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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.