The other night I asked myself whether, if this general election were my first, I would take the trouble to vote. I wasn’t sure I’d bother. It’s a well-known fact that you lose brain cells as you get older. But that was just stupid.
Choosing to have nothing to do with the election is being widely trumpeted as a responsible political decision. The comedian and activist Russell Brand, who proudly claims that he has never voted, is the poster boy for this band of refuseniks, but you can hear a variant of the old “Don’t vote, it only encourages them” bad joke in any pub, any night of the week. The more that David Cameron and Ed Miliband hector us about how this is the most important election since the last most important election, the more you can sense people — ordinary people, not those in the media — switching off.
They’ve got a point. Something has clearly gone very wrong with our politics. Unless pigs suddenly learn to fly, at the end of this process we shall have either Cameron or Miliband as prime minister. Only a fool would predict precisely how it will turn out but there is a good chance that neither man will get enough votes to win the election with an overall majority.
If things run true to form, there will also be some MPs returned to parliament next month for whom the great majority of the people they claim to represent did not vote at all. There are areas of some of this country’s great cities — Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds or Glasgow — where fewer than half of those entitled to vote bothered to do so the last time they had the chance. This country’s lectures to the rest of the world about the glories of democracy ring pretty faintly and rather hollow here. MPs from these seats make Robert Mugabe look like he was democratically elected.
I have always liked the first-past-the-post voting system because it creates a link between the MP and his or her constituency; it also used to give decisive results. Advocates of a more proportional system — ranking candidates by number in order of acceptability or unacceptability — argue that it requires a little more thought than the simple act of putting a solitary X on a ballot paper. But while its merit is based on the claim that those who did not vote for the winning MP are still represented in parliament, the 2011 referendum demanded by the Lib Dems showed convincingly how out-of-touch psephological nerds are: the public disliked plans for some slightly more sophisticated system by a margin of more than two to one. So we seem to be stuck with first-past-the-post, a system that only really works when the choice is an either/or. (Which, of course, is why the Liberal Democrats, the perpetual also-rans, spent all those years crying in the wilderness about the need for electoral reform. Their petulant kiboshing of Tory plans to try to see that votes across the country had roughly the same value demonstrated the strict limits of their rather idiosyncratic commitment to improving democracy.)
Debating ways of reforming the electoral system is a game for young men who look as if they haven’t seen daylight since puberty struck. We don’t seem to be the sort of electorate we once were, where tribal loyalties could almost be taken for granted and were sometimes ingested with mother’s milk.
The last election was run on the traditional British system. It ended up in precisely the sort of horse-trading favoured by those aforementioned pasty-faced young men. We were all treated to dishonest blather justifying the coalition: it was “what the British people wanted”. I don’t recall a single person at the last election saying, “Vote for me, and I’ll make sure Nick Clegg becomes deputy prime minister.” No one. The system is stuttering.
And the prizes seem so puny. The plain fact is that, unless taxes rise or great swathes of public spending cease to exist, Britain is broke. So much of politics now is merely about how to manage near-bankruptcy, and different varieties of managerialism are unlikely to set the pulse racing.
A first-time voter in this election hadn’t even been conceived when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and politics were red in tooth and claw. Since those days, British business has been hugely internationalised, with decisions about investment, and even if and where taxes are paid, made in boardrooms in Frankfurt, Tokyo or California. Once you then strip out all the powers that have been given to the European Union, the UN, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and Nato, you start to wonder what on earth MPs do all day.
They find things to occupy themselves, of course. Parliament spent 700 hours discussing foxhunting in the early years of the 21st century. The Conservatives apparently plan to bring the debate back for another exciting outing.
We have far too many MPs with far too little to do: there are 650 of them, when there ought to be half that number. No one in Parliament takes himself more seriously than the Speaker, John Bercow, accommodated at great public expense in the Palace of Westminster and in the fullness of time likely to be rewarded with a peerage. Bercow let slip last Christmas that in 2014 he watched Roger Federer play tennis no fewer than 65 times. Nice work if you can get it.
Of course, there are exceptions — heroic figures who soldier on committees, holding the powerful to account. But advancement to a position where you can get anything done, becoming a minister, comes through the party, and that requires you to profess a belief in six impossible things before breakfast.
And consider for a moment the way Parliament works — the “honourable members”, the self-importance, the braying, the arcane language and procedures. How many people do you know who try to persuade you to agree with them by standing on their feet, speechifying, barking and waving bits of paper?
The tennis-watching Speaker tells us earnestly that the Palace of Westminster is in urgent need of renovation, the bill for which will be a mere £3bn of public money. The money will doubtless be found, but for what end?
