It’s election season, which means that every day politicians will be telling you that our democracy is broken and you can’t have what you want. Not in as many words, but whenever a Conservative says ‘a vote for UKIP is a vote for Labour’, or a Labour politican tells you ‘a vote for the Greens is a vote for David Cameron’, that’s the underlying message.
It’s strange that we let politicians get away with this, especially if they don’t support electoral reform. I’m not sure we can say we value democracy if we tolerate our leaders warning us not to vote with our consciences.
The problem is not that they’re wrong – a vote for a minority party does risk splitting the vote and letting in the party we like least. The problem is that our politicians think this is okay, that they are content to recommend voting for the least worst option, rather than encouraging us to vote for what we believe in.
Unless you are a supporter of one of the two big parties, you’ll be familiar with this problem. You likely spend several weeks debating with yourself about whether to vote for the party you agree with most, or whether you should hold your nose and vote tactically. Or you might spoil your ballot, or vote independent in protest. A considered choice not to vote is a legitimate option in my mind.
Will this election be different? With all the interest in smaller parties, perhaps it will. The Ekklesia think tank hope so, and have released a paper encouraging people to vote for what they believe in. “Continually to choose something you do not want for fear of something worse is to allow change to be continually blocked” they argue. We should vote with our consciences as “a signal of what it is you want to stand up for (not just stand against)”. And we should remember that elections are one moment in politics, and voting is “one aspect of being a citizen”. Pursuing the kind of change we want to see will happen either side, and the election can be used to make a statement, whether or not our vote changes the outcome.
That’s an important message. We’re still going to have either Cameron or Miliband as the next prime minister, but if enough people do vote for what they believe in, this may be the last election under the first past the post system, or at least the first steps towards a more plural, more authentic democracy.
“We suggest that this UK election is actually a moment of hope,” say Ekklesia. “The system can be challenged, both from without and within. It is possible to demand better of those who seek to represent us than we and they have previously believed possible.