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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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.