How voting ‘none’ in May could transform UK politics

There is an ‘unheard third’ of the UK who choose not to vote in general elections. But, argues Simon Pardoe, by turning up at the polls, even to vote ‘none’, they could help change the system that they seem so dissatisfied with

Vote or Vote None is a new campaign to inspire young voters, and to challenge the unheard 34 percent who didn’t vote in the 2010 general election, to take part in the democratic process.

The call is to either vote for a candidate who you trust to work hard for things you believe in, or vote for ‘none’ in protest. The point is that there’s no reason to be silent.

So why now? Unless something significant changes, a third of registered voters may not vote in this election. Moreover, if a single party wins a parliamentary majority, as the two main parties want, it is likely to be with the support of less than a quarter of registered voters. In 2005 Labour won with 22 percent of registered voters, while 38 percent didn’t vote. In 2010 the Conservatives received 23 percent of registered voters.

The figures should be a national scandal, not just for our democracy, but for the lack of legitimacy or mandate for the winning party to implement policies. Yet it all remains invisible, partly because the ‘unheard third’ of the electorate are not included in the results and are dismissed as apathetic.

“It gives us all an opportunity to show that there is political opinion that is not currently represented by the parties.”

The solution is surely not to persuade people to vote when they can’t see the point, or make voting easier or compulsory for new voters. It’s more radical: to engage everyone in making this election work to improve UK politics.

Why vote? In our electoral system, even committed voters feel defeated by the idea that to vote for who they really want would be a ‘wasted vote’. In every election, the two main parties generate fear about the other, and then claim that a vote for any other smaller party is a wasted vote that will just let the other side in. It’s negative politics.

Yet any claim of a wasted vote is undermined if we include all registered voters in the election results. The margin by which the winning party win is usually tiny compared with the number who didn’t vote at all.

So if just some of the ‘unheard third’ vote this time, then almost any result is possible. Suddenly there’s every reason to vote positively for the party or candidate we believe in, rather than just those who did well before.

Why vote ‘none’? Many people consider that none of the parties will make any difference. Russell Brand makes that case strongly on the basis that all the political parties will not, and cannot, challenge the international corporations or undo the international trade deals that create injustice, inequality and environmental destruction.

Younger people in particular are engaged by direct action on issues where party politics says little, or lags behind. Whatever your politics, the issue is whether our democratic process can acknowledge that political opinion exists beyond what is currently represented by the parties. If not, then the most important debates may be left outside the democratic process, and outside parliament and government.

Edward Abbey famously said that “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul”. Indeed, it doesn’t take a psychologist to tell us that if people are denied a democratic voice on the issues that matter most, dissatisfaction can lead to anger, despair and alienation. That is where we are.

In a council election in the UK, faced with an overwhelming public anger at UK politics and determination not to vote, I found myself in despair suggesting that people show it by voting ‘none’. To my surprise, it shifted those conversations into positive discussions about how to improve UK politics.

“I found myself in despair suggesting that people vote ‘none’. To my surprise, it shifted those conversations into positive discussions about how to improve UK politics.”

I realised that whereas not voting can be an end to thinking and engagement, the option to vote ‘none’ can re-engage people in thinking about politics and democracy. With the option to protest, there’s no reason to be silent, and every reason to think about what to do.

In France, Spain and Ukraine for example, the protest vote is an important democratic tradition, included on the ballot. In the US last year, Nevada Democrats picked ‘none of these candidates’ for governor nominations, as a damning comment on all the candidates.

So is there a case for it here? Even as a committed voter, I can recognise that our elections are like the proverbial soviet referendum, where you can only say ‘yes’ to what is on offer. There have been campaigns requesting None of the Above (NOTA) on the ballot for many years. But like the UK campaigns for votes for women in the early 20th century, success doesn’t come just from asking. The demand for NOTA can and should be demonstrated. A political change is better understood, better used, and potentially more powerful if it is demanded from the bottom, not delivered from the top. In this case, potential protest voters already have the vote.

