Jiminy Cricket! Last week’s column certainly seems to have set a particularly belligerent cat amongst unprepared and unsuspecting pigeons.
Judging by some of the responses you’d have thought I’d been eulogizing King Herod at the AGM of the Mother’s Union.
All I said was that I had decided not to vote on May 22.
The responses —and there were a lot of them —fell into seven distinct categories.
Some people told me that I should vote for unionists irrespective of what I thought of the parties: because if people like me didn’t vote then it might allow Sinn Fein to become the largest party.
In other words, ‘vote us to stop them.’ I’m sorry, that’s not an argument for good government, let alone change, that’s an argument for perpetuating stalemate and the same-old, same-old.
I was told that I had no right to complain if I didn’t vote and that my ‘authority’ as a commentator would be undermined. Everyone has a right to complain if government is failing to address their everyday needs and concerns. Indeed, most complaints come from people who voted and don’t like the outcome.
Why should they be allowed to complain when they voted in the very people who are making a mess of policy and legislation?
Some people argued that it was my civic duty to vote and that I should simply hold my nose and vote for the least worst option. Hmm! But what happens if you reckon that the least worst option is still dithery, ineffective and wrong on key issues?
Why would you vote for anyone you regarded as generally incompetent just because it was, supposedly, your ‘civic duty’?
Others dragged in the ‘sacrifice argument’: reminding me that people had given their lives in order that I had the freedom to vote. No —freedom is about the right to do something, or not do something. Freedom is about the right to make personal choices. Freedom is the right to say, “no, I don’t want to vote and I choose not to vote”.
I value that freedom and I am grateful to those who provided me with that freedom.
A lot of people tried to persuade me that, “if you don’t vote then nothing changes”. Well, I have voted in every NI election since 1998 and nothing has changed. Actually, that’s not true: things have changed. We are more polarised than we were when the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed and further away from genuine power-sharing, a shared future and breaking down us-and-them barriers.
About 90 per cent of those who do vote, vote for polarity, veto and petition of concern. The middle-of-the-road Alliance prop up a dysfunctional Executive and I see no evidence (for the May 22 elections) of credible, game-changing post-conflict parties.
So, even if I did vote, it would not be in the expectation of change.
A few tried to convince me that not voting represents a danger to democracy.
Again, I’m not convinced. I would argue that a greater threat to democracy is allowing political parties to believe that the present institutions and politicians here, at Westminster and in the European Parliament are properly and effectively representing us and protecting democracy and freedom.
They are not: they are mostly stuffed with careerists who will say and do what is required of them to keep themselves in elective office, or in the pecking order for future selection.
They are whipped, herded and U-turned to serve the needs of their party rather than the demands of their conscience and too many of them remind of HMS Pinafore’s Sir Joseph Porter:
“I always voted at my party’s call
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all;
I thought so little they rewarded me
By making me the ruler of the Queen’s navy”
There was a time —and I remember it —when politics was about ideological battles and passion and a desire to make a difference. Today it isn’t. You’d be hard pushed to tell the difference between the Conservative, Labour and Lib-Dem parties.
The Euro Parliament is run by technocrats. Economies are run by non-elected financiers and banking officials. Worst of all, the parties don’t care about falling turnout because it still allows them to play musical chairs.
And as long as turnout hovers above 50 per cent they will claim a hollow, spurious legitimacy for their ‘authority’.
The one argument that did resonate with me was the ‘spoil your vote’ option.
Yet it strikes that there are two problems with that: spoiled votes count as part of the overall turnout (which suits the political parties) and, in the absence of a ‘none of the above’ box, it’s hard to maximize their number or impact.
Maybe what is needed for the 2015/16 elections is an online campaign based on an agreed form of words to write on a ballot paper —‘I am not endorsing any of these parties or candidates because….’ That covers both bases: it encourages people to go to the polling booths and gives them a potentially very powerful way of sending a direct message to the politicians.
My decision not to vote on this occasion was a difficult one. I live and breathe politics. I am not disinterested, or apathetic, or switched off by politics. I have just reached the point at which I believe that my vote doesn’t actually make a difference anymore. I see no evidence that it makes a difference and I see no evidence of parties who want to clean out the stables.
Yes, maybe I’m too idealistic or precious —but so what? What I choose to do with my vote is exactly that, my choice; and as much a part of the democratic process as those who do choose to vote.
If you believe that your vote matters, that it makes a difference, that voting represents a civic duty or that there is a party you are happy to endorse —then yes, go and vote. I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t vote and I’m not pretending that my not voting will make the slightest difference to anyone anywhere.
My decision not to vote is my personal decision, my personal choice: no more than that and no less than that.