Yes, The System Needs Changing, But It Won’t Just Change For You
October 1, 2013
by Martin Odoni
I went on a protest march this last Sunday, the 29th of September. It wasn’t the first I’ve been on, nor will it be the last, barring the putative ‘knocked-flat-by-a-passing-bus-one-unsuspecting-morning’ scenario happening in the very near future. It was a protest at the Conservative Party Conference in the centre of Manchester, chiefly against the on-the-quiet privatisation of the National Health Service (ssh about that by the way, everybody, we’re not supposed to know it’s happening; heaven knows, the BBC would be mortified if they realised that we’d found out after all their efforts not to notice it) but also against the wider impact of the deeply cruel, needless and utterly self-defeating Government program of Austerity. I don’t know whether the march will make one iota of difference to that in the long run, but I’m sure a number of Tories must have felt nervous at the endless chorus of jeers from outside. It did feel a lot better to get out there and give public voice to my displeasure than it ever does to sit on my backside huffing and scowling to myself at announcements on the news of yet more pointless cuts on the way. Yes, political activism is about applying pressure first and foremost, but for those doing it, it can also provide a measure of catharsis too. Of course, it helped enormously that so many people turned out. Cautious estimates suggested the turn-out was about fifty thousand, but I reckon it might even have been as many as seventy-five thousand. (Again, the BBC appears mysteriously not to have noticed any of us there, but hey, Chris Patten runs the Corporation these days…) That certainly beats the turn-out at the last march I joined by many scales – that was an electoral reform march in 2011, which had a turn-out of barely sixty, and seemed to peter out in embarrassment about two-thirds of the way through.
The bizarre thing about all of this though is that once upon a time, you would never have seen me at any kind of politically-driven event at all. A march? A rally? A strike? A picket? An election, even, just as an ordinary voter? Me, take part in any of those things? Never.
My reason for that was not ‘apathy’, as it is so frequently labelled by those who like to sneer at the growing political-disconnect in the modern UK without first analysing it. On the contrary, since my early teens I have had an eye firmly on the political scene, and, while always finding the dreadful theatrics and distortion of the debates and struggles to be ugly and twisted – all shallowness where there should have been depth – it still held for me a sort of horrified fascination. Part of me was desperate to grasp how power could be so disconnected from the issues that it needed to address, and how pettiness and spite of all things served as an at-times-insurmountable obstacle for grown men and women.
But just because I was watching and learning all the time through the early-1990’s, it certainly did not mean I wished to be a part of it. My feelings were that politics, especially of the type practised in the House Of Commons, was a beast that should not be ignored, for fear that it might leap on me and eat me alive the moment my back was turned, but nor should it be touched, for fear that whatever debilitating plague it was so plainly suffering from be passed to me. My view was that I would engage with politics one day, as a voter, once it had ‘got its house in order’, as it were. “The system is wrong,” I would say, “and so I refuse to take part in it until it has been reformed.” I wanted a Proportional Representation system for all elections (I still do), I wanted a ‘None Of The Above’ option added to the bottom of ballot papers (I still do), I wanted the House Of Lords to be reformed to be completely cleared of inherited peers (I still do), and I wanted the rules of the House Of Commons changed to have tougher sanctions for MP’s shown to have told lies to Parliament (I still… oh, you guessed). And until all that happened, I didn’t see any reason to un-dignify myself by interacting with such grubby traditions.
One aspect of this I recall is that, when I was about 19, my mother on one occasion got extremely angry with me about it. She felt I was just dismissing and devaluing my democratic rights. “People died to give us that vote!” she said bitterly. Ironically, this was half the point in my semi-cooked young mind. People had indeed fought wars and suffered terrible hardships and persecution to bring suffrage to the wider public, but that was partly why I wanted to abstain from voting. My ‘reasoning’ was that people had died to get us an electoral system, but this system was all that their sacrifices had led to? The First-Past-The-Post system that allowed a party with less than forty per cent of the vote to claim over sixty per cent of the seats in the Commons? The open fraud of British General Elections, so easily manipulated and dominated by money in any of a dozen glaringly obvious ways? This was what the heroes of the past had died for?
