The power of vote spoiling

More constructive than dissecting Russell Brand’s latest spiel about voting is to think about what this whole incident says about Labour’s relationship with its potential voters.Most of the criticisms of Brand from the left, which weren’t petty and personal, focus on what he says about voting. His position is fairly unambiguous: ‘I don’t vote and I don’t think you should either.’ This is not particularly new or interesting – voting doesn’t change anything, so don’t bother. Given how society works, elections simply do not in any meaningful way translate what the electorate want into government policy.

Brand saying this is worrying for Labour supporters, because the people he is speaking to weren’t going to vote Conservative anyway, but they are potential Labour voters. As far as this section of the electorate is concerned, he makes a fairly good point, and that’s enough to dissuade them from going to the polling station. Every person who pays attention to Brand is a lost vote for Labour, and so his tirade is tacitly helping the Conservatives to stay in power.

Of course, for someone who genuinely believes that politicians are all the same, this should make no difference. But there are plenty of left-wingers out there who don’t. So what can a grassroots Labour supporter say to the apathetic Russell Brand viewer?  Well, in order to have any credibility, they first have to concede that the current political system is structured in such a way that individuals will never be properly represented. They accept that politicians will always be able to break promises with impunity and act to protect special interests.

Things may always be bad, they say, but with Labour in power, things will be slightly less bad. Yes, we’ll still have tuition fees, but they won’t be £16k. Yes, royal mail will be privatised, but the NHS sort of won’t be. Yes, we’ll keep asylum seeker children in detention centres, but we won’t get rid of disability benefits. Probably.Here they are resorting to the lesser of two evils argument. Whoever wins is going to be incompetent, but the tiny difference between the two competing candidates really does matter in a lot of very important ways for a lot of people.

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In light of Russell Brand’s claim that it is ‘a far more potent political act’ to completely disengage, I think this argument deserves a bit more scrutiny. Two important things are happening here. First of all, they are claiming that a Labour government will in fact be better than a Tory one. I’ve spent the last two decades thinking that at least we can be certain that the Tories are the biggest baddies, but after 13 years of New Labour and a distinct lack of any coherent agenda in opposition, this is no longer to be taken for granted. However, for argument’s sake, let’s say that there are some important substantive differences, but in future the Labour supporter is going to have to work a bit harder than just relying on our instinctive revulsion for all things Conservative. But even if we grant them this much, they have not yet proven Brand wrong.

The point is that there is a third electoral option, where you express of contempt for current system, which is what Brand is advocating. Now here I would say that he has messed up a bit, because not voting certainly may reflect apathy towards a system that doesn’t do what it purports to, but it equally may reflect the fact that you just couldn’t be arsed. Vote spoiling is infinitely superior in this respect, because if you go to the polling station and draw an obscenity on your ballot, then at least no one can accuse you of being lazy and giving tacit consent to whoever wins. In this way, spoiling your vote can be seen as a vote for ‘no tacit consent, I want more fundamental change’ Note that with voting, you can’t have it both ways – either you give your tacit consent or you withhold it. Of course, here people say ‘well, if you care so much, why don’t you engage in other kinds of political activity to change things?’ But this is misguided – vote spoiling doesn’t preclude engaging in other kinds of political activity, it’s just one aspect we’re discussing here.

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In the UK spoilt ballots are counted, not for anything, but the numbers get recorded. This means something. Firstly, it means that you can avoid perpetuating this absurd charade that somehow your x in a box reflects your views. But on a more pragmatic level vote spoiling may also serves the long-term purpose of pushing Labour to be more responsive. If Labour is made aware that large-scale vote spoiling is directly related to its complacency, and not just apathy, then this may through brutal electoral defeats act as a tool to force them to be responsive to those they claim to represent.

Now, looking closely at the Labour supporter’s argument when directed at Brand, what they are actually saying is that they are the lesser of three evils. They aren’t just marginally better than the Tories, but they are also better than using your vote on this third option. It is better choose high-probability, short term, small gains (no NHS privatisation etc.) than it is to choose low-probability, long term, large gains (fundamental restructuring of political system).

Remember none of the above entails not engaging with other kinds of political activity. Labour’s job is, firstly, to show they will genuinely be better than the Conservatives, then they also have to show that the short term gains of them in power is also worth more than the symbolic and potentially substantive long term gains of spoiling your vote. They can probably do it, but I want to hear it first.