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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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.