Lembit Opik: Alex Kane’s decision to abstain is a vote to be ignored

The decision to abstain from voting is a vote to be ignored, says Lembit Opik.
The decision to abstain from voting is a vote to be ignored, says Lembit Opik.

In my 13 years as a Member of Parliament, and as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I helped set up devolution for Northern Ireland. In this context,

I was amazed by Alex Kane’s plan not to vote, outlined in his News Letter column on Monday. I like Alex. He’s good company — and well informed. But his case for not voting reads like an excuse, not a rationale, which nobody with his experience should entertain.

Lembit Opik

Lembit Opik

Alex thinks his vote won’t make a difference. Well, one vote doesn’t make a difference on its own.

It’s the sum total which counts. When I challenged Alex Kane on Steve Nolan’s excellent BBC radio show, he said he was not inviting others to follow his advice. But to quote Alex’s own words, ‘…on May 22 the non-voters may represent a majority of the electorate. That, I believe, would be a good thing.’

So let’s think about this. What if Alex persuades 99.9 per cent of Northern Ireland not to cast their vote?

Then the 0.1 per cent who DO vote decide who’s in charge. People will still get elected — it’s just that the outcome will be decided by this tiny minority. If the rest don’t like it, well, tough. They haven’t got a leg to stand on because they didn’t choose anyone at all.

Alex’s then says he can’t find anyone he agrees with enough. This sets an impossibly high bar for democracy.

Nobody agrees with one party completely. I don’t even agree with my own party leader!

But look at society. Most citizens have a reasonable standard of living.

There’s a reasonable peace. The future looks OK. Across decades, there’s social progress across generations, partly thanks politics. Pretending otherwise just isn’t credible.

Alex also says, ‘By not voting I’m exercising the ‘Network’ option and yelling from my window “I’m mad as hell and I’m not taking this anymore.”’

No, mate, that’s not how it works at all.

What actually happens is the politicians point up and say to each other, ‘hey, look at Alex – he’s decided not to open his window!’

Then they walk off, leaving you shouting at your own reflection, because an abstention is almost silent in comparison to a vote.

Nor is fearing you’re going to get the ‘same old’ and generally feeling disappointed enough reason.

As Alex pointed out on Steve Nolan’s morning BBC radio show, I lost my seat as an MP. I WAS disappointed! But I never considered giving up on voting — a right which, when absent has cost countless lives.

My Estonian parents had to flee the totalitarian spectre of Stalinism.

Doubtless my grandparents would have given anything for an imperfect democracy such as Stormont, instead of the dictatorship which terminated family and friends back in the USSR.

Only those who have forgotten these grim lessons would think abstention clever.

Democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s the best system we’ve got. I regard Northern Ireland as the most successful political structure in the United Kingdom.

Simply saying nobody is ‘good enough’ is based on the delusion that if you DON’T vote, then you won’t get anything. But it’s not like going into a shop and saying ‘I’ve decided not to buy anything.’

In politics, what then happens is other people make the call and effectively they ‘buy’ the politicians you get, whether you like them or not. And, worse still, you really have waived your right to complain.

In my job as Director of Communications for the Motorcycle Action Group we take voting so seriously we’re launching a single called ‘It Means So Much’ by artist Stranger.

This is political activism at its most intense, because riders know that they either vote or suffer the results of being told how to live by people they didn’t even choose.

So, it comes down to this. Nobody likes a theatre critic who shouts his opinion from the outside, after refusing to attend the performance himself.

Or, to put it another way, if you refuse to vote, then I refuse to listen to your opinion. My right. Your choice…

• Former MP Lembit Öpik is Dir Comms & Public Affairs for the Motorcycle Action Group Hear and buy It Means So Much: at Stranger-Music.com and on iTunes