This coming Thursday, I will make the journey over the road, through Moseley Park, to the primary school that is my polling station. There I will collect my ballot paper, go into a booth, and make a mark that will have absolutely no bearing on the result of this election.
Given this exercise in futility, why bother to vote? This is not an idle question – millions will stay away on Thursday, as they have done for the last three elections, part of a long-observed trend in voter apathy.
My stepfather, a man with more degrees than I’ve had jobs, will almost certainly be among the absent. In this he is a demographic outlier, being in his early 60s and part of a generally reliable voting block.
But he, like so many others, has decided not to bother – a decision I fundamentally disagree with, however much I sympathise. So here, for my stepfather and anyone like him planning not to vote, is my last-ditch argument for getting out there.
The disgrace of safety
First, the specific apathy facing my constituency is the all-too-common malaise of the safe seat. Birmingham Hall Green is a pretty rock-solid Labour hold, barring something remarkable – and it’s just one of the 364 seats out of 650 the Electoral Reform Society has already called for this election.
Even worse, for the local elections also being held in some areas on Thursday, many seats are not just safe – they’re uncontested. Some council wards are regarded as such a lock for one party, the others just see the process of standing as a waste of time and, more importantly, money.
In wards with only one candidate, it’s already too late – even if you wanted to, you couldn’t vote. But if the non-voting 35% from 2010 all turned out on Thursday in even the safest seats, you can bet your behind there’d be a different result in many constituencies – and probably a lot fewer uncontested council wards next time around.
The illusion of choice
Second, even in seats where there’s a fight on, the choice of candidates is often woeful. For the two big parties, at least one of the challengers, and even most of the rest, those standing are depressingly undifferentiated.
The stereotype of the white, male, middle-aged, upper-middle-class MP is still alive and well – and this is not reflective of what this country looks like. Leaving aside demographics, MPs vastly over-represent professions such as law, accountancy, management, media – and of course, politics – and under-represent scientists, doctors, engineers, labourers, and so on (see this PDF produced by Parliament, pp5-6).
There’s no immediate fix for this – but we can push the button to start the process of changing the face of parliament and local government, simply by voting. Again, if everyone voted, if everyone who thought “none of these people stand for me” spoiled their ballot instead of staying at home or making a compromise, the next election would look very different – and would probably come sooner than planned.
The joy of apathy
Finally, apathy is the friend of the vested interest. By not voting, we play into the hands of those who think the British electorate doesn’t care – and so think they can get away with whatever they want.
This isn’t party political – every government in recent history has done bad things, dodgy deals, tried to sweep shameful secrets under the parliamentary rug. And no doubt the next one, whatever it looks like, will be the same.
But we can say: no more. By demonstrating we are not apathetic, we can show our representatives that we are watching what they do, that we care – and that we will pass our judgement, en masse by exercising our hard-fought rights to have a say in the running of this country.
This isn’t easy. Neither the politicians nor the media are our friends – both groups would prefer to reduce elections to an easily-delivered set of ideology-light soundbites, designed to appeal to people’s hearts, not their brains.
But sod them. They’re not in charge, even if they’d like to think they are – even if we’ve let them think they’re in charge.
I don’t know how I’m going to cast my ballot on Thursday. I’m certainly not going to vote for my Labour candidate, the slightly unsavoury Roger Godsiff. The Tories are out on policy grounds, and none of the others have said anything particularly convincing to date.
Maybe I’ll spoil my ballot. Maybe I’ll vote for someone that makes Mr Godsiff sit a little less easily on his green bench.
But come what may, I will be there in the polling booth. And I hope, so very deeply hope, that everyone else will be, too.
Once this election is done, what then? Well – the good news is, there are plenty of things we can do to fix this mess (hint: it’s called the Single Transferrable Vote). But that’s another story…
Parliamentary copyright image is reproduced with the permission of Parliament.