. I’ve never felt even remotely comfortable with the idea of selecting from a limited number of parties, as it seems horribly reductive to act as if all the aspects of people’s beliefs can be effectively represented by the policies espoused by (let’s be kind here) three parties in the UK. I’ve never felt like using the vote which people tell me is so very important to vote for a party who I’m not entirely certain represent my beliefs and ideas, and despite this having led me to never vote in an election of any sort, I feel the weight of responsibility that voting involves; if you voted for a certain party and they, oh to pick a random example, went to war in questionable circumstances, are you in some way implicated in that ? If you believe that your vote has the potential to matter – and by voting at all, I think you’re implicitly saying that, or at least advocating the voting system as it currently stands – then I believe you are. The old Spider-Man line about power and responsibility applies here, I think.
People often tell me that if I don’t vote, then I’m not entitled to comment adversely on political events, which is an interesting idea, as it suggests that women wouldn’t have been entitled to have political opinions a century ago. Palpably nonsense, and the reason I draw that comparison is because I am actively disenfranchised from the voting process by one simple thing. I’ll tell you what that is in a bit. In the meantime, please bear in mind that I respect that for other people, the right to vote, and the results, is a very serious matter, and I respect that to the extent that I’ve never spoiled my paper, as that would just slow down the counting process for those who do feel they have candidates they can vote for.
The decision for me not to vote in elections is actually a very simple one – there are NO political parties which accurately reflect my viewpoint. It’s like going to a restaurant and finding there’s nothing on the menu which you actively like or can stomach. Continuing the analogy, you should apparently shut up and order something anyway, even if you know it’s not what you actually want. Of course, what you should really do in practice is to leave, making a complaint as you do so about the paucity of options available. You see where I’m going with this, right?
Interestingly, despite their love of market forces, the major political parties seem to see the declining voting figures as symptomatic of their messages not reaching the public; I disagree, I think the public are well and truly aware of the messages that the parties are sending, and they just don’t like them. The steady decline in turnout at elections over the past few decades strikes me as unlikely to be a result of people not ‘getting it’ about the parties – I think a large number of them ‘get the message’, it’s just that the message doesn’t ring true for them or reflect their views in some way. I mention market forces a line or two ago, because if they were applied to the restaurant metaphor from earlier, the restaurant would probably have closed down. Unless there was a government bail-out, of course, which happens very rarely – steel and coal industries were allowed to dwindle, after all – though as it keeps them in jobs, it’s pretty easy to imagine that there might be some kind of action taken.
In fact, over my lifetime, there have been moves to protect the ‘voting restaurant’; it’s harder for people to start their own parties now – the threshold above which their deposit is returned was increased in the 1980s, though of course it’s not as if there’s anything improper in existing parties deciding the conditions under which newcomers can operate; and in recent years, spoiled and invalid ballots are no longer counted in the total. I’ll say that again, as it’s an important point : spoiled and invalid ballots no longer form part of the total. This is known as ‘Adjusted Turnout’, and what it means in practice is that if 50% of all ballots cast in a ward were invalid, and 25% of all the votes went to the winning candidate, once the invalid votes had been removed from the overall total, the winning candidate’s total would be referred to as 50% of all the votes (that is, 50% of the 50% which remain). This is, I think, a fairly worrying change to the electoral process as it stands, not only because the increase in postal voting in recent years is linked to an increase in invalid votes, but also because it creates an inaccurate picture of the degree of support which candidates and parties are actually receiving.
And this is where (as promised) I tell you about the thing which would solve the whole issue of voting for me, and which would also counteract the misleading effect of ‘adjusted turnout’ in terms of making the parties believe they have a greater mandate than they actually do, and it’s a simple thing: a box on each ballot paper with ‘None of the above’ on it. This, to me, would be true democracy in action, not ‘parliamentary democracy’, which is an entirely different beast.
As well as allowing awkwards like me to have a bit of a say, the inclusion of the NOTA box would also mean that governments and parties would be made aware of the actual nature of the mandate that they have – or don’t have. It may well be that a large number of the people who don’t vote simply have no interest whatsoever in the process, but I think it’s fair to say that had an NOTA box been present in the most recent UK General Election, the anecdotal evidence about people not truly wanting to vote Labour but not seeing any of the other parties as credible alternatives would have translated interestingly, and certainly wouldn’t have given the impression that they had an active mandate.
There have been suggestions before the Electoral Commission that an NOTA box could be introduced as a means to put a brake on the slide in voter turnout, but these were rejected last year on the grounds that this would effectively be encouraging ‘negative voting’. Which is an odd thing to say, as it appears to suggest that the purpose of the electoral system is not to ensure that the people have the greatest opportunity to have their views represented with the greatest possible accuracy, but instead to … er, well, make the parties feel good about themselves or something like that? I’m not quite sure, but I certainly don’t get the feeling that the interests of me and the electorate generally were paramount in this line of reasoning. It feels more like protecting the interests of political parties to me.
Which is a bit alarming when you consider how the Electoral Commission is funded, and what they exist to do… but you know, the same might well be said of governments.