Natasha Walter: Don't vote ­ it only encourages them to ignore the real issues

'I'm not so naive as to think that abstaining from voting will change anything on its own'
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The war on apathy, declared by the parties and the media at the start of the campaign, is not being won. For the past week, we've been watching the politicians rushing up and down the country, launching manifestoes and kissing babies and eating fish and chips, but though they may look as if they are running faster and faster, they are actually staying in pretty much the same place. The polls aren't shifting. Roughly the same proportions, on each survey, opt for each party ­ and roughly the same proportion, about one in three, is not going to vote.

Abstainers have always been around, although politicians and commentators seem to have only just noticed us. At the last election, politicians began to wake up to the issue ­ when abstention and New Labour came in almost neck and neck: 29 per cent for the former, 31 per cent for the latter. This time around, it looks as though the abstentions will outnumber the votes for the government for the first time since the war, and the irritation of the politicians against the "apathy party" is growing. Are we the apathetic ones? I'm not so sure. Those people who accept politicians' rhetoric at face value and who make the only political action in their lives the dutiful visit to the polling booth once every four or five years - now they can look really apathetic.

Okay, I can't pretend that every one of the millions of voters who stay home is abstaining for fiercely held political beliefs. But if at this election the people who stay home outnumber the people voting for Labour, a sizeable proportion of them will not be dumb kids who don't know the way to their local polling station. A lot of them will have listened to the debate, and tried to work out what Tony Blair means by opportunity for all, and what William Hague means by the mainstream majority, and decided that they can't, in all honesty, put their vote at the service of such slogans.

In 1997, I came out as an abstainer, and argued that I wouldn't participate in a system that was rigged to ensure that any politicians who were talking sense were denied any chance of power. Polly Toynbee wrote a furious article in response saying that people who wanted a fairer electoral system shouldn't abstain, they should vote for the "parties promising a referendum on proportional representation". Well, Polly ­ they did. And what happened to the referendum?

That's one of the issues that we won't be hearing much about this time around, whether our electoral system is truly representative. What other issues won't we be hearing much about? How to reduce inequality, which has become a non-starter for Labour since it was revealed that despite its complicated new benefits, the income gap is widening. Or whether politicians can begin to exercise more control over global corporations and their effects on the environment.

Because unless politicians from the two major parties disagree on an issue, that issue will not get discussed during an election. That is the nasty truth about our British political debate. Its parameters are decided by the politicians who are already in power. Everything that they are in agreement about they can sideline, so that some of the biggest themes of our times, such as electoral reform or environmental degradation, can be forgotten.

If the election were going to change anything, this is the moment when political debate should heat up. Instead, it seems to be freezing over. Tuning into the Today programme or Newsnight is about entering a torpid zone, where men in suits repeat a set number of frozen gestures and slippery slogans.

I'm not so naïve as to think that abstaining from voting will change anything on its own. But together with relevant debate and campaigns, abstention isn't such a bad way of putting across the view that the current political system is failing us. If nothing else, it can sharpen the debate about whether politicians are out of step, and how they can reconnect to their supporters.

Those people who call the abstainers apathetic often have a strange vision of what the political arena is. For many people, it's so much bigger than just turning out to vote and then being ignored for the rest of the Parliamentary term. During the lifetime of this Parliament, I've met people who spend their lives campaigning on roadbuilding, third world debt, fair trade, child poverty, genetically modified organisms and other issues poorly addressed by politicians. Some have won surprising successes. For comfortable chaps in the media, the fact that some of these people may not cast a vote in June marks them down as apathetic and ignorant, but to me the ignorant ones are the ones who can see nothing beyond Westminster when they talk about politics.

It might be best if abstainers could register their protest, and if there were a space on the ballot paper for "none of the above". But even if you think the politicians are rogues, why legitimate their behaviour by voting? Stay at home. Your country needs your apathy.