‘Choice’ and party politics: how to make your vote count when no party seems worth supporting

If you’re a Republican or Democrat in the US, Tory and Labourite in the UK, or Liberal or Labor supporter in Australia then when elections come around in a sense you have a choice.

By choice I mean two things:Photo by sterik_valen from Flickr licensed using Creative Commons

  1. you are able to vote for someone whose approach you broadly believe in, and, 
  2. your vote’counts’ because in all these two party states (note that’s only one more party than a “one party state”) there is not a huge gulf between both party’s vote share (as both are always trying to capture the middle ground)  so there is always a reasonable chance of a change of government (for the moment let’s ignore the generally powerless nature of voting in a ‘safe seat’).

Now consider the rest of us: those of us who typically vote for minority parties, those of us who don’t vote at all (sometimes because we don’t feel knowledgeable enough to even make a meaningful choice), and those of us who hold our noses and vote for the ‘least worst’ of the two parties.

Just how many of these people are there? i.e. people who don’t vote at all, or don’t vote for one of the major parties (obviously we can’t really tell who is holding their noses).

Well I included Australia in the list because bizarrely if you don’t vote there you even get fined by law! So as much as we can talk about the dubious nature of compulsory voting we can’t talk about turnout. However we can still look at how many votes voted for one of the two major parties, the Liberals or Labour. And as it happens 79% of the population voted in the national 2008 election for one of the above. Sounds ok (perhaps) until you realize that 20% of the population never had a chance of their party being elected (or other words 1 in 5 people in the electorate could be said to be ‘disenfranchised’ in that their choice of party was never going to exercise power).

What about the UK? Well in the last national election in 2005 turnout was 61%  – so straight off we can say that 39% of the population (or roughly 2 people in 5) did not feel that they had much in the way of political choice. And if we look at those who voted for the Tories or Labour that is only 67% of the 61% of voter age population who actually voted. Let’s say that less than half the voter population had a real choice.

Finally the US. Well the 2004 presidential elections saw voter turnout of 55% i.e. almost 1 in 2 people didn’t consider they had a worthwhile choice.

Still feeling isolated because you can’t bring yourself to align with one the major parties with a real chance of winning government?

Well you’re joining in excess of 20% of the voter population in Australia, in excess of 50% of the voter population of the UK, and 45% of the voter population of America.

This is a huge number of people who are essentially outside the political system and even given the size of those numbers a conservative estimate. Why? Because many of the two party supporters voted in ‘safe seats’ where there was never any real chance of unseating the incumbent.

So what is this huge mass of people (let’s call them the ‘non-aligned voters’) supposed to do when elections roll around?

We want our voice to be heard, but not by singing friom either of the two major hymn-sheets.

It looks like the answer lies outside the major parties in the non-aligned political movements who fund campaigns on individual issues.

Specifically we can find a home in organisations who specifically do not want to be elected to minority seats but want to actively influence policy formation. Organisations ranging from single issue groups like Greenpeace, to multi-issue groups like moveon.org or getup.org.au in Australia (for the moment there appears to be no pre-eminent players in the multi-issue space in the UK).

The traditional political parties have nothing to offer and the numbers reflect it. Over the last 50 years or so certainly in Australia and the UK the number of major party memberships has dropped like a stone (for example around 1950 the Torys in the UK had 3m members – their membership is now estimated to be around 300,000). As party membership dried up in Australia the major parties even decided they needed to dip into the public purse to fund their election campaigns (they are now paid a bounty out of the public purse for every vote they garner in the general election!).

Fundamentally these parties have proven unwilling (what incentive do they have to do otherwise?) to shake up the system that delivers them power with such low levels of general support (most parties are elected to government with by far and away a minority of the population).  It’s as if your bank operated like it did in the 1950s with no online access to your accounts, no sophisticated savings products, and it opened for very limited trading hours (like once every few years …).

Pretty bleak huh?

Well there might be a silver lining of sorts….

As the ‘non-aligned’ mass of people dissillusioned with the present political menu grows (the 2001 election turnout in the UK was the lowest for almost a century) the ability of parties to ‘sell’ their policies whilst in goverment has greatly diminished.

Increasingly governing (in the sense of running the executive arm of government) has less to do with elections and everything to do with negotiating with powerful lobby groups who have interests in relation to your leglslative agenda.

Organisations like GetUp and Moveon are doing what political parties are not doing: becoming lobby groups that enable people to engage on single issues (why shouldn’t you be able to do this – you’re unlikely to agree with every single policy your party has across the board), feeding people regular information by email (rather than a leaflet through the door every few years), and providing people with an electronic space which includes polls to express their views.

They’re not winning elections but they are definitely influencing government and they are giving the ‘non-aligned’ a sense of choice again. 

It’s hard to understand why the major parties can’t see this… but then on the other hand as an elected representative the smaller your support group the easier it is to manage.

This article filed under the following 'Interest' categories (click category for more) Unanswerable questions

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Article posted by @Drivelry on September 14, 2008

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