Mark Steel: There is more to democracy than just voting

Blair would have told the disciples: 'Go to bed with Jesus and end up with Pontius Pilate'

If Tony Blair is right, and the choice is simply between him and Howard, what a miserable country we've become. It feels like a wicked stepfather saying, "Alright, I abuse you three days a week, and you've made your opposition to that clear and I recognise it. But if you run away, the only place you can go is to your wicked uncle and he abuses you four times a week. So you might think you can afford a silly protest, but look where it ends up."

I wonder how you'd get on in a job interview using Blair's technique. Asked why you deserved the job, you'd answer, "However bad I'd be, wait till you see the other one who's applied. Anyway, you might as well have me as I'll be handing over to someone else before long."

There is still a difference between the two. The Tories' base remains among the most self-centred section of the population, which becomes clear as soon as you drive through a rural area. Along the roadside you see one huge Conservative poster after another, and assume the local Tory MP must have a majority of about a million, until you realise you've just passed one farm.

And the Tory campaign has been magnificently desperate, latching on to issues they think annoy people, such as grimy hospitals, although they privatised the cleaning to start with, and declining pensions, though they cut the link between pensions and earnings. Their billboard slogan should have been: "New Labour haven't even reversed the things we buggered up in the first place!"

Consequently, the argument goes, the only alternative is Blair. But it isn't. If everyone took the attitude that there was no choice except for the least appalling of the two most dominant institutions, no opposition movement would ever start. Blair's supposed to be a Christian, but his advice to the disciples would have been, "You can muck about with fringe messiahs if you like, but the real choice is between the Jews or the Romans. Go to bed with Jesus and you'll wake up with Pontius Pilate."

How does Blair think Labour ever became a contender for power? In its early years its supporters were told they were making an irrelevant protest, as the real choice was between Tories and Liberals. Perhaps he thinks it became a serious challenger in one move, when it was taken over by Roman Abramovich, who promptly bought Peter Mandelson from the Liberals for £25m.

The worst part of the idea that there's no choice but to "hold your nose and vote Labour" is the chronic lack of ambition it reveals. It's as if Blair would be guaranteed the hugest landslide if he could officially change the party's name to "peeew, tut, phhh, Labour again I suppose". But however reluctantly you vote for him, he'll interpret that as an endorsement.

In order to address this, a cluster of tactical voting campaigns has emerged, seeking to keep out the Tories without encouraging Blair. They start off fine, but seem to end up with advice such as: "In a marginal Labour seat with a Lib Dem third, Labour voters should swap their vote with a rural Lib Dem and hope the Tory draws with West Bromwich Albion so that Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister on goal difference."

A simpler way of unlocking the puzzle may be to see democracy as more than just a vote. Many of the great changes such as civil rights in America or the dismantling of apartheid took place because millions expressed their discontent, and not just at election time. An international movement against poverty and war is developing, and from this new organisations may emerge.

That process can be encouraged in this election. The only signs of enthusiasm have been for candidates expressing the aspirations of that movement. While in most areas few can be motivated to even display a window poster, in Brighton there are thousands of posters for the Green candidate. In London, Respects hold daily meetings on council estates, at which dozens of people lean from the balconies to take part. I wonder if people run through housing estates yelling, "Mum, Keith, Dave, come quick or you'll miss Geoff Hoon."

There are many ways of voting without rewarding Blair or Howard. There are anti-war Labour MPs, credible independents, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Greens and Respect. I would rather vote for the Liberal Democrats than a pro-war servant of New Labour. Your vote can't be misinterpreted, and you don't have to walk home from the polling booth feeling sullied.

Blair's "pragmatic" argument seems to be: "What on earth are you doing? You've simply looked at the candidates and decided to vote for the one whose ideas you support! Can't you see it's more complicated than that - you simply don't understand democracy."

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