Today I'll be voting Proudhon

The joys of not voting

Today is a rite of passage for me—not because it'll be my first vote in Scottish election, but because it'll see my first spoiled ballot. I've organised a postal vote for the occasion, so as to register maximum discontent. There's something pleasingly absurd about going to the trouble of having ballot papers sent to me for spoiling, but I've now at last reached the point where I just don't feel able to vote any more.

Until now, at each election I've been a voter in—from Parliamentary to Student Union—I've caved in to the feeling that my vote will have an effect in the world. I've even stood in a couple. Many anarchist colleagues report similar feelings, giving each other accusing looks all the way down to the polling station. We may not believe in “representative” democracy, but by Godwin we want to make sure the wrong person doesn't get in.

This year, for me, that pressure's particularly heavy. My constituency, Orkney, was until this year represented by Jim Wallace, former deputy first minister and a seemingly unassailable candidate. But with his departure from active politics there's seen to be a political vacuum in the islands that the parties are rushing to fill. Our new Tory candidate particularly has run a stellar campaign, pushing hard on local hot button issues. Frightened of her potential victory, and without a Green or Socialist candidate this year, I know much of the Orkney left is looking askance at the box next to the new Liberal Democrat candidate in a flurry of tactical voting.

But not I. This year I give up. Not from apathy or laziness, but because I just don't believe in it any more. I've been joking about the things I could do with my ballot papers—practicing my origami, making confetti for student theatre, supplementing my flat's supply of Tesco Value toilet-paper—and my friends laugh, and then give me a very odd look. Not wanting to vote is quite like being a vehement atheist: everyone resents you for adopting the extreme position that they desperately hope isn't true. And you're just a little frightening.

Anyway, I'm going to fill in the ballot paper boxes with little anarchy symbols and smiley faces now, covering the remaining space with quotations from Proudhon. Beyond bringing a smile to the face of the counters, I don't quite know what I hope to achieve with this. I don't know what happens to the deliberately spoiled ballots, except being announced in a folorn little number alongside all the mistakes people make at the polling stations. Part of me hopes that someone somewhere reads the messages people write, and that they're all compiled into a dossier in a dusty room somewhere—but I think that's the same part of me that believed that voting was meaningful.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition