So here we now stand, on the precipice. A new government beckons: will it be #Milibae or Dave to lead the charge on the dark and looming deficit? Who will be riding in tandem with the victor to central London from some far-flung corner of our United Kingdom? Sturgeon, Bennett, Wood and Farage lie in wait; ready to strike a painful, convoluted alliance with whoever will take them. Masons stand poised in the garden of 10 Downing Street, Miliband’s stone held aloft. The slow-beating heart of the NHS sits in Cameron’s palm, awaiting the final, crushing blow. A hung parliament draws near.
Politics tends to veer off into the fantastical when the general election comes around. TV debates, smear campaigns and ambitious promises create the sense of a great pageant, a dramatic show that unveils in front of us whilst we sit there, mouths agape, our hands tentatively pressed to the electoral buzzer. Politics, society, the economy, education, health, defence, welfare and immigration…all these issues seem to fly out of the ether as buzzwords we must suddenly study, dissect and have a strong, direct opinion on.
Immigrants are no longer just immigrants: they’re humble, hard-working symbols of a free moving EU, or benefit scrounging parasites here to steal our jobs. Phrases like ‘growth’, ‘recession’ and ‘small businesses’ appear away from the boring business supplement of the Sunday newspaper.
When we choose who we want to be our next Prime Minister, we are making a series of vital, smaller choices about the way we want society to be controlled and developed. But what exactly is the point of all of this research and careful selection of a party, if our vote is barely recognised or represented?
I write this as a young person who happens to live and vote in one of the safest Tory seats in the country: the constituency of Kensington in West London. My family happens to not vote Conservative, and there are quite a few like me, many of whom are a lot worse off and desperately short of options. The empty white mansions of Notting Hill Gate conceal the far more impoverished conditions of North Kensington: are they being represented by a consistent Tory candidate? Kensington is a ghastly tribute to gentrification at its worst, where social housing and iconic marketplaces are all to readily replaced with overpriced cafes and ‘luxury apartments’. So unless mummy and/or daddy needs to keep Cameron in to protect their assets, you’re looking at one of the most unfair constituencies in the UK. Voting for anything other than the Tories here is simply a case of keeping up appearances. Oh to be able to vote in Westminster North or Hammersmith!
It is this sort of imposed impotency, where your vote makes literally no difference to the outcome of our parliament for the next 5 years (and the 5 years after that…), which made me so passionate about the alternative vote referendum in 2011. A rather confusing, and perhaps laboured (note: no subconscious party endorsements in this piece) attempt at proportional representation, but a step in the right direction nonetheless. I can still remember just how pissed off I was when the results came back in resolute disagreement with the proposed AV reform. It felt as if Britain had cast the fate of its political future, doomed to many more years of Conservative, Labour, Conservative, Labour.
4 years later and the phrases ‘tactical vote’ and ‘we’ve got to keep the Tories out’ seem to conclude every discussion about politics that I have with friends and family. Whilst I have personally decided against voting Labour, and thus exercising my right to cast a completely null and void vote in an absolutely safe Tory constituency, I can understand why the need to vote Labour for marginal seats remains an important choice, probably now more than ever. But it’s dismayingto see supposedly ‘free’ people voting for a party that does not represent their hopes and wishes for the future of their country. How many tactical Labour voters, for example, agree with Ed Miliband’s plan to stop all immigrants claiming benefits for their first 2 years in this country? This is clearly not the representative democracy that we have been sold by politicians.
Despite my grievances with Miliband and his post New Labour brand of Labour, what struck me the other night (and evidently struck Russell Brand too) about his interview on The Trews was his emphasis on “a politics that is rooted again in communities”. Whilst Miliband has yet to prove whether his party will truly be a party of democratic, grassroots participation, Cameron’s Conservatives have certainly fit Miliband’s description of a ‘virtual party’, devoid of interaction with the ‘hard working families’ that they constantly bang on about. The fact that that they feel entitled to bring about such unrestrained and inhumane destruction of support for ordinary citizens, who are the very lifeblood of democracy itself, demonstrates just how passive and diminished we have become.
The almost fanatical defence of our liberal, democratic way of life that we saw in the protests of #JeSuisCharlie earlier this year show that people both here and across the West feel passionately about the need for the freedom and political rights of the individual. Yet when it comes to the defining of our own political system, how often are we prepared, both individually and collectively, to truly empower ourselves as members of a democracy? It is in this point that I felt most bitterly disappointed—and perhaps feel even more frustrated now in hindsight—when 13 million people decided to vote NO to the alternative vote, whilst only 42% of people actually bothered to vote in the referendum at all.
As long as the majority of people only get involved in politics once every 5 years to vote, it is crucial that our electoral system is both representative and fair. The first-past-the-post system fails on both counts for far too many people. The Alternative Vote was never ideal, but it would have been a step in the right direction. Because whether the nation votes Blue or Red, there’s a good chance we’re going to land up with the same back-and-forth politics that we’ve become accustomed to. Real politics should be built upon collective differences between the people that inhabit it, not this narrow blur of political consensus. When we voted against electoral reform 4 years ago, we made a choice that silenced the potential voices of millions of people. That’s not democracy. In order to reclaim it for the people, we need electoral reform, not a new Prime Minister.