A number of my friends have today written “Happy New Year” messages on Facebook with strongly political content: 2015 is the year to “get rid of the Tories” or “kick out the ConDem coalition”.
I couldn’t agree more with the desire to get rid of this nasty, petty, poor-hating government. The government is so awful that many people would understandably accept almost any alternative. This is itself is a problem, for if we choose the lesser of two evils, we are still choosing evil.
I will have a sense of relief if Labour replaces Cameron in the general election this May. But I do mean “relief”, not joy or celebration. A Labour government would be slightly better than a Tory one.
Despite Tony Blair’s attempts this week to portray Miliband as some sort of radical leftie, the reality is that Miliband’s policies are basically pro-austerity. Miliband has bought into the ConDem rhetoric about “reducing the deficit” (although the deficit is not high in either historical or international terms). He is not committed to reversing most of the Tory benefit cuts and is firmly behind the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.
True, Labour is committed to scrapping the bedroom tax, introducing a mansion tax, raising the minimum wage and taking action on zero-hours contracts and energy prices (although the details seem worryingly vague). If all this happens, I’ll be very pleased, although it’s only scratching the surface in terms of building a fairer economy. My fear is that Miliband will be pushed to the right once in office and these policies will be watered down or scrapped altogether. Virtually every Labour Prime Minister has moved to the right once in power; the exception is Tony Blair, who was already too far to the right to move any further.
Things might be better if a minority Labour government has to do deals with the SNP (or, if things are very close, even with Plaid Cymru and the Greens) to remain in power. However, I’m not optimistic about Trident renewal being prevented in this way alone (a minority Labour government could rely on Tory votes to get Trident through). Further, we would need to keep campaigning to hold minority parties to their progressive pre-election promises once the sniff of power reaches them.
Nonetheless, I will never agree with those who say that the election result makes no difference. Even a slight improvement on the current situation is welcome. This does not mean that a slight improvement should be our aim.
When the suffragists and Chartists campaigned so hard for the vote to be extended to women and working class men, they believed the vote was the most powerful tool for bringing about change. Indeed, the vote has been used to bring about some pretty massive social changes: the National Health Service would not exist at all were it not for the Labour landslide of 1945. At the same time, we must remember that this was an election result made possible only by the growth of left-wing ideas during the second world war, ideas which spread at the grassroots rather than through formal political processes.
Most suffrage campaigners did not foresee that power would move away from Parliament, making the vote less relevant. Economic changes that are sometimes lumped together as “globalisation” have globalised wealth and power but have not globalised democracy. Even if a genuinely progressive government were to be elected, it would struggle to follow progressive policies in the face of the vast power wielded by multinational corporations and other unaccountable vested interests. As it is, most party leaderships are stuffed full of people who have an interest in basically preserving the status quo and who see corporations as their allies rather than as a threat to democracy.
This is why I respect people who take a principled decision not to vote. They do not want to legitimise an unfair system. But while I respect them, I take a different position. I believe in using what power we do have, as well as taking advantage of the results – however limited – of our ancestors’ campaigns for the vote. The system is already morally bankrupt; low turnouts have not led to is rejection.
Voting is only a small part of democracy. If we had to choose between voting or working for change in other ways, I would choose the later. If voting makes anyone feel that other forms of activism are unnecessary, I would rather they did not vote. However, it is possible to vote and at the same time to take to the streets, to the media, to the internet and to the picket lines to work for change.
So I will go out on the morning of 7th May and vote for what I believe in, or as near to what I believe in as I am able to. I do not yet know who I will vote for; I don’t know who the candidates will be in my area. The constituency I live in goes by the quaint name of Cities of London and Westminster, although I am not sure that I will still be living here in May. It is a rock-solid Tory seat and you might well say that my vote will make no difference. This will not stop me expressing my view through the ballot box, just as I will express it on the streets and in the media.
So what should someone like me do during the election campaign? Carry on as normal, as I believe the election is only one event in democracy? Throw myself in to campaigning for left-wing candidates, hoping that a strong vote for parties such as the Greens and Plaid Cymru will send a message even if they have no chance of taking power?
To be honest, I’m not sure and I haven’t decided. I’m willing to campaign for candidates and parties when I share many of their views, as long as they do not believe that elections are the only way to achieve change. I have a lot of time for the Green Party and back many of their policies, but I am nervous of how Greens elsewhere in Europe have moved rapidly to the right, notably in Germany and the Republic of Ireland. I could campaign for the Greens while being to the left of many of their members, but part of me wonders if I would be very different from those left-wingers who join Labour despite disagreeing with many of its policies. When it comes to much smaller outfits such as the Peace Party, my instinct is to ask them, “Why don’t you just join the Greens, who you agree with on most things?”. But is that any different to Labour left-wingers asking Greens why they don’t just join Labour?
As you can tell, I have more questions than answers about involvement in election campaigns. They are questions to myself at least as much as to anyone else, and I would value your thoughts. I know that several of my friends and comrades will refuse to vote and see participation in the election as collusion with an unjust system. At the same time, other friends and comrades, who in many ways are just as left-wing, will be enthusiastically campaigning for particular candidates or parties.
There is one thing I am confident about: we can use the election to campaign, whether or not we vote. With the media focused obsessively on the party leaders for several weeks in April and May, creative protests and interventions can have at least some influence on the course of political and media debate. For example, the four leaders on whom the London-based media will concentrate – Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – will not be talking about Trident. We can be thankful that Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett will talk about it, but let’s not rely on this alone. If we can find opportunities to challenge leading politicians about Trident, face-to-face or as close as we can get, during election time, they will at least be caught on camera and draw some public attention.
It’s only one tactic, of course, on only one issue. But effective activism requires creativity as well as persistence and a diversity of methods. That’s why I’ll be trying to do things like this, as well as casting my vote according to my beliefs. And whatever the result, I’ll be out on the streets after the election as well as before, because justice comes from below and never, never from above.