In the last UK General Election, almost 16 million voters declined to turn up to the polling station. Zoe Williams, Guardian journalist and author of Get it Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics, examines the cause of our apathy, and challenges the idea that democracy begins and ends with a ballot paper.
A friend of mine calls it the Alien versus Predator election: I always foul up the joke and the Terminator gets involved, which is a pity, because that is one excellent film/ life analogy I’m ruining: two deadly foes, locked in a dirty fight, and all we have to do is watch. You fix your attention upon it long enough and it’s pretty engaging, but the truth is, you’re not rooting for either of them.
Recently, I expressed some scepticism about the point of voting, at a public meeting, and I was accused of political nihilism; there was a whole lot of other ammo, that I was letting down my forebears, that I insulted the Suffragettes particularly, that I failed to fulfil my democratic duties, but this accusation I found the most fascinating: that, in rejecting Westminster, I was saying I didn’t believe things could be better.
Over time, writing this book and, more to the point, living under a coalition government, living in a post-crash Europe at the start of the 21st century, I have come to the opposite conclusion: that true political nihilism is in believing that voting is what politics is, dipping in every five years to throw in your lot, reluctantly, with a bunch of people whose ambitions and values get farther and farther away from your own. For a while I was actively opposed to voting, on the basis that it just encouraged them. I no longer feel actively hostile to the idea that I could vote for someone fractionally better, just to keep out someone fractionally worse. But it has to be the beginning and not the end; the jumping off point; the starting gun. Real change won’t start in the Houses of Parliament, and I wonder whether it ever will again.
People feel disconnected from mainstream politics because it doesn’t talk about the things that really concern them, or when it does, it is for cynical reasons which are later discarded, or in misleading terms that suffocate the debate rather than advance it. The best example in the first instance is climate change, which is huge in politics for expedient reasons, then disappears like an iceberg into the sea once the moment of necessity has passed. The best example in the second instance is housing: everybody knows that there is more than shortage at the bottom, there is a sea-change in the middle, where people on solid salaries can no longer afford the open market; that we are turning, rapidly, into a rentier society, which will change the way our children live. Everybody can see that, and yet the political offer is hopelessly meagre; the Labour party wants to build “up to” 200,000 houses a year. This is no more than the minimum number needed each year, and will do nothing to address the systemic problems that cause property prices to go up, with no correlative rise in wages. How far does this have to go? Do houses have to cost 20 times wages? Do doctors and lawyers and accountants have to be living in caravans? The fact is, everybody has noticed, except for Westminster. Conservatives, meanwhile, give us the Right to Buy housing association flats, even though the Right to Buy council flats is what got us halfway here in the first place. They’re trying to privatise something they don’t even own; it probably isn’t legal. If we’re dealing with the Roundheads and the Cavaliers, the Roundheads have never been less principled, and the Cavaliers never more cavalier.
Only pressure from the ground will solve this, an entire population, making demands at the most fundamental level: to change the system of money creation, to change the flood of credit for residential properties, to change buy-to-let, to change the fundamental conception of duty that a local authority has to its residents, to change what kind of shelter a person has a right to expect. Us, in other words: only we can figure this out, and only, in the first instance, by believing we can.
Get it Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics by Zoe Williams is out now.
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