Can you be political and yet still doubt if you want to vote? Photo: Getty
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Why I’m thinking about spoiling my ballot

As a girl in a rural area on free school meals with a single mum and a disabled brother, a big rude “f*** them all” was the only political message that appealed to me. And maybe it still does.

I’ve been thinking about spoiling my ballot. It’s a thought that’s been festering at the back of my mind for a while now, but the moment it started oozing angry gloop was in mid-March, when Rachel Reeves declared that Labour was “not the party of people on benefits”. Right. I thought. Who do I vote for now? Because, while I may not be on benefits anymore, I did grow up on them, and I’d like to support a party that is for the most vulnerable in society, not one made up of people who probably secretly regard me as a scrounging layabout or – even worse – are merely paying lip service to the rhetoric in order to win votes. And, though I may not be on benefits at this moment in time, I know that the “deadline to breadline” for the average working age family in the UK is just two weeks. Two weeks after the main breadwinner’s income is lost, and the average UK family would only have handouts to look to.

This is the first general election for which I will enter the polling booth. And I will enter it, whether it’s to vote or, as I have been thinking, to spoil my voting paper, which I still feel counts as “participating”. Women died so that I could have the vote, so the least I can do is show up. But spoiling still does not sit easy with me. At school we learned about the Cat and Mouse Act, about the force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes. I knew that the price of demanding that women’s voices be heard had been having a tube stuck down your throat by a man as two others held you down. A woman’s vote had been hard won, so why waste mine?

I always adhered to the argument that – male or female – you had no right to criticise the democratic process if you refused to participate in it. To do so now would be hypocritical, or so I thought. I’m 27 and I have never voted, yet have been vocal in my opposition to this government. I marched on Millbank and stood by while windows were smashed to cries of “Tory scum”. I have been chased through Parliament Square by police horses, and stood kettled and shivering for hours on end. I’ve written articles about politics and spoken on the radio, yet I’ve never voted, and over the course of this latest general election, I have become more and more disillusioned with politics.

Have I become the hypocrite? I can see why Russell Brand’s “don’t vote, they’re all the same” rhetoric has tapped into young people’s feelings of apathy because I’ve felt it, but, aside from the fact that his revolution does not seem to be one that includes women as equals, I find there to be something off about someone with such a prominent voice encouraging silence on the part of the voiceless. But then: what makes him any worse than me? I didn’t vote in 2010, and woke up the next morning on someone else’s sofa, fully dressed and reeking, to the sound of Boris Johnson being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. He was talking about sausages or, rather, describing the coalition using the analogy of a sausage sandwich. “The meat of the sausage will be Conservative,” he said.

I thought this surreal exchange was a comedown-induced hallucination, but no; more an ominous sign of things to come; Boris the affable wind-up clown parachuted in with all the subtlety of a hand grenade, to distract, as always, from public scrutiny of his cold, ruthless spambot of a mate who lurks in the shadows like an incubus fashioned from mortadella. I think it’s clear that I will never vote Tory.

This weaponising of Boris is still going on now. My grandmother phoned me up on Sunday morning and asked me if I’d seen him and Ed Miliband arguing on The Andrew Marr Show. I hadn’t. Just two more men arguing, I thought, in what has been a general election full of men arguing. I’d rather Leanne Wood, Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon’s group hug. But I can’t vote Plaid, I’m not in Wales.

I have never felt so disenchanted, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s difficult to find the energy to engage with politics when you’re living it, whether it’s because you can’t afford your rent, are unemployed or disabled and struggling. Perhaps your mum’s crying on the phone to the DSS again because your money’s been stopped, and grey men in grey suits are all on telly talking about “shirkers” when they mean you, and your family. The people you love.

Young people are particularly disenchanted, perhaps because they are constantly “othered” by politicians. Policies are rarely tailored towards us and those that are feel like lip service. It’s well known that a large proportion of young people don’t vote. In the last election, only 44 per cent of people aged 18-24 turned out, while almost double that number of over-65s. Why address a demographic that doesn’t vote, you might argue, but equally: why vote for a politician who never addresses you? Similarly, why engage with political coverage that largely ignores you and assumes a level of prior knowledge going back decades?

My engagement with politics, and that of a lot of people of my generation, is satire. Whether it was Have I Got News for You, The News Quiz, Brasseye, early Mock the Week and later, The Thick of It and Stewart Lee. Unlike the political geekery of most mainstream news coverage, comedy appealed to me because, despite often being created by those who were themselves part of the establishment, it seemed to me to embody a healthy disrespect for authority. As a girl in a rural area on free school meals with a single mum and a disabled brother, a big rude “fuck them all” was the only political message that appealed to me. And maybe it still does, hence the ballot spoiling temptation.

A London Review of Books piece from 2013 argues that cynical anti-establishment satire can breed a kind of political inaction, citing one of Boris Johnson’s appearances on Have I Got News For You as an example. Comedy, it argues, can have a deadening effect. It defuses difficult questions, to the point where we’re in danger as a nation of “sinking sniggering into the sea”. The problem is that politicians often refuse to answer difficult questions altogether. What’s left, except mockery?

The internet has shown young people a new way of doing politics – one that’s heavily tinged with irreverence, and news organisations are yet to keep up. Disillusionment with the pale, male and stale is palpable, and it’s not just the politicians, but the journalists too. I have never felt as though my voice as a young female writer mattered less than I have during this general election.

When I told a colleague that I was thinking about ballot spoiling, he seemed surprised. “You’ve always struck me as quite political,” he said. “That’s why,” I said.

Too political for politicians? Perhaps, but when I started to unpick my desire to spoil further it was a frustrated desire for democracy that I hit upon. Not only is first past the post undemocratic, but it necessitates the kind of nose peg voting that to me, takes all the passion and belief out of politics. I am in a safe labour seat, so my vote or lack of it makes no difference (talk about another passion killer) I would like to see the Tories out, but a Labour committed to further austerity is never going to appeal to me, even when they let me eat their free canapés. The Greens, meanwhile, are engaging in fantasy politics.

And either way, a middle-aged white man with a PPE degree will be prime minister. That’s the choice that I’ve been given. What else can I do, as a young feminist and a progressive with a belief in the preciousness of the welfare state, except spoil? 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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