Votes being counted in Scotland last year. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
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There may be nothing to vote for — but there's plenty to vote against

Not voting isn't passive, but it only works if politicians care what you think. To be counted, you have to step into the ballot box - if only to register your disgust.

This isn’t going to be a guilt trip. There’s a set of standard arguments you’re supposed to make to persuade people to vote when there’s nothing to vote for. I could tell you that it’s your civic duty. I could tell you that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain. I could remind you that generations of men and women gave their lives and limbs for your right to select the shyster whose necktie you least despise. All of these arguments are nonsense.

It’s the one about the suffragettes that gets me every time. You see, the suffragettes didn’t want the vote because they believed in the parliamentary establishment. They weren’t just a lot of placard-waving biddies in implausible hats. These were people whose idea of a strong political statement was wrapped around a brick and hurled through a minister’s window. They were considered terrorists and treated as such by the police. They wanted the vote because they believed that it was a means by which the disenfranchised – in this case, women – could be taken seriously as political agents.

Not so long ago, some of us believed that change could come from within the system. We were wrong. I endorsed the Liberal Democrats in 2010, a fact that tops the long list of stupid things I did in my early twenties, but the feeling of hope was genuine and so was the pain of betrayal. Now, many people feel that the best way to deal with this depressing situation is not to vote at all. I don’t admire that choice but I respect it. Refusing to vote, after all, is not a sign of passivity. It is an act of passive aggression and passive aggression is something the British have a talent for. It’s an unlimited national resource, like rainy schooldays and former PR men with faces like boiled ham running for parliament on rafts of brittle promises.

But the thing about passive aggression is that it is effective only if the person it is directed at cares what you think. Anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship knows that when someone only really cares about having power over you, they don’t care if you’re passive-aggressive, just as long as you’re mostly passive.

And that is what we’re dealing with in this election. The Tories, in particular, would prefer you not to vote, especially if you are young or poor or a welfare claimant. They would prefer not to have to count you among the people who matter.

It hurts to write that. It hurts even to think about it. But I have watched the same debates and read the same insipid press releases and lived on the same anxious, bitter clutch of islands where you have lived for the past five years. I’ve watched the Tories trash the welfare state, tear up the social contract and send in the riot squads to round up and beat down any person who dared to voice their dissent without filling in a form and shuffling politely into line. I’ve watched the Liberal Democrats roll over and let them do it. I’ve watched the Labour Party trade away a century of goodwill by failing to provide any alternative to austerity, capitulating to right-wing lies, tossing the sick, the poor and the vulnerable out like ballast as the hot air of political consensus blows rightwards. I’ve watched Ukip fear-monger its way to a platform in a way that would be utterly inexplicable if the progressive parliamentary establishment wasn’t so spineless it has to be propped up to deliver its soundbites.

What are we supposed to do with this rotating cast of political disappointments, this hydra with a hundred arseholes? How do we express our disgust for this antique shell of a democracy? I wish, more than anything, that there was a simple answer. The truth is far more complex and infinitely sadder: whatever the outcome of this election, there is a battle ahead for anyone who believes in social justice. The truth right now is that there is only one choice you get, and that’s the face of your enemy. The candidates aren’t all the same but they look similar enough if you squint: a narrow palette of inertia and entitlement. We made the mistake of thinking they were all the same in 2010, that the Tories could not possibly be worse than New Labour. Turns out we were wrong. The question on the table isn’t whether we’ll ever get the government we deserve. The question is whether we want the next five years to be disastrous or merely depressing. The choice is between different shades of disillusion.

That’s hardly a slogan to get the blood pumping. My own pulse has remained steady, save for those moments when Nigel Farage appears on TV talking about immigrants bringing HIV to Britain and doing his dastardly trick of making David Cameron look reasonable, at which point the vein in my temple starts hammering like it’s trapped behind the door of a burning building. Thankfully, voting is not where democracy begins and ends. It never has been.

Democracy, as the scholar and activist Howard Zinn writes, “is not the counting up of votes, but the counting up of actions”. The change that most people in Britain want to see is not being offered at this election. That change will come only if people fight for it. It will take direct action. It will take courage, and work, and time, and more work. The suffragettes understood that. They understood that democracy does not end at the ballot box. If we are lucky, it starts there. It starts with choosing your enemy.

Right now, there may not be much to vote for but there’s plenty to vote against. Go out and vote, if you can stand it, and I hope you can. Vote in disgust. Vote in despair. If I see you at the polling station with a grin on your face, I will worry, unless you have the good fortune to be Scottish. Vote against bigotry, hatred and fear. Vote today and change the world tomorrow. We are not as powerless as they would have us believe. Choose your enemy and choose wisely. Good luck.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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