A vote isn’t a thing in itself, the possession of a citizen, to be used as he or she sees fit. A vote is much more than that. It represents our membership of a wider society; one in which I am as important as you, and you are as important as a banker, a judge, a premiership footballer, or the Prime Minister. It is the one thing that is distributed fairly in this society, and therein lies its power.
I’ve just exercised my right to vote in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. The polling station is part of the local Catholic church, so one enters past a painted plaster Virgin Mary. This doesn’t bother me, but I do wonder about the woman sitting behind the trestle table doling out ballot forms. She’s the ‘mad cat lady’, often to be found on Saturday mornings on the High Street offering ‘spiritual healing’ as part of some evangelical church. She seems happy enough. So she should. We are all equal today.
And that troubles me. Not that we are all equal at the ballot box – that is something hard fought for, and not yet won in all parts of the world. I am troubled by apparent dislocation of the vote, the thing we do today, and the intricate and complex mechanism of democratic political culture.
The analogue metaphor is deliberate.Our democracy began to emerge in the age of steam, and there is still a ramshackle charm to it, with those trestle tables, pencils on string, and rough booths so unvarnished that they make an IKEA flatpack look like Chippendale. But even a mechanical device, with observable moving parts that fit together, needs maintenance and care. I fear that, as with so much of our great Victorian infrastructure, such as the railways and the sewers, we’ve neglected the political system.
In this referendum (a political device that is pretty contentious, especially for a decision as complex in its implications as this), at least all votes count equally. But in most other elections, especially parliamentary elections, they do not. A vote in a marginal constituency may decide which party forms the government. A vote in a safe seat may as well be regarded as worthless (not ignoring Condorcet’s paradox here….).
First-past-the-post, the manipulation of constituency boundaries for party gain, and the whole existence of a tier of legislators without a democratic mandate (House of Lords), these things are a stain on our democracy.
Then there’s the party system. It grew up piecemeal, and once made a sort of sense. No longer. The Tory party has money, but no members, Labour has members, but no money. Other parties either struggle, despite millions voting for them, or they wipe out all opponents, despite half of voters not voting for them (that’s Scotland, folks). If you were sitting down to plan a democratic political system, even a committee of primary school kids wouldn’t come up with a suggestion as daft as ours.
Analogue has its aesthetic appeal, too. Something that elevates it above the purely functional. That is what, in this respect, we call political culture. It’s the atmosphere, the courtesies, the manners, the boundaries, the liberties, that define how our politics works.
Since parties learned that it’s easier to ‘game’ elections, rather than to persuade voters; to bamboozle, rather than to inform; to abuse, rather than to debate, our political culture has coarsened to the point that ‘facts’, ‘reason’, ‘expertise’, have ceased to count for far too many of our politicians, and our citizens. We know where that leads.
So why vote?
The answer is stark. It’s all we have.
So pile them up. Turn out to vote in massive numbers. And resolve that this is the turning point. No matter what the outcome of the referendum, things must now start to change. Radically.