Democracy is supposed to mean ‘government by the people’. In the ancient Greek city states all the free men (but not women or slaves) would cram the theatre for lively, informed debate on a relevant issue, and then would decide it by a show of hands. Not so today. Putting a mark on a piece of paper every five years and imagining that you run things seems like a sad parody of such activity, a demotic populism masking power rather than a popular democracy negotiating it.
In our society the most important decisions are often made by unelected movers of capital and unelected civil servants and generals. Elected officials are very often at least as loyal to the lobbies easing their way as to the voters they supposedly represent.
And there’s the problem of ignorance. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” Thomas Jefferson said, “in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Why has there been no campaign discussion of the causes and long-term ramifications of the current recession? (I mean the failure of the neo-liberal economics which both Tories and Labour have pursued in government, and a global power realignement). Surely because the politicians know most people don’t understand economics. (Most politicians don’t understand economics either). As far as foreign policy is concerned, the mainstream media and culturally-embedded imperialist assumptions are effective obstructions to open, informed debate. Add to this the postmodern simulacrum which many of us inhabit, in which an actual explosion attracts no more attention than a computer or Hollywood-simulated explosion, in which the boundaries between image and reality are beyond blurred. Baghdad fills less space on the screen than Bruno’s swinging penis.
So voting doesn’t mean nearly as much as the culture pretends it does, but it still means something, or at least could do. Public opinion, though manipulated and frequently scorned, plays a key role in the management of state and empire. Our enemies know this, which is why they have it tied up so well.
For us, to blithely ignore an election is to fail to understand and engage with the real world of lobbies and influence. (If there were a mass oppositional movement in this country, we could forget about lobbies and the established parties – but there isn’t). The Israel Lobby, for instance, not only commands a great deal of money, but very effectively marshals its supporters to write letters to MPs and ministers, to vote for candidates that express pro-Israel sentiments, and to demonise and isolate those who speak out against Zionist crimes. If candidates for parliament were to receive as many pledges of support for a pro-Palestine as for a pro-Israel position, things might change a little.
Politicians don’t fear majorities of passive opinion; they fear organised, committed minorities. Perhaps two million marched in London against the invasion of Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration in British history, and it certainly wasn’t passive. When it finished, however, most marchers politely returned home, feeling better about themselves. A million dead Iraqis later, many of the marchers will vote for Labour or Tory candidates who supported the invasion.
Some of the marchers won’t vote at all, believing that by not voting they make a statement of non-cooperation with the system. But their protest is invisible. Their absent votes are lumped with those millions who do not vote out of apathy or alienation, because inside their simulacrum an episode of Eastenders takes precedence over a visit to the polling booth.
This time I’m going to vote, but not with illusions. I know voting isn’t an alternative to other actions. And I’m not going to play the game to the extent of voting Labour, even though I’m in a constituency where Labour will probably lose to the Tories. I just can’t vote Labour. There’s the matter of a million dead Iraqis for a start. There’s Blair’s Lebanon war, and Afghanistan, and the assault on civil liberties. There’s the economic mess which is about to undo much of what has been done. Plus Labour has presided over and often directed a dramatic resurgence of racism and Islamophobia, which makes my life more difficult.
Many people will vote Tory simply because they are sick of Labour. Many will vote Labour only because they fear the Tories more. Very few people will vote out of genuine enthusiasm for a party or politician. This is the particular curse of the British-style ‘first-past-the-post’system, a curse which suits the two main parties. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have been proposing a proportional representation system for years. There is a chance that the next parliament will be hung, with the Liberals acting as kingmakers. Therefore there’s a slight chance that Proportional Representation will be their king-making price. It’s in their interests of course, for under PR the Liberals would no longer be a minority party. It also means that people could vote for who they like rather than for who scares them least. PR would allow the BNP to enter parliament, but also the Greens and socialist movements. It would certainly make electoral politics more interesting, and could allow more space for genuinely oppositional voices.
I notice the Liberal Democrats also because their leader, Nick Clegg, has called for an arms embargo against Israel. Clegg should be rewarded for this brave and principled stand, which is a million miles beyond what we could expect from the Labour or Tory leaders. Clegg should know that there’s political mileage in taking a pro-justice position, and other politicians should observe and learn the lesson.
This sounds like an endorsement of the Liberal Democrats, and to an extent it is. I recommend of course that voters research their local candidates’ allegiances. There’s a Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel just as there are Labour and Tory versions. And I’m only endorsing the Liberals for the moment. If they ever become a fixture of government they’ll become as targetted by lobbies, corruption and imperial ‘realpolitic’ as the other two.
As for me, I’m voting SNP. Where I live they are in third place behind Labour and the Tories. The Scottish Nationalists are to the left of New Labour and are (except for Plaid Cymru) the only party to call for a rethink of the British military presence in Afghanistan.
(And P.S. – Could I appeal to British Muslims to investigate the positions taken by Muslim MPs before voting for them. Politicians like Birmingham MP Khaled Mahmood must receive some votes simply because they have Muslim names. Mahmood is a tame Blairite who rarely votes in parliament, but when he does he supports attacks on civil liberties. He’s on record as “dismissing” calls for an arms embargo against Israel. On the other hand, Osama Saeed, SNP candidate for Glasgow Central, has a solid record of anti-war and pro-justice activism.)