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'


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam