by Will Durant
There is a particular and widespread attitude to voting that is well meaning but ultimately futile. It goes something like this: “I don’t care how you vote, just vote!” We find a typical example of this attitude from a 2015 Mirror article. What are these reasons? (1) It helps your credit rating, (2) young people vote far less than older people, (3) people fought and died to win for you to vote and (4) non-voters can change the outcome of an election. These reasons do indeed hold true for our election in 2017. In fact, as I write, the YouGov polls giving Labour a vote surge rely heavily on a big turnout from the young.
There is, however, something very strange about this attitude to voting. Although it tells you that it is possible, it gives no reason for why you would want to change the outcome of the election, it is simply something to do. Without advocating any particular outcome, this rationale for voting manages to make it apolitical.
The point that activists have fought and died to have the vote is the strongest of all the reasons in the apolitical rationale for voting. Yet again, though, it gives no explanation as to why these activists wanted the vote. There is at times a vague reference to voting as some kind of deserved right. If we actually look at the history of the campaign for universal suffrage, however, we find that its activists had a very specific political plan in mind. Take, for example, trade unionist, feminist and suffragist Selina Cooper, who in a 1906 speech, declared that “women do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with the men. They want to use it for the same purpose as men – to get better conditions. Every woman in England is longing for her political freedom in order to make the lot of the worker pleasanter and to bring about reforms which are wanted. We do not want it as a mere plaything.”
It was about voting as part of an oppressed class and an oppressed gender.
Decades before either all men or women had the vote, then, Cooper understood what the vote actually meant. It wasn’t simply about having the vote, it was about voting in a way that the powerful did not want you to. It was about voting as part of an oppressed class and an oppressed gender.
Previously voting rights were explicitly connected to class, with each Reform Act since 1832 providing the vote on the condition of property ownership. Even in 1918, property qualifications were removed for men but reintroduced with the inclusion of women. Through these reforms, the ruling class consistently wanted to exclude the voice of working-class men specifically, and later, working-class women like Cooper. What was significant by the 1928 Reform Act was not that all men and women over the age of 21 could vote, but that a new and huge chunk of the electorate were willing to challenge the ruling class. Cooper struggled for the vote not for the sake of it, but to join other working-class activists in creating a rapidly growing Labour Party. The creation of the welfare state in 1945 was a culmination of these efforts.
Voting has no longer become a chance to challenge the ruling class but simply a chore.
That the apolitical rationale for voting ignores this important reason for voting is perhaps a symptom of what the vote has become in the last few decades. Since the 1970s we have had Tory assaults on the welfare state and on unions, as well as ambiguous Labour oppositions and governments that have been at times resistant, complacent or active participants in these assaults. Real wages have fallen, trade union membership has fallen, so too has voter turnout fallen. This fall in turnout shouldn’t come as a surprise. Voting has no longer become a chance to challenge the ruling class but simply a chore. An empty duty to past martyrs takes the place of a positive reason for voting. Until this election.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and his rise in polling is extraordinary considering how much resistance he has met. As well as the Tories, his fellow Labour politicians have consistently attacked him as well as his politics. The reasons for this opposition are simple when we look at what the right and Blairite wing of the party actually want. MPs like Liz Kendall and Rachel Reeves have consistently sided with the Tories in their demonisation of benefit claimants and immigrants, loosely dressed under the terms like ‘aspiration’ and ‘legitimate concerns’. Essentially, they side with the politics of the ruling class that have been dominant over the last thirty years.
Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity politics opposes this political current and provides an alternative vision of investment in our future. It is a vision that offers concrete answers to homelessness, poverty and inequality in our society. Under Corbyn, to vote for Labour is to vote in a way the ruling class does not want you to. This message has really hit home for a surging grassroots movement, most recently demonstrated in ‘Grime for Corbyn’. As Grime artist AJ Tracey tweeted: “It’s not a ‘I don’t care who you vote for, just please vote’ – it’s a ‘If you’re a real g vote Labour’ ting right about now”. AJ Tracey echoes what Cooper knew a century ago, it is not enough to just vote, your vote must go towards a politics willing to challenge the ruling status quo.
Simply demanding that people vote fails to provide an appealing reason to vote, but it also is silent on the real opportunity of change that a Corbyn government offers. We cannot afford one vote against this opportunity. It is not enough to register, it is not enough to vote, you must pressure and vote for a left-wing Labour government.
Featured image: Jeremy Corbyn graffiti, Camden via duncan c / Flickr (CC)
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