Never was voting more important than in the 2014 Scottish Referendum. Polling stations saw a turnout of 86 per cent, attracting attention locally and all around the world. The SNP didn’t quite see the result it fought so hard for, but former First Minister Alex Salmond instead awoke a strong political debate throughout the country.
Taking lead from countries such as Austria, Germany, Norway, Argentina and Brazil, Alex Salmond made it possible for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote for the first time during the Scottish referendum. But he hasn’t stopped there. He has gone on to argue for the rights of 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the upcoming May election and at every election thereafter. This stance, it seems, has resonated deeply into parliament with Ed Miliband now promising to lower the voting age if elected PM.
With so many political figures wanting to lower the voting age, wanting to get more and more young people involved in politics, why are influential ‘celebrity’ figures such as Russell Brand calling for people to give up the right to vote; a right that hundreds of thousands can only dream of and that many, still to this day, fight with their lives to protect.
Going back to 2010 for a moment, when I turned eighteen, I was determined that no matter the obstacles, I would make sure to exercise my right to vote.
In my mind there was no debate to be had. You turn eighteen. You vote. Standing at the polling station with a half-chewed pen in my hand, presumably from a previous indecisive voter trembling at the thought of having to make a choice, I was strong, confident and I knew exactly what I was to do.
This has definitely now all but completely faded.
Now that the May general election is approaching, possibly one of the most important elections we have had to date, I no longer have the strength and certainty I once had. In fact, what I feel now leans more towards doubt and confusion. I was once told that the novelty wears off once you have voted a few times, which I suppose is a valid point, but I feel it’s more than that.
Which leads me back to Russell Brand.
Russell Brand has called for revolution: an uprising, an awakening. He says that people “don’t give a f*** about politics”, and, like him, shouldn’t vote. I feel that asking whether he is right or not is in fact moving away from the more important question. What we should be asking is: what has led Brand to refuse to vote and why are people following him?
Brand thinks, and many agree, that it’s partly because politics is made up of a narrow elite drawn from the same narrow cast of actors.
It becomes difficult to argue against him when looking at figures that strengthen his point. Politics has seen a decline in the number of MPs who were formerly manual workers, from around 16 per cent of all MPs in 1979 to 4 per cent in 2010. Furthermore, over the same period the number of MPs with a political background grew from 3 per cent to 14 per cent. It has to be said that there are also plenty of MPs from other backgrounds too, but the Houses of Commons is far from a cross section of society.
Besides political backgrounds, arguably the most off-putting factor is the way that Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and even Nigel Farage literally look and sound the same: well spoken, well dressed, men aged 40-50, university-educated, with roughly the same haircuts, waistlines and heights. The language of politics doesn’t help this as it takes a somewhat alien and certainly stale form. You could easily mistake current political language for pre-agreed media lines thus the majority of young people and particularly voters see politicians as self-serving and no longer in touch with society. However, they do still regard politics to be important, if only it were more open.
As I have learned, all these factors combined, and more, have contributed to the decline of political interest among potential voters, much to the embarrassment of politics. Looking back, electoral turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since 1950, when 84 per cent of the population turned out to vote, compared to 65 per cent in the last general election in 2010 – and only 44 per cent of those aged 18-24. Membership with political parties is fast becoming a thing of the past as they have plummeted since the 1950s. The Conservative party for example, has gone from 3 million to 100,000 members over the last six decades.
Russell Brand says that we are on the verge of a revolution? I can’t say I agree entirely, but perhaps he makes a good point when looking at the way politics is being done: especially party politics.
Wanting to break away from the repetitive clones of politics, more and more people are turning to non-mainstream parties. Perhaps that explains Farage’s sudden success.
I agree completely that politics is no longer passionate or engaging in the way it used to be, but I can’t agree with Brand or anyone who refuses to vote. Brand’s belief that there is no point, and that voting merely legitimises a system that doesn’t work is, in my view, a completely uneducated move. Brand fails to remember the thousands of people who died to give us ordinary people the right to vote. The Peterloo Massacre and the Suffragettes movement come to mind. These groups knew that voting wasn’t just about choosing the victor yourself. It was about creating a system where representatives knew they might be removed from their position next time around, which is a powerful incentive to behave and listen. It acts as a background threat, keeping the elected relatively honest.
Again, I agree that the choices seem remarkably limited at the moment, but if Brand and others like him were to give voting a try, even once, they will be pleasantly surprised by the array of candidates on offer to suit all kinds of political beliefs. And if you don’t like what is on offer, you can even stand for election yourself, and if enough people agree with you, change the system yourself.
A simple ‘X’ on your ballot paper may not seem like much: but it reminds politicians that you care, that you are watching them, and when things are bad enough, that you present an alternative yourself.