The Mirror are launching a new campaign, #NoVoteNoVoice, hoping to persuade a million people to vote in next year’s general election. Supporters include the pro-establishment anti-fascists of Hope Not Hate, as well as the National Union of Teachers and Unite the Union – apparently some of Britain’s largest and most active trade unions are happy to endorse the idea that there’s nothing people can do to make their voices heard other than by voting. To give credit where it’s due, Anna Leach’s “why YOU should vote in 4 charts” is a very good piece of propaganda – it’s nicely designed, and puts its case across in easily accessible terms. It’s also very wrong, and makes a dangerous and disempowering case.
While the campaign is not officially aligned with any political party, it obviously has Labour’s fingerprints all over it. Huge numbers of people recognise that the government don’t care about them, and is actively attacking us in all kinds of ways. The key question for Labour is whether they can channel the distrust of the government into active support for Ed Miliband, or whether that disaffection will take another form, like mass abstention or a rise in votes for the anti-establishment posturing of UKIP.
#NoVoteNoVoice is the left-wing of the political elite attempting to shut down any discussion of potential alternatives. They recognise that, faced with a choice between Iain Duncan Smith and Rachel Reeves – or, to put it in loaded terms that make it clear exactly how disgusting this “choice” is, a choice between the party of Cyril Smith, the party of Leon Brittan and Margaret Thatcher, or the party of Margaret Hodge and a minister in Blair’s cabinet who has not been named yet – many people will just stay at home. There’s no reason to be smug about this mass disaffection, since it’s not showing any sign of taking on any organised form, let alone a progressive, class-based one, but as long as politicians are widely loathed and distrusted, the potential for an alternative exists. And that’s why Labour’s friends in the media are rolling out #NoVoteNoVoice now, to try and close down the space needed for a genuine alternative.
To examine their arguments in a bit more detail:
1. Politicians care more about people who vote
The problems with this claim are pretty obvious. As a full-time worker, I’m apparently one of the groups that politicians care about. They seem to have a funny way of showing it, seeing that they’ve been happy to watch the value of my wages fall by a massive amount while also bringing in huge tribunal fees that essentially charge workers large amounts of money for being victimised by our employers. The latest plans to ban strikes are another sign of how much politicians care about us. If this is what it’s like to belong to a group politicians care about, I wouldn’t mind a bit of indifference. Equally, the pensioners who were attacked by the state’s thugs for protesting against cuts to their travel allowances may not be feeling hugely grateful for the loving care lavished on them by those in power. Ultimately, whether you’re in full-time work, part-time work, studying, retired, disabled, or on JSA, this system doesn’t work for any of us, and we’re all facing attacks on our living standards. Drawing lines between full-time and part-time workers or pensioners and other claimants only hides the problem.
2. Older people have more power at the ballot box because they almost always vote
Another divisive attempt to portray OAPs as somehow getting an easy ride from the political elite. This is absolute rubbish. George Osborne has made vicious cuts to pensioners’ income, and now pensioners are being threatened with homelessness as a result of these cuts. Our rulers are even considering the possibility that those who are too old to work paid jobs should be forced into unpaid work by threatening to cut their pensions, describing retired people as “a negative burden on the state”.
There’s a further problem here: it’s true that young people are less likely to vote, but it’s also true that, as well as being less likely to vote, they’re the people most likely to vote Labour. Two graphs from the Ipsos MORI generations study, which defined “Generation Y” as anyone under 31, make this clear:
So, even if politicians in general don’t care about younger people, Labour should be bending over backwards to keep the youth vote, right? Except it doesn’t quite work like that. From introducing tuition fees in 1998, to introducing variable tuition fees in 2003, to commissioning the Browne Report that recommended scrapping the cap on tuition fees, through to their latest threats to scrap benefits for young people, Labour have always been happy to introduce policies that penalise the age group most likely to support them. This attempt to encourage people to vote by setting young against old really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
3. Wealthier people have more power at the polls
This comes a lot closer to making a worthwhile point, but it gets cause and effect all mixed up. It’s true that politicians are more likely to care about rich people, and richer people are more likely to vote, but that’s not the same as proving that the first fact is caused by the second. People who do most of their shopping at Harrod’s probably have a much higher average income than people who do most of their shopping at Aldi, but that doesn’t then mean that if you and I started to do our shopping at Harrod’s we’d end up being richer as a result of it. Equally, the fact that rich people are so much more likely to vote than we are is not a cause but an effect of the fact that politicians care about them and not about us. It’s completely backwards to blame working-class non-voters for not taking an interest in the question of which set of rich scumbags get the job of attacking our living standards.
4. The people who didn’t vote in 2010 could change everything in 2015
Ok, this one is actually 100% true, and an important point to make. There are a lot of us, and we’re an important group, and we really do have the power to change everything. But that’s not the same as proving that our power to change things lies in the ballot box. The 15.9 million people who don’t trust politicians to represent our interests could make our voices heard in all kinds of ways and still remain non-voters. It’s right to point out that renters, a group who overwhelmingly don’t vote, get a raw deal from the system, but instead of trusting a bunch of rich arseholes with two homes each to represent our interests, we could try building power collectively with other tenants, along the lines of the Bristol tenants who’ve come together to oppose the use of rip-off tenancy fees, the London council tenants organising to resist gentrification, the Nottingham tenants standing together to resist an upcoming eviction and other groups like Hackney Renters. Elsewhere, other organisations like Bristol Solidarity Network and Solidarity Federation groups in North London, South London, Brighton and Newcastle have managed to recover unpaid wages from thieving bosses, and Bradford Industrial Workers of the World are taking up the fight against zero-hours contracts. On a bigger scale, it wasn’t the election of a Labour government that got rid of the poll tax, it was scrapped by a Tory government terrified by the mass non-payment campaign. That might seem a long time ago, but more recent cases like the government’s abandonment of the pastie tax or Nick Clegg suddenly discovering that he opposes the bedroom tax show how it’s still possible to effectively pressure right-wing politicians without going down the electoral route. Unlike #NoVoteNoVoice, I’m not going to try and tell you whether you should vote or not, because in all honesty I don’t really care one way or the other; whether or not you make the choice to vote, there are a lot of other things you can still do, and I think that talking about all those other things is a much more interesting conversation to be having. From workplace organising to anti-racist football tournaments to feminist music festivals to mass creative direct action by disabled people, there’s a whole world outside the electoral process that’s worth exploring.
Whatever you care about, whatever matters to you, it is possible to make a difference, it is possible to make your voice heard. But that means getting together with the people around you and organising to build power collectively. No matter how appealing it looks, and how nicely it’s presented, #NoVoteNoVoice is an attempt to discredit the idea that we change things by acting outside of the ballot box. We can make our voices heard, but if we’re going to do it, we need to start by ignoring the liberal bullies who insist that if we don’t do things their way we don’t deserve to get a say.