© 2023 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: 28th April 2023.
Length: ~4,000 words.
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Instead of a more general ‘alternative’ news commentary, this time I’ll focus on a single, pressing issue: Why it is that ‘I Can’t Vote’, and ‘I Won’t Vote’. There’s a lot of noise about the forthcoming local elections, and changes to the voting system; but there’s little discussion about the crisis of ‘representation’ as a whole, and why it’s causing so many people not to vote at all.
It’s something I flagged1 five years ago after the 2017 election2; and academics have noted3 similar problems too. Yet despite the mounting evidence – perhaps due to their own complicity in this process – the political commentariat seem unwilling to explore the significant fall in political participation over the last three decades; and what that means for the legitimacy of our government and politics.
Now, I know this is something that’ll annoy the fluffy liberals who always tell me, “you have to vote because so many people sacrificed so much to get the right to vote.” My reply to that, is: That’s precisely why I’m saying this; and why we have to question whether that system has produced any valid results for the last half-century.
We have to draw the line somewhere. For me, that’s the point where participation in the process implies a willing acceptance of it. That’s what the coming election represents for me: From the redrawing of constituency boundaries; to putting conditions on who can vote; to the entire ‘first-past-the-post’ system itself – our electoral system is not ‘representative’ of the public will.
As is my preference, I’ll begin with a large dose of data – the results of the 27 general elections over the last century. When we look at how these trends have emerged, we see a contradictory message to the model of ‘representation’ popularised by the mass media, and which is blindly repeated by many who can imagine no alternative to it.
The first call for free4, representative elections in England began with The Levellers5 in the 1640s; a call that would not – as a result of Parliament's increasingly violent repression of dissent6 – be seriously heard again7 for two centuries, with the founding of ‘Chartism’ in 18388. The Chartist’s demands were: Equal voting rights (for all men) without the need to hold property to qualify; a secret ballot; and that ordinary people should be allowed to stand for election. It would take another century for this to be realised.
Before the Twentieth Century, to qualify to vote a man (and some women) had to earn a certain income or own property. This was tweaked at various times over the Nineteenth Century. It was not until 19189 that significant numbers of men, and some women, were permitted to vote. By the general election of 1922 the electorate had grown to 21 million, from the 7 million permitted to vote in 1918. Finally, in 192910, men and women had the right to vote on an equal basis – increasing the electorate to almost 30 million.
In the election of 1931, Stanley Baldwin received the highest vote share of any modern government: 64% of the votes cast, which, on a turnout of 76%, was 49% of the electorate. High turnouts continued into the post-war period. In 1955, Anthony Eden’s Conservative government was the last single party to be elected with more than half of the votes cast – though by now this represented less than 40% of the whole electorate.
It was the 1960s which marked the turning-point, when the modern trend in election results emerged: Turnout would fall progressively over time; and the vagaries of ‘first-past-the-post’11 voting would create increasingly spurious results as governments were elected on a smaller proportion of the electorate. For example, Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 ‘landslide’12 election was the lowest vote she received in all of her three election wins.
The greatest change happened over the 2000s, in response to the new model of politics ushered in by Tony Bliar. Voter turnout collapsed – from the mid-70% range to below 60%. Bliar’s 2005 election win13 would see Labour’s vote sink to 35% of the votes cast, representing just over one-fifth of the whole electorate.
In the aftermath of New Labour’s collapse, following the financial crash, the 2010 Coalition government14 – which, as was pointed out at the time, ‘no-one voted for’ – received a majority of the votes cast (59%), which on a turnout of 65% was less than two-fifths of the electorate. As the LibDem’s took the blame15 for allowing austerity, David Cameron’s 2015 election win16 almost hit Bliar’s worst result – winning with 37% of the votes cast from less than a quarter of the electorate.
Then came Brexit, and the Tory Party’s lurch to the right as they were infiltrated and taken-over to create ‘Blukip’17 – an increasingly hard-right, exclusionary faction of Tories, devoted to turning Britain back into a socially conservative 1950s Utopia. All this happened with the support of less than one-third of the electorate – and 2019’s ‘Get Brexit Done’18 election, had a lower turnout than the Brexit referendum itself.
What a century of election results show is that, since the 1950s: The size of the electorate in Britain has grown at an almost constant, linear rate, from about 34 to 47 million (38%); yet turnout has increased at a slower rate, from around 25 to 32 million (28%); and at the same time, the amount of votes it takes to elect a government has barely risen, from about 13 million to 14 million (8%). It’s this fundamental disconnect in ‘representation’ which is slowly degrading our national politics.
In the Nineteenth Century, as governments slowly extended the voting franchise, they made sure that this new system could not over-turn – as both the Levellers and Chartists wished to do – the basis of economic, and thus political power in Britain.
Parliament introduced the ‘semblance’ of political representation, without actually giving that representation any direct power over Parliament – which might undermine the economic power of England’s centuries-old elite. That’s why today, as the standard and behaviour of our Parliamentarians decline, the public still has no actual ability to demand that the political parties provide us with better candidates to choose from. Around 1% of the population are members of a political party19; and as recent Labour and Conservative sagas show, membership does not guarantee influence over leaders or candidates.
