In the UK’s second ever referendum, voters will be asked tomorrow whether they want to adopt the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system. It is on the one hand touching to see people so emotional about the way they pencil marks onto a slip of paper. On the other hand, it is truly devastating that so many seem to have the idea that the referendum is especially meaningful.
People are being encouraged to use their votes wisely by the usual pandemonium of blog-posts that emerges around noteworthy political events. But all these bloggers have all successfully failed to remind readers of one thing: you could vote yes, you could vote no, or you could exercise your third option – don’t vote at all.* To me, this final option is far and away the most preferable.
You might be persuaded to exercise your freedom not to vote by one of two principle arguments. I find the first line of argument much less convincing: quite simply, neither of the options on the table are desirable electoral systems, so we should not partake in the decision to amputate either left or right arm out of principle. This argument is based on the assumption that a more proportionate representative system is 1) possible, and 2) desirable. If we actually scrutinise the parliamentary system, it is easily shown that both of these premisses are false.
Of course, there can never be such a thing as a truly “proportionate” representation in any parliament. Logistically speaking, it is virtually impossible for large groups of people to be represented by individuals in exact proportion to each other group’s relative size. This is why there are a number of different types of PR system in effect in different places – different people believe different formulas will aid their quest for political hegemony. This is why the Conservatives refused to even debate AV+.
Politically speaking, it is entirely impossible for groups of people to have the totality of their individual interests and views voiced by singular persons – especially when their interests and views are in competition with other individuals within that same group, individuals who may just be louder and more forceful. To put this more simply, representation can only ever mean exclusivity: the prerogative lies with the representative (the MP) to choose which views she (or more often he) wishes to acknowledge or even pursue. Most people never get a look in.
In this context, it should be clear that voting within a parliamentary system is not a political gesture, but an overtly anti-political one. By casting of our ballots, we are not engaging in actually-existing democracy but rather relinquishing all prospect of it. The very act itself is a symbolic resignation. True participation can never mean gambling that careerists will share our concerns and material needs. Contrary to the popular mantra of “if you don’t vote, don’t moan”, we should insist that the moaning voters themselves are the high-priests of hypocrisy. If you want democracy on 5th May, spend your time organising for it rather than pushing paper-thin promises back into hollow ballot boxes.
It is telling that on the left, those who are backing a line (either way) are typically encouraging their supporters to do so in order to punish either the Tories or Lib Dems. They implicitly see “participation” for what it really is – mere manoeuvring, a half-opportunity to send a message to the governing parties by default. But whether we wish to punish the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats more is really a misleading proposition. If we truly wished to punish the coalition, we would organise from below to render parliamentary politics irrelevant and end our utopian fantasies of real change coming about because we’ve asked for it. If we truly wished to punish the coalition, we would stop instilling in others the delusion that the messianic moment will come about by placing a cross on the right spot.
But of course the mistake here is twofold. It is not simply fantasy that a “yes” or “no” vote will shatter the coalition and lead us into a brighter future, but a sheer misunderstanding of where power really lies. It is a shame that self-described Marxists parties can wilfully ignore the primacy of the economic over the political. The “coalition cuts” are not a matter of mere “ideology”, but in fact the only political programme which is supported by “the market.” If we’re going to talk about democratisation, let’s talk about workplaces.
Electoral reform therefore cannot even amount to rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship. The market sails full steam ahead safe in the knowledge that the tweaking of political institutionals cannot hope to challenge its hegemonic power. Under such a status quo – where politics is not just removed from the public sphere but subordinated to market economics – voting can only ever be ritualised obedience: whether you vote yes or no, what you are really saying is “go ahead.” A real challenge to this system begins with abstention from it.
* You might also choose to spoil your ballot. If encouraged widely enough this could be interpreted as principled objection to the question itself but support for referenda in principle. Alternatively you might be considered to be too thick to know how to vote properly. Good luck.