Voting for me, me, me!

How did casting a ballot become an exercise in personal protest?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Never mind ‘Who will you vote for?’, I have another question: what is voting all about these days?

There was a time when casting your ballot was an individual action for a collective end, which you hoped would result in your favoured candidate getting a seat in parliament and a say in politics. Now, voting seems to be an individual action for an individual end. From the tactical voting lobby to the vote-swapping lobby to the Guardian columnist encouraging voters to put a peg on their noses (literally) and vote Labour, crossing the ballot, for some, has become about making a personal display of disgruntlement or a petulant cry against the big bad world (and especially big bad Blair). This is voting for me, me, me – and it doesn’t get my vote.

At a time when politics has been pretty much emptied of meaningful content – when there is less than ever to distinguish between Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems – some approach voting as a number-crunching exercise. Tactical voting has taken off among Labour voters who don’t like New Labour (or Blair to be more precise). Websites like John Harris’ So Now Who Do We Vote For? (already discussed on spiked here) give constituency-by-constituency advice about where you can safely register a protest vote against New Labour without letting the Tories back in. Indeed, the site’s authors say ‘we have no wish whatsoever to see Labour out of office’. This is a self-consciously impotent protest vote, where you know you won’t change (indeed, don’t want to change) the big picture, but you can at least say: ‘I’m angry.’ (1)

When a man’s vote is seen more as a number than an expression of political will, it is not surprising that votes can now be bought and sold. Not literally, of course: it is still against the law to exchange votes for money. But some tactical voting sites, including, encourage vote-swapping. For example, take a Lib Dem voter who thinks he ought to vote Labour this time because otherwise there’s a chance the Tories will get in around his way: he uses the internet, under Tactical Voter’s guidance, to search for a Labour voter who is willing to vote Lib Dem on his behalf, and can thus vote Labour safe in the knowledge that a hundred miles away his internet contact is voting Lib Dem (2). It is a sign of the cheapening of British politics that votes can be traded, e-bay style, in the run-up to an election.

Tactical voting isn’t restricted to disgruntled webheads. The Independent and the New Statesman have run major features on voting tactics (3). You could argue that all voting is tactical voting these days, and every vote a protest vote: the three parties encourage us to vote for them, not on the basis of what they have to offer, but as a means of keeping the other guys out. The latest New Labour ad has a close-up shot of Michael Howard’s mug and the words ‘Vote Labour…or you could wake up with him on 6 May’. Labour also warns that voting Lib Dem might lead to a Tory victory, which is exactly what the tactical voting websites warn, though they warn of it only in certain constituencies. The Tories say that if you can’t abide Blair and want to wipe the smirk off his face, you should vote Tory.

Where tactical voters want to give Blair ‘a bloody nose’, the Tories want to stop him from grinning. Is that what voting is for – to put the wind up politicians we don’t like, to re-arrange Blair’s facial features rather than the political landscape? It is telling that tactics have played a central role in this election campaign. To be tactical is to tweak the arrangements rather than to overhaul them; it comes from the Greek taktike techne, meaning the ‘art of arrangement’. In military terms, according to my OED, tactical operations are of ‘less long-term significance than strategic operations’. In an election of little political substance, with no real debate or choice, we are left only with tactics, where we become little more than pawns in a bigger game we feel we cannot influence. The rise of the tactical mirrors the absence of political principles, and a sense of powerlessness on the part of many voters.

Even some of those who know they will be voting Labour seem to do so in an increasingly individuated way. There is a group of Labour Party members and trade unionists who want to ‘Reclaim the Party’, who say you should ‘Vote Labour against Blair’. This is where you vote Labour (of which Blair is leader, remember), while telling as many people as you can that ‘Blair is not Labour – he is the man of war, deregulation, privatisation, and de-industrialisation’ (4). So even a vote for the ruling party can apparently be a tactical vote against, er, the leader of the ruling party.

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has been sending out nose pegs to those irritated by some of what Labour has done but who know that it is ‘necessary’ to vote for them again. The nose pegs say ‘Vote Labour’ on them, and the Guardian literally wants people to wear them in the voting booth – it is encouraging individuals to take photographs of themselves with nose pegs attached for a follow-up feature on the ‘nose peg voters’. Apparently, demand for the pegs has been high, and ‘with each request for a peg comes a long cry of pain about why voting Labour this time is so difficult and yet so necessary’ (5). Here, voting becomes a moral statement about the self: ‘Look, I might be voting New Labour, but I’m a Good Decent Person and like all good decent people I dislike Tony Blair.’ Both as a vote and a protest, isn’t that about as shallow as it gets? You vote for a party that you dislike so much you have to hold your nose while doing it, while simultaneously protesting against that party for the cameras and a sense of self-satisfaction.

Or perhaps the role of the voter is nothing more than taking a couple of minutes during the ad break in Celebrity Wrestling to fill in a form, stick it in an envelope, and post it to your local counting office? Postal voting has caused a storm of controversy in this election campaign following revelations of vote-stealing and corruption. Perhaps nothing shows up the degradation of the vote more than the postal system. For the New Labour elite, feeling itself increasingly disconnected from the electorate, making available the postal vote was a desperate bid to get more of us voting and the numbers up. Yet in the process, they made voting into something entirely passive, akin to paying a gas bill.

What is a voter, then? Voters once represented the voice of rationality in British politics; for all the vast faults of the political and electoral system, it fell to us to decide who were the best men and women for the job of running the country. Indeed, voting made us, in some ways, more important than the politicians: next to their narrow self-interest and sometimes petty politics, the will of the mass was infinitely more rational and trustworthy. What are we now? Tacticians? Numbers on a piece of paper? Poseurs who put pegs on our noses while casting our ballots? Today’s doubt and uncertainty about whether to vote, what to vote for, how to vote and what it means to vote reveals a lot about the degraded state of British politics, protest and democracy.

Read on:

spiked-issue: UK Election 2005

(1) See So Now Who Do We Vote For?

(2) See Tactical Voter

(3) ‘Key battlegrounds: 100 seats for tactical voting’, Independent, 4 May 2005

(4) See Vote Labour against Blair, 18 April 2005

(5) Snap yourself with a nose peg, Polly Toynbee, Guardian Blog, May 2005

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Topics Politics


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