The existing Electoral Commission guidance on counting votes requires that all ballot papers be counted and announced, including those ‘rejected’ for not selecting a candidate. These ‘rejected’ ballot papers must be classified into four categories. Yet political protest is effectively silenced by mixing protest votes with mistakes and others rejected as ‘voter’s intention uncertain’.

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If just some of the unheard 34 percent vote ‘none’ clearly, beyond dispute, then the sheer numbers of ‘uncertain votes’ will be newsworthy and make that classification indefensible. It can establish the protest vote as a healthy barometer of political dissent.

So how do you vote ‘none’ clearly? Write ‘NONE’ across the ballot paper, and put a single line through all the boxes. Don’t just leave it blank, and don’t include a cross or tick or any other writing.

What does it achieve? Why is it better than not voting? Every government needs to claim a mandate to govern based on voters’ support. So voting ‘none’ makes visible the current lack of support for those elected and their lack of mandate. It enables the ‘unheard third’ to act democratically to demonstrate opposition rather than apathy.

“If just some of the unheard third vote ‘none’ clearly, beyond dispute, then the sheer numbers of uncertain votes will make the classification indefensible.”

Most of all, it gives us all an opportunity to show that there is political opinion that is not currently represented by the parties, and that there really is support for different candidates, different policies and potentially different politics.

As with all protest, the ways in which politicians and others then act on it, or ignore it, will become part of the political debate. It changes the debate by adding strength to dissent.

What if ‘none’ wins in a constituency? It should require a new election to inspire different candidates. But ‘none’ doesn’t need to win to achieve those goals.

Whether you vote, or vote ‘none’, we can together make this election work to improve our elected representatives, improve UK politics and so revitalise our democracy. It’s urgent. There is no reason to be silent.

For more information: VoteOrVoteNone.org.uk

Photo title: “If just some of the ‘unheard third’ vote this time, then almost any result is possible” - Simon Pardoe

Photo credit: © Adam Wyles

  • cynique

    People who don’t vote are not qualified to vote so why would we want their vote anyway?
    The point of democracy is to have or support an idea, not to support the lack of an idea.

  • Jamie Stanley

    Incorrect. In a true democracy what you say would be true. But in a rigged, two party oligarchy masquerading as democracy it isn’t. In such a system if you DO vote you can’t complain. People didn’t fight and die for the right to vote as many people believe. They fought and died for freedom from tyranny, which includes the right to vote in a true democracy. At no point were those people fighting for the right to prop up the corrupted anti-democratic system we have today. If you want to honour those people, instead of endorsing something which patently isn’t the democracy they fought for, work on reforming it until is one. Most people who don’t vote understand all this. It has nothing to do with apathy.

  • Jamie Stanley

    The vote ‘none’ campaign is a good way to potentially raise awareness of the need for a formal None of the Above option on ballot papers. But it is important to realise that no matter how many people do this it can in no way affect the result. NOTA UK’s campaign for actual NOTA is making great headway. Thanks to our lobbying and the public getting involved in their consultation, a parliamentary select committee looking into voter engagement felt compelled to recommend in their final report in February that the next government consult before May 2016 solely on inclusion of NOTA on ballot papers. If we unite, build a massive movement for NOTA and pile on the pressure between now and then we could make it a reality. Please direct people to our campaign website and petition: http://www.notauk.org https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/inclusion-of-an-official-none-of-the-above-option-for-all-uk-elections-2 A recent article on our campaign: http://rt.com/uk/250349-none-above-ballot-option/

  • Paul Moore

    well said , i find myself agreeing with you. The old saying .” No Matter who i vote for the Wrong Party always gets in” or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-pT-w7qFl4

  • spike

    @cynique
    Rubbish I know I have better ideas then most of the party manifestos.

    People still like moaning more then trying to do something about all the shit!