As we move into the Twenty-First Century, all mainstream political parties are subservient to the same ideological model:
This disconnect between our democratic assumptions and reality is the result of Britain’s political22 and media class23 being selected from a narrow social spectrum. As a consequence, studies show that both politicians and the media class consistently believe the public to be24 further to the political right than they actually are.
Unfortunately, looking to the future of this cosy system of establishment patronage25, ‘there’s something wrong with the children’:
Today we are seeing – if the mainstream media could be bothered to examine it – a historic over-turning of the political alignment between successive generations: The older generations (‘Boomers’26 and ‘Gen-X’27) who inherited the expectations of the affluent consumer society; versus the younger generations who – from house prices, to climate change, to job insecurity – must live with the consequences of that past orgy of material consumption.
John Burn-Murdoch – a fellow data-obsessive who writes for the Financial Times – wrote an article28 in December 2022 showing why the trends of the last seventy years are ending: ‘Millennials’29, unlike previous generations, are not shifting their political views to the right as they age; they are actually becoming more radical.
Much like the backlash against youth culture in the 1950s and 1960s, the current ‘culture war’30 is the mainstream-right’s answer to this trend: Trying to stifle this more liberal generation’s failure to ‘live up to expectations’ by challenging the legitimacy of their values; and seeking to close-down the freedoms won since the 1970s through ever-more repressive legal measures. This isn’t just a US or British issue. The political right from India, to China, to Brazil, are pursuing this same vendetta31 as they perceive their political and economic power ebbing away.
The generation following the Millennials – ‘Gen-Z’32 – are even more ‘woke’33, stoking the rage of political and social conservatives, who seemingly dread the challenge to tradition and authority this latest generation represent. And in parallel to the rising values – and political alienation34 – of this digitally-connected generation, conservative lobby groups are using their political access, and funding from billionaires, to wage an even more toxic war on this generation’s alleged ‘identity politics’35 and ‘Cultural Marxism’36.
In practical terms, though, what really scared the English political establishment was the 2019 general election:
As I showed previously, Bliar had alienated a large group of Millennial voters, and the Tories had turned-off many Gen-Z voters in the run-up to the 2015 general election37; by some estimates, around 800,000 voters38 had disappeared from the electoral register.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour polled 758,000 votes less than the Tories in the 2017 general election39 – on a turnout that was smaller than the Brexit referendum40 in 2016. Following that election, Corbyn began to awaken this large group of unregistered or disaffected younger voters, and the membership of Corbyn’s Labour Party swelled to become the largest political party41 in Europe. Around the end of August 2019, in anticipation of a coming election, over 100,000, mostly younger voters had registered to vote42 in two days.
After three centuries of suppressing real political change, the establishment’s worst nightmare may have been about to come true: A truly radical government, committed to extensive economic and social reform of the British state, might soon be elected. This threat not only united the conservative-right against Corbyn, but more generally the political establishment across the spectrum – including the right-wing faction of the Labour Party43.
In the run-up to the 2019 general election, the political commentariat united against the ‘radical policies’ of Corbyn using deliberately manufactured44 scare stories. The right-wing faction of Labour also subverted the internal workings45 of the Party, as well as helping to create46 anti-Corbyn propaganda.
All along, the corporate controlled47, largely right-biased British media pumped these falsehoods into the public’s mind. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won the 2019 election; and in the aftermath, the right of the Labour party have led a purge48 of the ‘the left’ across all levels of the Party.
Unfortunately, for the liberal establishment, this effective coup against the public’s freedom to choose had unintended consequences: Facilitating the election of a Conservative government resulted in a lurch to the right in British politics; and the repressive measures that this government is now enacting embodies a real risk of becoming a self-sustaining process.
For the first time, who is allowed to vote is being determined arbitrarily based upon personal circumstances and age. Young people are being deliberately excluded49, while the older generation are facilitated to vote. There is no evidence that these measures are necessary50. What’s more, we’re paying £18 million a year51 for this. Why, then, are opposition politicians, let alone media pundits, not screaming the roof down?
Copying the tactics of both parties52 in the USA, where allegedly opposed political parties co-operate to ensure their duopoly, the Tory government are deliberately seeking to discourage certain people from voting. That’s because the political environment here shares a key feature to the USA: A large proportion of the electorate have been alienated from the political process.
There’s a large group of ‘unregistered’53 and/or ‘disaffected’54 voters – perhaps as many as 10 million. And that group is largely represented by one demographic – younger adults. As a result, there is a high risk that a ‘popular’ political figure could easily overturn the threshold required to change the government in Britain – as little as a million votes. This is why the government is seeking to make voting harder: To exclude those most likely to fall into this ‘disaffected’ demographic.
Well before the local elections, the government was being told that local authorities were not ready55 to implement these changes. The official response: An instruction56 not to record the numbers of those who are turned-away for not having photo ID.
