Voting: is it worth it?

Thursday 2 May 2024 saw another round of elections for local councils and regional mayors. They were followed by a media glut of psephological analysis and speculation as to the significance of results.

Claims and counter claims as to the reasons behind outcomes vied with each other. Those who had increased their numbers of elected councillors, such as Labour, the LibDems and the Greens, claimed vindication for their opposition to the present government and called for a general election now. Unsurprisingly this call went unheeded by the Prime Minister and his colleagues, who instead highlighted the odd anomalous result as indicating an underlying trend of support in their favour.

By the following Tuesday there were only occasional references to the election in news broadcasts as Parliament reassembled following the May Day bank holiday. Then it was back to the knockabout pantomime politics in the Commons. It turns out the elections and their reporting were largely, to quote Shakespeare, ‘…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing’ (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5).

Should there be doubt expressed over this sentiment, it is worth considering the extent to which the significance of the ballot was generally considered. A measure of this is the turnout, a factor briefly mentioned in the subsequent reporting. In one Metropolitan Borough Council area the rounded-up turnout figures ranged from 35 percent in the highest ward down to 16 percent in the lowest, with a borough average of 25 percent. Abstention was clearly the winner.

Was this feature due to apathy or antipathy, or perhaps an amalgam of them both? If apathy was the demotivating factor it maybe reflects negative attitudes cultivated by experience of previous voting making little or no practical difference. Antipathy is likely the expression of a cynicism grown from the same circumstances. One is a passive acceptance, the other can manifest as what might be described as bar-room anger, often expressed as vitriolic denunciation of politicians of all stripes and politics in general.

There are those who would denounce both attitudes for not making use of a most valuable asset, the vote. The argument runs along the lines that workers fought, and in some cases died, to secure the vote for working people in general, or women in particular.

Cannot deliver

Democracy, however flawed, is certainly always preferable to tyranny, so the vote is indeed a precious thing. However, accepting this raises a question. If the vote is valuable, why give it to someone you know will not, cannot, deliver on promises made?

Politicians are often fundamentally dishonest, but they can never be in a position to make the really radical changes that would benefit all society. Their problem is that everything people might aspire to costs.

The NHS is a case in point. It has grown from a quite basic level of medical provision at its foundation in 1948, to the hi-tech service it is today, dealing with a vast range of illnesses and conditions quite beyond its scope in the early days. The technology involved now would have seemed almost sci-fi in 1948. But those machines are expensive to develop, buy, maintain and operate. So when a government claims to be spending so many billion pounds more on the NHS than its predecessors, that is accurate.

It does not, though, come close to meeting the continually rising cost of realising actual need, or paying the staff adequately (in capitalist terms). With the result that voters have negative experiences from not being able to get GP appointments to not receiving vital treatment. The only source from which those costs can be met is the wealth owned and controlled by capitalism. Every pound raised rather than borrowed by government, national or local, ultimately comes from capitalism’s wealth, either directly as business taxes, or indirectly via income tax.

People see the problems and seek solutions, and replacing the party in power with another one promising change appears to be an option. Indeed, palliative measures may well be enacted, only for them to be frustrated by the economic demands and realities of capitalism. While voting is indisputably integral to a democratic political process, it is by no means a guarantee. Indeed, ‘democratic’ is often the word of choice in the titles of authoritarian regimes seemingly untroubled by the notion of irony.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) of the Cold War period made use of institutions apparently modelled on those of its National Socialist predecessor. While the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) serves as a present-day example of the word erroneously used. A country claiming to be both socialist and democratic shamelessly promotes dynastic rule that so far has consisted of grandfather, father and grandson with, it seems, the great granddaughter being prepared for her turn. No doubt to unanimous popular acclaim.

The promotion of democracy is fundamental to the socialist cause, actual socialism that is, not just in name. A worldwide society in which capitalism has been replaced by the conscious action of the international working class, not some self-selected vanguard acting supposedly on its behalf. A society without rulers, dynastic, presidential or otherwise with truly democratic institutions organising the meeting of self-determined needs, rather than the production for profit.

Important but limited

Unless and until capitalism, driven to accumulate capital, has been replaced by socialism, there cannot be a fully democratic society. The present political expressions of democracy – free speech (more or less), universal suffrage (more or less), secret ballots and regular elections for local and national assemblies – are important.

Socialists can and do contest elections, being very much in favour of electors being able to engage with and show support for socialist ideas. Indeed, socialist candidates being able to garner increasing numbers of votes will be an indication that the working class is moving towards making the break with capitalism. However, this will only be realised when the working class develops democratic institutions whereby the ultimate component of democracy, presently excluded from the process, economic possession and control can be achieved.

Unfortunately, at the moment there seems to be no short-term prospect of that happening. So, while the knockabout nature of party politics remains, and the merry-go-round of office swapping continues, socialists must make whatever use they can to put their ideas. Democracy even in its limited form must not be demeaned, but challenged to become a more profound agent of change. Present limitations have been highlighted by the ease with which two Conservative MPs, Dan Poulter and Natalie Elphicke, crossed the floor to the Labour benches. Natalie Elphicke is particularly interesting as she was regarded as being on the right wing of the Tory Party, stepping easily into the centre-left opposition and welcomed by its leader. The promotion of democratic choice between left, right and centre proves to be little or no choice at all.

It is illuminating, however, that even authoritarian regimes often do hold elections, be it well-managed and controlled ones. Voting, it would appear, confers some, if spurious, legitimacy, even when the outcome is so predetermined it would make a political pollster blush.

Passive role

While what are sometimes termed liberal democracies, such as the UK, hold regular open elections with secret ballots, this does not mean democracy has been achieved. The vast majority, the electorate, are subordinated to a very passive role. They play no active part in formulating polices or selecting likely candidates to become their representatives. Rather they are consumers who choose, from a limited range of political products, those they consider best able to administer and manage the state for capitalism.

As for capitalism itself, the electorate have no role in its decision making, no vote as to its operation. It has but one imperative, the ceaseless pursuit of profit, unhindered, as far as possible, by political or social considerations.

The electoral system also serves the prevailing ideological focus on national concerns. Voters are restricted to their limited participation in politics that stop at the borders. Devolution, often mooted as a more localised politics, narrows this focus even more, as do independence movements, such as the SNP. There is no sense of galvanising an international electorate to look beyond borders towards a worldwide politics. And certainly no prospect offered of transcending capitalism by organising a truly democratic movement to socialism.

This does not deprive the vote of its value. However unlikely or distant such a transformation might presently seem, voting must ultimately play a significant, perhaps determining, role in its peaceful and democratic achievement. The vote, therefore, is valuable no matter how cheaply it is presently spent. Refusing to give it away to parties who will not, and cannot, deliver promised benefits in return, is to recognise its worth and honour those men and women who struggled and fought for it. As a resource, spoil your vote until it can be put to good use, but don’t waste it or ignore it.


Next article: Does socialism exist in Venezuela? ⮞

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