    I will vote green knowing that they are the best of a bad lot, but I would still vote none otherwise

    We are acting like we have the choice not to act we don’t. but we do have the choice to push things in a better direction

    I wish voting was fucking mandatory. So sick of seeing the poor get brutalised by austerity

  • spike

    @cynique
    Rubbish I know I have better ideas then most of the party manifestos.

    People still like moaning more then trying to do something about it how sad they are

    I will vote green knowing that they are the best of a bad lot, but I would still vote none otherwise

    We are acting like we have the choice not to act we don’t. but we do have the choice to push things in a better direction

    I wish voting was fucking mandatory. So sick of seeing the poor get brutalised by austerity

  • David

    It is normal for the candidates and their agents to be shown the spoiled ballot papers before the result is announced, so that they can challenge any that should be accepted. So if you can’t see a good reason to vote for any of them: or know a good reason why not, write it clearly and concisely on the ballot paper; hopefully they’ll all see your message, albeit very briefly.

  • voluntaryfree

    See the video
    The most dangerous supersition or message to the voting cattle from Larken Rose.com
    Or read his book if you have the time, it is free on the internet.
    Peace

  • cynique

    “Most people who don’t vote understand all this.”
    Wrong; most people who don’t vote have no understanding.

  • Vivienne Dobbie

    For a long time now, I have been encouraging people to write ‘no confidence’ across their ballot paper. We then can’t be accused of apathy. But solutions are needed too and I suggest we completely get rid of PARTY politics because that has just become a battle of egos and has little to do with the rest of us. How about we have area representatives. We vote in our local representative – the person we think will stand for what we, the ordinary people need – nothing to do with any party. Once in parliament, those representatives can be voted, by fellow members, to go into, or head, departments if they have a particular talent for or wish to work in .Issues are brought up, discussed and voted on as is now the case. But winning or losing for your party is no longer relevant. I believe this could change how our country is run and create a fairer regime. May I recommend the book ‘Bloodless Revolution’ by Vernon Coleman for similar ideas.

  • Pen Nomad

    A NON vote would still allow a Labour or Conservative to Win!!!
    and give them another 5 years to make sure a NON vote wasn’t acceptable next time…..

    The time of ‘Tactical Voting’ is past… This could be the LAST CHANCE to change things peacefully …………………………. ……………..
    If the Greens don’t win this time then ,,, all we can do is: ”Cry Havoc and Let Slip The Dogs of [civil] War” …… because that is what it will come to eventually if Labour or Conservative win again …

  • cynique

    Clearly merely voting for someone to make our decisions for us is not true democracy; with the advent of online voting we could see the end of representative democracy altogether via direct and universal referendums on all issues.

  • cynique

    But voting ‘none’ rather than not voting altogether is of little consequence, it is no longer apathy rather antipathy and still achieves nothing; beware your own self fulling prophesies – you have rights to and opportunities for self-governance, however, you could readily lose those by giving opportunity to those who would really return you to the status of livestock.

  • Andy

    I’m beginning to think that a good option might be to entirely supersede the establishment… grassroots people carefully building a new platform for representatives, (largely online), with the aim of creating a new government without the corruption of party politics or corporate interference.

    If it gained the support of a majority of the population, the current establishment would lose it’s mandate to govern.

    Campaign funds could be raised by crowd funding, with strict caps on donation amounts and no corporate sponsorship allowed.

    The Alternative vote, if used, would remove the perceived need for strategic voting.

    Of course… it’s never going to happen. Even if, as I suspect, the people who support an alternative to the establishment outnumber those who actively support the establishment… an even greater body of people don’t really care enough to explore, research and apply the full extent of their political power.

    Not yet anyway, and it may be too late before they do… too late for the environment, too late for civil rights, too late for so many things. The future looks bleak.

