To vote, or not to vote, that is the question.
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Policies,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of empty words,
And by opposing, end them?
I’ve just been having a long argument with someone who is “boycotting” the UK election today. I maintain that it’s a very bad idea not to vote, even if you feel your vote is not worth anything. There are two main reasons not to abstain:
1) Morally, you will have no right to complain if things don’t go the way you want.
2) Supporting not just smaller parties but working with erstwhile minor radical political groups is what brings change.
A few examples of the latter include the Abolitionists who with a mere 400,000 sugar boycotters brought down the entire slave trade in from 1791 to 1807, the Chartists who extended the right to vote to the poor non-landowners in 1859, the Suffragettes who helped extend the vote to women in 1918 and 1928, Labour in its 1940s heyday, who rose from nothing in 1900 to gaining a majority government in 1929 to bringing us the NHS that we take for granted in 1948 and giving a voice to the trade unions that have championed our workers’ rights. We are well overdue another “revolution” in the way our political system works for us.
Do Election Boycotts Work?
Look at what election boycotts have achieved around the world…
South Africa is probably the most famous example of a successful election boycott: the famous “No Land! No House! No Vote!” boycott. What was achieved? The threat of boycott itself had a major impact, but the actual boycott would have achieved little of value except for the loss of the black voice.
Lebanon 1992, Iraq 2005, Egypt 2012; all these boycotts achieved nothing. In fact, it is estimated that only 4% of election boycotts achieve anything and even then, the circumstances have to be precisely balanced in order to get the intended results.
An apt quotation from Matthew Frankel (Policy Paper Number 19, March 2010) “Threaten but Participate: Why Election Boycotts Are a Bad Idea”. p.8:
“When Boycotts Can Work.
Of the 171 cases examined for this study, a small minority (roughly four percentage) resulted in positive outcomes for the boycotting parties. These cases fell into two very different categories: cases where the opposition party had considerable popular support and the boycott was merely one piece of a larger opposition campaign that could mobilize street protests, strikes and other forms of civil unrest, and cases were electoral laws required quorums to proceed. There have been successes in both categories but the former cases bring the risk of military intervention while the latter cases risk blowback to the boycotting party for being up structure nest boycotting party for being obstructionist”.
In the UK, we have a quorum of 40 MPs (out of the total of 650 seats), meaning that legally, we would need a boycott of exactly 93.84% of UK constituencies in order to force the government to do anything about the boycott.
1) That mass of people is near-impossible to reach, 2) the history of election boycotts shows that the establishment doesn’t really care if the population votes as long as they can get a big enough percentage and maintain their power and 3) legally, the government doesn’t need most of us to vote in order to form a stable government.
Boycotting a system is very different from boycotting products because election boycotts need a greater percentage of people to engage in the action and the latter’s success relies on the threat of financial loss. The former is like saying to your parents, “I don’t like the way you cook, so I’m not going to eat your food”. Your parents have no product to sell to you and gain no financial benefit from cooking for you. The only logical response from your parents would be: “So what? Go and make your own food then”.
It’s very different when the thing you are boycotting brings potential financial ruin to the target group. If you were to make the same threat to a restaurant that potentially loses your custom, then of course a boycott is effective.
Remember, 35% of eligible people in the UK already don’t vote. That’s an estimated 15,609,062 eligible over-18s currently “boycotting” elections and achieving absolutely nothing of value, compared to a mere 400,000 people in 1791 boycotting slave-produced sugar and changing everything. The difference in sale of both the boycotts and the intended outcome is a profound one.
We may feel that nothing changes when we vote, and that hung parliaments result in unstable coalitions, but these hung parliaments are actually a good thing in a way. They tell us that the First Past the Post system (which we foolishly voted to keep in 2011) is not working. Hung parliaments tell us that the electorate is not happy, the meteoric rise, but inevitable powerlessness under FPTP of minor parties such as the Greens and UKIP tell us that people want change, but many are forced to keep voting for the establishment parties, thereby maintaining our 2-party (or 2.5 party) system.
If the working-class hadn’t voted against the establishment parties of the day (the Conservatives/Tories and the Liberals/Whigs) and not voted for a relatively new and radical Labour movement in 1929, we’d still have a 19th century political system.
The same is happening right now, we’re not yet breaking the status quo of Con-Lib-Lab, and we’re now stuck in a 20th century system… but the lessons of the past show us that we can effect change if we care enough. We need to move forward from the 20th century into the 21st century, just like we did almost 100 years ago when we left behind 19th century political norms.
Election boycotts achieve nothing if not accompanied by action. Merely sitting at home and refusing to vote will just give more power to the people whom you oppose.
It’s a very BAD idea to simply not vote. If you can’t boycott the election by being part of an active and organised campaign of advocates and activists who can organise strikes, street protests and civil unrest, then not voting is merely apathetic laziness and irresponsible cynicism.