There is no sense to this change in voting procedures because it is not ‘sensible’: Just like the crack-downs on protest rights, unions, and human rights in general, it’s deliberate; and the motivations behind it are deliberately prejudicial to the conduct of democracy in Britain.
At the same time, though, these measures also bolster the vote for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. By deliberately excluding the left57 from any significant position in the party, in the process pushing the party58 to the right, it excludes many people59 ‘who look like’ that pool of disaffected voters – young, and left-of-centre.
Again, reflecting the American political process, as Labour Party membership collapses60 it drives the organisation back into the hands of large corporate donors – where, as under Bliar’s leadership, just a few donors made up the majority61 of the party’s income. And as the mass media tend to feature only members of the two main parties, Starmer’s exclusion of the left ensures that the establishment’s ideological hold over the political agenda is maintained – free of any influence from the ‘radical left’.
The way modern media communications work – with the unprecedented access62 to small audiences through ‘microtargeting’63 on social media – has created an ontological shift in the way political parties communicate to the public: No longer does political communication encourage the public to vote ‘for’ a party, it seeks to polarise existing opinion64; and increasingly, it sows confusion and doubt to discourage the public from voting, and so control who is likely to participate in elections. This is how65 the Brexit referendum was run; and the methods that lobby groups66 and political parties67 now use to influence public opinion have evolved ever-futher since68.
The fact both Labour69 and the Tories70 have resorted to attack ads shows how Britain’s party politics work not only to ‘persuade’, but to sow division. Labour’s recent conversion to using ‘big data’71 has taken inspiration from the recent Australian election72; and the Tories adoption73 of an election strategist, with links to the US and Australian right-wing parties, will see both parties using the highly manipulative techniques seen in ill-tempered elections elsewhere.
These ads do not inspire74; they do not seek to open up policy or economic debates to a wider audience for discussion – and that’s entirely the point! It narrows the field of debate to a few, closely controlled, and often misleading points that deflect from the party’s own lack of a distinctive overarching policy. The reality is, in terms of actual policy, it’s pretty difficult to slide a piece of paper between the parties on the major structural issues.
This situation can only worsen while the political class refuse to represent the public as a whole, and instead seek to win elections by mobilising an ever-narrower ‘selectorate’75: Targeting an ever smaller audience, so they can ignore the larger structural issues that would require changing their shared ideological outlook.
Our politics are being run for an affluent minority who benefit from that process, targeting an ever-smaller pool of voters to win elections, while psychologically assaulting everyone else into apathy. That, ultimately, is where both parties are directing their efforts.
This is why the inter-generational change in political alignment threatens both major parties: The fact the Tories are cracking down on our civil liberties is because it threatens their hard-right, socially conservative position; the fact Labour is purging ‘the left’ is because it threatens their links to their globalist financial backers.
I feel very strongly that we should vote ‘for’ something, otherwise, you’re always choosing between the ‘lesser of a few evils’ – and so it should be no surprise that we always end-up with ‘evil’ outcomes!
The problem is – for my entire adult life – there has been no political party which I can honestly say I could whole-heartedly vote ‘for’; and I feel many across the political spectrum actually feel the same. That lack of representation is the historic result of our voting system, and the homogenising, monolithic, two-party structure that system inevitably gives rise to.
This has always restricted my participation in elections. I would always vote when I could, but as a result of this lack of choice – when there was nothing or no-one I could vote ‘for’ – I would ‘spoil’ my ballot as creatively as possible. I participated!; even if that participation meant protesting my lack of any real choice.
This time, though, I can’t do that; I can’t even spoil my ballot. This time, I’m legally barred from voting in person.
I’ve spent my adult life trying to live as ‘ecologically’ as possible without having to compromise my core values. As a result: I don’t drive a car (hence, no driving license); I don’t take foreign trips (no passport); and despite regularly using public transport, I’m not over 60 (no bus pass). I have no ‘recognised photo ID’76, and as a result I can’t vote.
Now, let’s be absolutely clear here: Absurdly, if I’d have applied for a postal ballot I could have voted. Likewise, I could have applied for the Government’s new ‘Voter Authority Certificate’77, but when I checked I found that there were no ‘terms and conditions’ on the use of that card. There was no guarantee that the ‘Voter Authority Certificate’ might not be used as a proxy identity card at some future date; and having already applied for it, I would be legally bound to accept its use for that purpose.
Fundamentally, though, given there is no evidence of systematic voter fraud in British elections, and the fact that they’re going to blow at least £18 million pounds a year running this scheme to solve a non-existent problem, I could not in good conscience go along with this. To do so would be caving-in to the fanatical beliefs of a hard-right government, who in no way represent my views or political beliefs.
The ‘winner-take-all’ voting system permits a duopoly of parties to control the political space, with the willing duplicity of a media class whose existence is tied to that duopoly; and as digital media are co-opted to accentuate that process, through the micro-targeting of political messaging and disinformation, it accentuates the confusion and alienation many feel. These times call on us to accept that participation is no longer an option: Only by opposition, and calling for a truly open and representative form of public decision-making, can we engage in a system of politics that truly represent our interests.