How voting ‘none’ in May could transform UK politics

There is an ‘unheard third’ of the UK who choose not to vote in general elections. But, argues Simon Pardoe, by turning up at the polls, even to vote ‘none’, they could help change the system that they seem so dissatisfied with

Vote or Vote None is a new campaign to inspire young voters, and to challenge the unheard 34 percent who didn’t vote in the 2010 general election, to take part in the democratic process.

The call is to either vote for a candidate who you trust to work hard for things you believe in, or vote for ‘none’ in protest. The point is that there’s no reason to be silent.

So why now? Unless something significant changes, a third of registered voters may not vote in this election. Moreover, if a single party wins a parliamentary majority, as the two main parties want, it is likely to be with the support of less than a quarter of registered voters. In 2005 Labour won with 22 percent of registered voters, while 38 percent didn’t vote. In 2010 the Conservatives received 23 percent of registered voters.

The figures should be a national scandal, not just for our democracy, but for the lack of legitimacy or mandate for the winning party to implement policies. Yet it all remains invisible, partly because the ‘unheard third’ of the electorate are not included in the results and are dismissed as apathetic.

“It gives us all an opportunity to show that there is political opinion that is not currently represented by the parties.”

The solution is surely not to persuade people to vote when they can’t see the point, or make voting easier or compulsory for new voters. It’s more radical: to engage everyone in making this election work to improve UK politics.

Why vote? In our electoral system, even committed voters feel defeated by the idea that to vote for who they really want would be a ‘wasted vote’. In every election, the two main parties generate fear about the other, and then claim that a vote for any other smaller party is a wasted vote that will just let the other side in. It’s negative politics.

Yet any claim of a wasted vote is undermined if we include all registered voters in the election results. The margin by which the winning party win is usually tiny compared with the number who didn’t vote at all.

So if just some of the ‘unheard third’ vote this time, then almost any result is possible. Suddenly there’s every reason to vote positively for the party or candidate we believe in, rather than just those who did well before.

Why vote ‘none’? Many people consider that none of the parties will make any difference. Russell Brand makes that case strongly on the basis that all the political parties will not, and cannot, challenge the international corporations or undo the international trade deals that create injustice, inequality and environmental destruction.

Younger people in particular are engaged by direct action on issues where party politics says little, or lags behind. Whatever your politics, the issue is whether our democratic process can acknowledge that political opinion exists beyond what is currently represented by the parties. If not, then the most important debates may be left outside the democratic process, and outside parliament and government.

Edward Abbey famously said that “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul”. Indeed, it doesn’t take a psychologist to tell us that if people are denied a democratic voice on the issues that matter most, dissatisfaction can lead to anger, despair and alienation. That is where we are.

In a council election in the UK, faced with an overwhelming public anger at UK politics and determination not to vote, I found myself in despair suggesting that people show it by voting ‘none’. To my surprise, it shifted those conversations into positive discussions about how to improve UK politics.

“I found myself in despair suggesting that people vote ‘none’. To my surprise, it shifted those conversations into positive discussions about how to improve UK politics.”

I realised that whereas not voting can be an end to thinking and engagement, the option to vote ‘none’ can re-engage people in thinking about politics and democracy. With the option to protest, there’s no reason to be silent, and every reason to think about what to do.

In France, Spain and Ukraine for example, the protest vote is an important democratic tradition, included on the ballot. In the US last year, Nevada Democrats picked ‘none of these candidates’ for governor nominations, as a damning comment on all the candidates.

So is there a case for it here? Even as a committed voter, I can recognise that our elections are like the proverbial soviet referendum, where you can only say ‘yes’ to what is on offer. There have been campaigns requesting None of the Above (NOTA) on the ballot for many years. But like the UK campaigns for votes for women in the early 20th century, success doesn’t come just from asking. The demand for NOTA can and should be demonstrated. A political change is better understood, better used, and potentially more powerful if it is demanded from the bottom, not delivered from the top. In this case, potential protest voters already have the vote.

The existing Electoral Commission guidance on counting votes requires that all ballot papers be counted and announced, including those ‘rejected’ for not selecting a candidate. These ‘rejected’ ballot papers must be classified into four categories. Yet political protest is effectively silenced by mixing protest votes with mistakes and others rejected as ‘voter’s intention uncertain’.

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If just some of the unheard 34 percent vote ‘none’ clearly, beyond dispute, then the sheer numbers of ‘uncertain votes’ will be newsworthy and make that classification indefensible. It can establish the protest vote as a healthy barometer of political dissent.

So how do you vote ‘none’ clearly? Write ‘NONE’ across the ballot paper, and put a single line through all the boxes. Don’t just leave it blank, and don’t include a cross or tick or any other writing.

What does it achieve? Why is it better than not voting? Every government needs to claim a mandate to govern based on voters’ support. So voting ‘none’ makes visible the current lack of support for those elected and their lack of mandate. It enables the ‘unheard third’ to act democratically to demonstrate opposition rather than apathy.

“If just some of the unheard third vote ‘none’ clearly, beyond dispute, then the sheer numbers of uncertain votes will make the classification indefensible.”

Most of all, it gives us all an opportunity to show that there is political opinion that is not currently represented by the parties, and that there really is support for different candidates, different policies and potentially different politics.

As with all protest, the ways in which politicians and others then act on it, or ignore it, will become part of the political debate. It changes the debate by adding strength to dissent.

What if ‘none’ wins in a constituency? It should require a new election to inspire different candidates. But ‘none’ doesn’t need to win to achieve those goals.

Whether you vote, or vote ‘none’, we can together make this election work to improve our elected representatives, improve UK politics and so revitalise our democracy. It’s urgent. There is no reason to be silent.

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