The last time parliament had a chance to reinvent itself, after second world war bomb damage, MPs decided that what they wanted was more or less precisely what had been there before the Luftwaffe visited, right down to the overcrowded benches crammed with MPs facing each other in a rectangular chamber (“like dogs on a leash”, as Nancy Astor put it). Charles Barry’s chamber of the House of Commons had itself been a 19th-century pastiche of the room previously used for debate. There is little evidence of a greater desire for a more thoughtfully laid-out building somewhere outside the metropolis now. Winston Churchill said it best: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
So Westminster is falling apart, the electoral mechanism is a wreck, the idiom is bankrupt, and the people who do it? Well, let’s just agree they’re odd. For far too many men and women, becoming an MP seems to be a lifestyle choice — which is why they won’t quit the stage long after they have ceased to have anything useful to say. Public life is now the preserve of Homo Politicus. To get on in a political career you need to strike an attitude at the age of 19 or 20 and never deviate from it. Some of us find it hard enough to justify things we said last week, let alone attitudes we expressed as students.
Yet, in politics, the precondition for advancement is a form of arrested development. The leaders of the two largest parties both went to Oxford, both studied philosophy, politics and economics and both worked as political advisers. The choice is between a man who went to the same primary school as Boris Johnson, and one who went to secondary school with him.
The reason the faces of people such as Cameron and Miliband, Ed Balls and George Osborne seem vaguely familiar when they achieve high office is that we have already glimpsed them as callow youths, hovering in the shadows as their bosses — in their cases Norman Lamont, Gordon Brown or William Hague — spouted the homilies they had written for them. You have almost certainly already seen the 2030 chancellor of the exchequer in the background of a picture somewhere or other. Remember the photo of the young aide whose university degree earned her the right to carry Paddy Ashdown’s shoes as the great man shuffled along in the procession when, for reasons unknown, Nick Clegg opened his electoral campaign the other day at a hedgehog sanctuary: one day she may be Liberal Democrat leader.
So, perhaps it’s no wonder that belonging to mainstream political parties has become such an unusual thing for ordinary people to do. The Lib Dems last year boasted of a terrific surge in support. It took them to a fraction of the membership of the Caravan Club. In 1970, about 5 per cent of us belonged to the Labour or the Conservative party. By 1983, the proportion had dropped to almost 4 per cent.
Nowadays, if you add together the memberships of all three of the so-called “big” political parties, you get to a grand total of less than 1 per cent of the electorate. There are probably at least twice as many vegetarians in Britain.
Betty Boothroyd, a former Speaker, once told me how she spent her youth in the 1940s thrilling to the speeches given on Saturday mornings in the heart of Huddersfield and Dewsbury by visiting politicians. We all have plenty of other things to do on Saturday mornings now. Not the least of them being to avoid going to Dewsbury town centre on a Saturday morning.
In the 1950s, the Conservatives claimed to have 3m members; when, in the more affluent suburbs, joining the Young Conservatives offered both social acceptability and the opportunity to get your hands on a member of the opposite sex. There are multiple alternative routes to the same ends now.
Not only has engagement with political parties withered to the point of eccentricity, we all know that disappointment is an integral part of the voters’ experience. Deep down, we understand that the business of government is making the best of a bad job. There is no promised land. Yet politicians are always promising to take us there. It is an insult to our intelligence.
Why do they make us these unrealisable promises? Because we ask them to do so. And then, when it turns out that the unrealisable promise was indeed unrealisable, we’re disappointed and choose to take seriously another lot of promises.
All of which seems rather to make the case for staying at home on polling day. There are a thousand reasons for not endorsing a system that is so divorced from everyday life. But wait a moment.
Though I cannot for the life of me recall which one it was, there was an election recently when I thought, “What’s the point?” and didn’t bother to vote.
But by seven or eight that evening — when it was too late for me to do anything about it — I felt distinctly uncomfortable. I will never make the same mistake again.
On the whole I’d prefer the government to stay out of our lives as much as possible but I simply cannot understand the argument against compulsory voting. Even the lounge-bar cynics accept the state’s right to exact taxes or demand jury service. What’s wrong with making it obligatory for citizens to choose the people who impose these duties?
Because if we don’t settle what divides us by voting, how else are we going to do so? Clearly, our immediate need is for a box on the ballot paper that says “none of the above”. If enough of us put our mark there, perhaps things might begin to change (though I wouldn’t hold your breath). But going to a polling station or filling out a postal ballot is hardly a big demand on our time.
Then there’s self-interest. Even a 10-year-old knows that it is governments that raise or cut taxes and welfare benefits, introduce laws or instruct officialdom. In decisions about military adventures, governments may even decide whether citizens live or die. And whatever you earn, the government is going to help itself to large amounts of it: fail to pay and it can send you to jail. Is it not better to have some say over what politicians take from us, and what they do with it?
It was elected governments that abolished slavery, made it illegal to send small boys up chimneys and created the National Health Service. No one anticipates the next parliament will have to make decisions as momentous. But who knows?
Democracy is a precious, magical thing. But you have to address its singular strength and feebleness: your choice has precisely the same weight as that of the village idiot. All you will achieve by staying at home is to give your vote to someone else. You will not stop a government being formed. It’s just that you will have had nothing to do with shaping it. If that’s what you want, well fine, you listen to Russell Brand.
Jeremy Paxman is an FT contributing editor. He will present Channel Four’s election night coverage
Illustration by James Ferguson
Photograph: Planet Photos
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