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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.