The system we had inherited from the post-war generation seemed to me like an insult to the likes of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartist Movement, and that meant that it would also insult them to engage with it while it remained in this obsolete, unsophisticated, ramshackle form. I saw voting as an endorsement of the system, an expression of satisfaction with a convention that had clearly been in dire need of an overhaul since the end of the Second World War. If I and other people refuse to vote, that will tell the establishment that there’s something wrong with the system, and they’ll change it! Simple!
Was I really that naive? Well – and my face is glowing brighter red than Mick Hucknall’s hair as I type this – yes. For a time, I was that naive.
But what gradually started to dawn on me as elections came and went over the next three or four years was that all that happened when people didn’t vote was that they were labelled Disinterested… and that was it. People in the media in particular just seemed to assume that non-voting meant non-attention and left it at that. They seldom made any real attempt to ask why growing numbers of people weren’t using their vote. Politicians too, while they might sometimes offer lip-service to engaging with the electorate more, hardly ever seemed interested as to why we weren’t engaged to begin with. I was becoming less sure of my position.
And then, after a by-election, I think it was in 1998, in which I again refused to vote, it suddenly struck me that I was getting things the wrong way around completely. The system isn’t going to change, I finally realised, because it is a system. It’s not a person. It doesn’t seek attention. In fact, much of the machinery of state in this country abhors the light-of-day being shone on it. So if you refuse to engage with it, it won’t come to you to ask you why, it’ll just carry on as it is. After all, any party in power is not going to be in much of a hurry to change the system that put it there to begin with.
And of course this realisation led to only one possible conclusion; the system wasn’t going to change just to make people like me more willing to vote. Instead, I and others who thought like me had to vote first – for parties that wanted to change the system! And I had to be willing to support, even become actively engaged in, efforts to make the changes needed, because the system was only ever likely to change when it was made to change. I started voting in every election I was eligible to from the turn of the millennium onwards, always looking for candidates who were most likely to endorse reform. This is why I chose to vote, and even to help campaign, for the Liberal Democrats during the 2010 General Election (not a decision I look back on with much satisfaction, but needs must). It was not because I agreed with their manifesto that closely, nor because I thought much of the neoliberal-leaning Nick Clegg as a leader, but because I knew they were the only major party in favour of reforming the electoral system. And with the resultant Hung Parliament and Coalition Government between the Tories and the Lib-Dems, an opening developed for precisely that. Very little good came out of it of course, because the referendum on reform produced a No vote (probably more a protest vote against Clegg’s decision to support many of the Conservative Party’s most draconian policies, especially on Education, than against the idea of electoral reform itself), but there had at least been a chance. Sure it didn’t work out, but just sitting back and not voting would not have improved those chances one jot, it would only have lessened the chances of the opening developing in the first place, and that was the calculation I had been getting so stupidly wrong for all those years.
In recent times therefore, I have found myself almost taking up my mother’s role in these kinds of conversations. I sometimes encounter young people spouting similar back-to-front codswallop about “Not-voting-will-lead-to-change!” that I had once believed myself. And I argue with them, sometimes vehemently, telling them that so long as you don’t vote for candidates who believe in change, change simply will not happen. Changes of any description will always be slow, awkward, hesitant, and yes, frequently they will bring little satisfaction, only a slight improvement to people’s lives overall. But so long as we recognise that the changes are needed, we need to find, nominate and try to elect those people who are willing and able to fight for them. Changes won’t happen by default, especially not in the realm of voting rights. By default, things will always carry on as they are. (Which is what has been happening by and large throughout the last sixty years or so. Think about it; if doing nothing is what leads to modernisation and improvement, the electoral system would improve substantially with every Parliament, regardless of who gets elected. But it doesn’t. Most changes that occur are cynical boundary-shifts between constituencies to improve the incumbent Government’s chances of staying in power after future General Elections.)
During the march on Sunday, my brother and his girlfriend were with me, but so was my mother. The mother who once told me that I was devaluing my rights, and we marched side-by-side at the weekend, exercising precisely those rights with defiance to protest against a Government that seems determined to take all such rights away.
You won that argument, mum! I never got around to formally acknowledging it until now, but thank you so much for never being remotely as dim-witted as I was way back then.