Saturday, April 30, 2011

Why vote?

Our local Green councillor is just what a councillor should be. When we asked if we could get some bollards put outside out house (to stop cars illegally parking on the curb), he got it sorted for us. He knocked on our door the other day and asked if there were any issues that concerned us. We told him we'd already voted for him, and then asked if he could get the double-yellow lines repainted in our area, and whether the council could do anything about a number of unoccupied shops (perhaps lowering the rents so they could get filled up). He listened, and I'm sure he'll try to do something about it. He's probably the first and only example I've ever had where politics appears to work.

At the national level though, I have little hope. Next week, as well as voting in council elections, we have the opportunity to vote about the way that we vote in future elections. We can replace our "First Past the Post" system with one which requires the winner to have 50% of the votes, and if no-one gets 50% then we take the second choices of the people who voted for the last-place candidate, and so on until someone gets 50%. I've voted for the Alternative Vote, because I don't feel that the current system accurately reflects society's views. We are a mainly left-of-centre country, but the left vote tends to get split between Labour and Liberal-Democrat, which means that the Conservatives can sometimes scoop first place because the Left can't agree. This certainly happened in my own constituency, where many of my ultra-lefty friends voted Lib-Dem: "I just can't vote Labour because of Iraq" they said with self-righteous idealism. And of course, their refusal to compromise meant that Labour went a few hundred votes short and the Tory chap got in. My kindly Lib-Dem friends have been very quiet about politics since the election. Isn't it horrible when your well-meaning intentions produce the exact opposite effect of what you wanted (£9000 a year university tuition fees, cuts to SureStart, the privitisation of the NHS and the education system etc etc)?

If you are at all unsure how to vote and find all the arguments pro and against AV too tedious or complicated to follow, then bear in mind this simple fact - David Cameron (and the vast majority of Tories) don't want it. They don't want it because they know their party will suffer. And if you are against David Cameron you should be for AV. It's as simple as that. Yes, we may end up with coalitions, and yes, coalitions can be annoying - but I'd rather have a coalition government (most likely made up of left-leaning politicians) than a single-party right-wing government every other time.

Yet it's unlikely that AV will pass. Most people don't seem to know what it is or care. And those who do are more likely to vote to keep the status quo. Others want to punish the Lib-Dems by voting against it (once again, thinking with their hearts not their heads). Even if by some strange chance it passes, it's likely that the Conservatives will put a stop to it, arguing that only a minority of people wanted it (which ironically is exactly what our current First-Past-The-Post voting system allows).

The vote has the potential to change British politics and ultimately, to make the UK a fairer, kinder place. If AV passes, the right-wing will have proportionally less power overall. We will become more like Europe and less like America. However, I don't think that is the path that we are on.

For the first three quarters of the 20th century there appeared to be a move in many countries towards increased equality and a kinder, fairer society. The gap between rich and poor was smaller than it was in the 19th century. Society found ways to look after people who were unfortunate, and in the UK the government incorporated progressive structures like pensions, universal education and the National Health service. All of this was made possible by making people pay tax - the richer you are, the more tax you pay.

But around about 1980, the rich people got clever - they started to find new ways to get their own way. Many rich people don't like paying tax - they don't see why they should have to look after people who are less fortunate than themselves. Their goals are simple - to earn more and more money, so they can pass it on to their children. And for them to get richer, everyone else must get poorer. This has resulted in political systems whereby rich people pay enormous dontations to political parties (usually right-wing parties, but often rich people hedge their bets and donate to every potential winner), especially helping to fund their political campaigns. When a party wins, it then needs to look favourably on its rich benefactors, passing laws that mean they pay less tax or making it easier for them to make profits. As a result, winning political parties will always put the needs of rich people first.

In rich western societies, we look at the elections that happen in much poorer, unstable countries like Zimbabwe and Iran and we snigger when we see how corrupt they are - when the votes are clearly rigged. We pity countries like China and North Korea that don't even have a proper democracy. Yet are western democracies really so much better when political campaigns are funded by the donations of a few extremely rich people with vested interests who then call in favours?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, very few people had the vote. Women certainly didn't, and it tended to be the province of rich men. Now we have a situation where we think we have the vote, but we can only vote for a narrow range of options, and the winners will not put our interests first anyway. It is somehow ironic that we are made to think we live in free societies, and that elections matter. The reality is that the people in control have simply become much better at hiding it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am beginning, jaded being that I am, to subscribe to the tired old dictum which has it that "if elections actually changed anything, they'd ban them."

I guess I too am one of your self-righteous idealist types who simply couldn't vote for Labour because of Iraq. But it was more than that. I couldn't vote for Labour because they weren't Labour any more: when Tony Blair emerged in 1997, we hailed him as the Messiah, which is understandable, I guess, after being royally f*cked this way and that for eighteen years by Thatcher and her gang. After ten years, however, Blair had changed from Messiah to Antichrist, and sometimes I found myself thinking - much to my own disgust - "actually, we were probably better off under the Tories. They might have been c*nts, but at least their c*ntiness was transparent." Which is why I decided to take the coward's way out and vote Lib Dem.
The alternative was not to vote at all, which at the time I thought would be tantamount to robbing myself of the right to complain when things went tits up. ("Oh, if you don't vote, you've got no right to criticise", friends always tell me. Which doesn't really make much sense when you consider that not voting is itself a criticism, but that's another story, and lost on most of the people I try to explain it to).
Anyway, where is all this leading? Oh yes, AV. I'm not really sure what it is or how it works, but you explained it pretty well, and if it means that it'll take us a step towards being more representative, then it has to be A Good Thing - and not just because Cameron is against it.

Incidentally, I was in Newcastle recently when Clegg was doing his 'walkabout'. There were some pretty scathing remarks being made well within earshot, but one of the most bizarre came from a drunken Geordie who implored Clegg to "show us your tits!" Only in the North East...