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  1. Long reads
2 May 2005

Apathetic and proud

2005 Election: the crunch - Abstaining can be a very fine thing, writes Zoe Williams, but actually I

By Zoe Williams

I had that sinking feeling, which luckily no one can see when you’re on the radio. (My face is my undoing. I once got fired from the reputable clothes shop Hobbs for having “a face that says, ‘Don’t buy that, it looks rubbish'”.) I’m a guest of Sandi Toksvig for her show on LBC, and I have a very deep-seated understanding of courteous guesthood: don’t eat too much, try not to smoke all the way through and, above all, don’t disagree with your hostess. Or if you do, not too forcefully. We’re off air while someone tells listeners what the weather’s like. “I don’t care who people vote for,” Sandi says in her frankly beautiful voice, “so long as they do vote.”

Yet increasingly, I take the opposite view – I don’t care whether people vote or not, so long as they don’t give a mandate to someone they 25 per cent agree with, and spend the next four years kicking themselves. Pathetic as I am, I never actually share this with Sandi, let alone any of her listeners. This is the great unsaid of election time: that refusing to vote isn’t necessarily apathetic, and apathy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is heresy. And Sandi doesn’t know me well enough to realise that I’m right-on in all kinds of other ways.

Abstaining is so little defended that I get canvassed upon it in various media (well, papers and the telly). I’ve hooked myself on to some kind of “apathetic and proud of it” database of one. I am way too old for the demographic epicentre of can’t-be-bothered (18 to 24), but I’m the right gender. I honestly believe that people think I’ll show up and say: “Nah, man, talk to the hand, ‘cos the face ain’t listening . . . Or, er, talk to the toes, ‘cos the hand ain’t gonna tick none of them boxes . . .”

So, anyway, some days later, I arrive on The Daily Politics (BBC2) to argue with Al Murray on this very topic. He’s way funnier than I am. It’s a dangerous game, arguing with people who are funnier than you, because just when you get a head of steam up, they can deflate you by saying something really funny. With this in mind, I have already decided not to let my argument develop in any way; I’m just going to say the same thing over and over again. But obviously, I lose my cool immediately.

Strike one: I hate to be told that “people died to give us the vote”. This is often levelled, especially at women, as if a couple of militants hurling themselves at sporting events ever did anything, long term, for anyone’s political clout. We would have got the vote anyway, ladies. Fair play to the suffragettes, but let not their blood gull us into feeling grateful to society for its beneficence. Besides, if we were going to honour the sacrifice of our forebears, we’d still be lobbying for a communist Spain in memory of George Orwell.

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Strike two: I hate to be told that people who don’t vote essentially abnegate their right to complain about anything. Voting should be an active process. You give your support to a candidate whom you trust to represent your views. Politicians, when they talk about compulsory voting schemes, seem genuinely to think that we should be happy to support the person we distrust the least. I’m not at all happy about that – I might just as well support West Ham because they’re slightly less racist than Millwall.

Strike three: it is simply not the case that abstentions have no impact on the way the country is run. For a start, a 40 per cent or greater no-show has a discernible impact on the atmosphere at Westminster. Yes, yes, that’s a bit limp. It’s not very scientific. But interminable box-crossing for the candidate you’re lukewarm (at best) about simply contributes to the triangulation of politics, where the major parties inch closer to one another, trying to swipe each other’s support. Wilful staying-away radicalises people, as was shown so forcefully in Howard Dean’s 2000 US presidential campaign: he said he was seeking support, not among George W Bush’s voters, nor even Al Gore’s, but from “the 50 per cent of Americans who quit voting”. Dean didn’t win the Democratic nomination. None the less, I like the grace of his doctorly mind, and I often quote him on this. Murray, needless to say, did not even need a witty one-liner to take the wind out of this one. He just pulled a funny face.

The truth is, I am going to vote, for the same reason that I put a bet on the Grand National: my horse won’t win (it shall be a Liberal Democrat horse, for the first time in my life; you could call it a horse of a different colour), but really, what kind of evening down the pub would it be if I had no stake at all? This is the anti-apathy argument you hear least often, but I think it might yet be the most watertight.

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