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30 April 2015updated 01 May 2015 10:27am

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.

By Rhiannon Cosslett

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.

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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? 

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