They fought for our right to vote out Nasty Nick

From a talk given by the political cartoonist Martin Rowson to a conference organised by the Institute of Ideas at the Soho Theatre in London

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It's said that we're suffering from a democratic deficit in this country, but this is untrue. Whatever New Labour might have done to knobble its own internal elections, it hasn't actually removed the vote from anyone in this country.

It's said that we're suffering from a democratic deficit in this country, but this is untrue. Whatever New Labour might have done to knobble its own internal elections, it hasn't actually removed the vote from anyone in this country. In fact it has given extra opportunities for voting to the citizens of London, Wales and Scotland. So the word "deficit" won't do. If you're after a financial analogy, think instead of a bank account brimming over with funds but largely untouched.

But talk of "other forms of democracy" doesn't make sense. Apart from the beguiling image of women and children at Peterloo greeting death from a sabre slash with a vision of the future in which their struggle is aptly rewarded by people voting Nasty Nick out of the Big Brother house, there are no other forms of democracy, by definition. Such talk also seems to confuse Representative Democracy with Participatory Politics. The purpose of the former, by delegating political responsibility from the people to their representatives, has always been to defuse the point of the latter. Democracy is merely a tool for delivering governments, and is generally seen as better than the coup d'état or genetic tyrant models for doing the same thing (although in the US they seem to have used all three systems simultaneously as a safety measure).

The assumption that democracy is similar to other forms of choice is nonsensical, as is the idea that, if people aren't voting, any lost democratic karma is made up for in other areas of choice. This assumes a vote has some intrinsic worth, irrespective of where or how it's used, that the importance is in the action, not the outcome.

That's the mindset of the shop-aholic, not the politically engaged. The point of political engagement was presumably to implement your political beliefs, not to fit your beliefs to the voters to get elected. Once you equate politics with shopping, and use the methods of market research and focus groups previously used to discover the marketability of Sunny Delight or black sanitary towels, political participation becomes meaningless, because political belief will always be sublimated to marketability. To rebrand a nice old phrase, no one has ever shouted the slogan "If shopping changed anything they'd make it illegal". But even when politics is passionate and principled, as opposed to opportunistic and bland, I'm inclined to believe that asking people to vote every four or five years is about the best chance you'll get of harnessing any national collective feeling without terminally alienating the vast politically disengaged majority.

And that, actually, is the point. It is profoundly patronising for the political classes to dismiss the "don't cares" in the population, the 20-30 per centwho never vote for whatever reason, even if it's only because they can't be bothered. And why should they? If you think about it, a 23 per cent turnout in a European election is remarkably good, when you ask people, on one of the few sunny days last year, to participate in something involving the European Parliament which has no easily observable effect on their lives.

You don't have to be a psephological genius to see that the reason the 1997 election had the lowest turnout of any general election since the war was the fall in turnout in safe Labour seats, whereas in marginals it was up considerably, for obvious reasons. It wasn't, in short, New Labour what won it, but the Old Tories what lost it.

So it's the party that has appropriated all the mesmeric bullshit of consumerism and shopping which, while attracting the browsing shopper, proves to have the least brand loyalty. If falling voting numbers worry you, in the new consumerist mindset we must just assume that none of the products on the shelves appeal to the potential shoppers, so they do something else instead. Like form a political party that doesn't think it's a brand of dog food.

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