The V-Word

We’re not overly enamoured with the voting system at STRIKE!, but can sometimes be persuaded: we prefer whiskey, but if we must drink wine, we have a few preferences. One of the parties we’re most persuaded by is the Greens, so we asked Natalie Bennett to tell us why it’s so important to make your mark – even if that’s by spoiling your ballot…

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The V Word

Make your Mark – by Natalie Bennett

The comedian and activist Russell Brand hit the political headlines when he said, to paraphrase: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them”. Now I’ve got a lot of sympathy with lots of Brand’s campaigning, and I’ve comfortably shared platforms with him, but on this I think he’s 100% wrong.

If you don’t vote – as around 40% of people in most general elections, and 70% of people in many other elections don’t – what you’re actually counted as saying is, “I’m happy enough with how things are so I couldn’t be bothered.” Rightly or wrongly, that’s what not voting actually gets counted as.

You might remember the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, in which 85% of the British public employed the Russell Brand strategy. The turnout round the country was only 15% and in one polling station in Newport in Wales the entire ward employed it perfectly. Not one person voted all day. Then what happened? Police and Crime Commissioners took office. Each one of them spends about a million pounds a year and makes decisions that affect people’s lives, liberties and communities.

Now obviously I hope you’ll vote Green, but what I want to say, even more strongly, is that whatever you do at least go into the polling station. If there’s not anyone on the ballot paper you feel you can vote for, write a rude word (some right-wing newspapers loved it when I said that on “Ask the Leaders”) or an explanation of why you’re not choosing any of the options on the ballot paper. Then you won’t be counted as happy enough with how things are.

But do think about casting an actual ballot, for there’s a real possibility that the 2015 general election will be different to any for decades. The field is wide open, five- or six-party politics is here, and the Scottish referendum showed us the possibilities. There, excited by the chance of a vote making real change happen, 97% of eligible voters enrolled to vote and 85% of them voted. And although the vote for independence was lost – despite a quite incredible 45% of voters going against the massed ranks of the establishment (Tory, Labour and Lib Dem, big banks and multinational companies, the whole collection) – they’d already won, the Westminster party leaders having promised devolution of everything except defence and foreign affairs.

I had the pleasure of being in Edinburgh to address a Green Yes meeting a couple of weeks before the vote, and the atmosphere was electric. I didn’t myself see strangers at bus-stops chatting about politics, although there were plenty of reports of that happening, but in a couple of hours of doorknocking in Leith, I found only one non-voter. Everyone else I spoke to had either made up their mind – and had coherent, detailed reasons to explain why – or was clearly spending time and effort thinking it over, and was often happy to have a chat about it to help clarify their thoughts. I contrast that with similar sessions in some areas of London during council elections where in a couple of hours you can be lucky to find one person committed to casting their vote.

Looking on to May, one major concern about the general election is voter registration. Particularly if we see a late dash of excitement and lots of people deciding in the last week or two go: “Yeah, I haven’t voted for decades but I’m going to vote this time.” There’s a real risk that a lot of them could turn up at the polling station and find that they’re not registered and they can’t vote. That could be really damaging for British democracy, so it’s a really important message: make sure you register to vote.

This is not a party political message. It’s a message to get out to everybody through every mechanism we can. The system of voting registration has changed and everybody, most notably students in halls of residences, who used to be registered by the administration, will now all have to register individually. There’s a real concern that this process requires a National Insurance Number, which many young people might not have conveniently to hand. (A useful tip: if you have a student loan, the loan company will have a record of your NI number.)

Then there’s the question of how to vote. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system has trained voters over decades to vote tactically, but that’s what’s given us the politics we have now. To get something different, voters need to do something different.
I have a simple suggestion: quite simply, vote for what’s closest to what you believe in. Look at your local campaign. Look at the websites, attend a hustings or event to meet the candidates individually, collect as much information as you can, then choose the person, party or policies that most match your views and vote for them.

Now I’ll admit to a degree of self-interest in this: if you look at the Vote for Policies website, based on the 2010 general election manifestos, you’ll see that with nearly half-a-million polled, the Green Party is leading with about 27% of the vote. I’ll take that in May.

But there’s also Einstein, and his definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Listening to the messages “It’s a two-horse race here”, “Vote for me because I’m not quite so bad as the other side”, “My austerity will be slightly less nasty than their austerity” will produce more of the same politics – the politics that has failed to deal with our economic, social and environmental crises. To get a different kind of politics, voters can simply choose to vote differently. It is in your hands.

And what happens after the election?

There’s general agreement among pollsters and pundits that it is highly unlikely that either Labour or Tory parties will win a majority in the next parliament. So what would the Green Party do? We would not prop up a Tory government. That’s the starting point.
That leaves us with the prospect of a Labour minority government or perhaps, as hard as it is to imagine, a Labour-SNP coalition. What we’d be looking for then, would be not a coalition but a vote-by-vote arrangement.

Whatever the exact outcome of the coming election, a clear loser is obviously going to be our first-past-the-post electoral system. That’s not surprising when, if you look at Westminster, we haven’t seen significant reform in nearly a hundred years. The last big change in Westminster was women getting the vote, and that was in 1918. We may well see a significant number of MPs elected on less than 30% of the cast ballots in their constituencies, with the two largest parties probably collecting only around 60% of the vote.

In the Green Party, we’ve got lots of ideas about what reform should look like. I’d support an elected House of Lords for starters (with proportional representation), and a similar system in the lower house. And we think that constitution should start from the local. Power and resources and money should rest locally, in local communities, and only be referred upward when that is clearly necessary and sensible. So rather than everything being centralised in Westminster, as much power and decision making as possible should be local. That’s the total reverse of what we see now, where local councils are seeing their funding slashed and then slashed again. The money to fulfill local responsibilities should stay local.

But rather than us offering the recipe, what we’re suggesting instead is that we call a people’s constitutional convention. Select people at random from all around the country so that they represent the people of Britain. Give them the resources and the experts, the knowledge that they need, and say, “Draw us up a new constitution. Start from scratch.”

Let’s not pass the centenary of women winning the right to vote without having changed anything else in the hundred years since.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party in England and Wales. A journalist by profession, she edited Guardian Weekly between 2007 and 2012. She is a trustee of the Fawcett Society and founder of the blog Carnival of Feminists.