  • Keith

    Sorry, but to disagree with people who under the auspices of serving the public good, use their position to serve themselves by cheating the public! Do you not think that is an idea that needs to be put out there for discussion. Respect for all comes from respect for each other we each have responsibility to keep individuals trustworthy. I qualify to vote along with many others who equally think corruption is unacceptable. Who also think many differing things about the system’s approach to representation and more. Because they disagree with you, is that qualification to be ignored? No,democracy is surely an attempt to enable every individual to be heard on what truly is of importance to them. Then when they have been given voice to their issue then the majority view with a fullest possible group of facts and ideas about transparent process create a group of representatives who will continue to keep the range of ideas discussed at crucial times!

  • Keith

    Do not choose the best of a bad bunch if you think none then say none! Otherwise how can we all know what you truly believe?

  • Keith

    What makes you so sure you are the only one who knows anything?

  • Keith

    Terrific …Rational thought!

  • Bob

    I rarely vote, Labour win anyway in our city whoever the candidate is and don’t they know it arrogant, blatant abuse of their position. Now SNP and/or Plaid Cymru want to team up with Labour even though they hate each other just to get into power, just goes to show the so called manifestos go out the window when they get a sniff of power. Why would anyone in Scotland bother voting against Labour either way they get Labour! Go and see some real people most don’t give a hoot who is in power and that includes those that drink and smoke there rent allowance, in fact just go asking the general public questions like ‘when is poling day’ ‘who is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’ ‘name five candidates’ or ‘who is your local MP’ you will soon get the picture, so the idea of going to the polling station to NOT vote for anyone is pathetic, you need more time off!

  • Simon Pardoe

    Cynique wrote: “People who don’t vote are not qualified to vote so why would we want their vote anyway?”
    SP: Errr. That is a basis for a dictatorship by an elite who think they know best. It serves them well, but is usually hell for everyone else, as it loses all the safeguards of democracy.

    Cynique wrote: “The point of democracy is to have or support an idea, not to support the lack of an idea.”
    SP: As I argued, there will always be political opinion beyond what is currently represented by the parties. Voting None is a protest to show there are issues and priorities which the parties are not addressing, or vital things they are not doing. It is certainly not about voting for a lack of ideas.

    Jamie wrote: “Most people who don’t vote understand all this.”
    SP: I agree that people who don’t vote often have a different understanding of it. The convenient apathy story will of course be true in some cases, but apathy can be created by a lifetime of disempowerment, disillusionment and despair. As the Ipsos Mori polls in 2010 show, it is the less privaleged who don’t vote. I infer from that, that the people who know the system doesn’t work for them, are less likely to see any point in voting. But as I describe, my experience is that the most determined negativity can have some underlying shared hope. To revitalise this democracy, the challenge is to give voice to that hope, first as protest to show a demand for something different.

    Agree on the ‘freedom from tyranny’ point.

    Spike wrote: “I know I have better ideas then most of the party manifestos.”
    SP: I think everyone can sometimes have that feeling! If you have particular life experience of an issue, or know reliable scientific evidence, then it can be true. However, when the elite believe they know best beyond doubt, it leads to dictatorships and corruption. When one whole section of society believes they know best beyond question, it can become fascism. The challenge of democracy, like living together, is to recognise that other people have experiences and knowledge we may not have, and may be acting wisely even when it appears stupid to us. Politicians need to do far more of that, as well as citizens. It doesn’t mean do nothing; it means engage and listen as well as shout.

    David wrote: “It is normal for the candidates and their agents to be shown the spoiled ballot papers before the result is announced, so that they can challenge any that should be accepted”
    SP: Yes, it’s a procedure to avoid counting bias or errors, and an opportunity for the candidates to check whether any ballot may be a vote for them. However, I doubt that any written comment will change their thinking. To make a difference, your vote has to affect candidates’ jobs, and affect the claims by the parties’ to have a mandate to govern. That means getting your vote counted – either as a vote for a candidate or as a clear protest vote. If you write stuff, it will just make it legitimate to classify it as ‘voter intention uncertain’. As I argued, the challenge for 2015 is to multiply the protest votes and make them so clear that this classification of ‘uncertain’ becomes indefensible in practice.

  • John V Denley

    Are you sure his seat is at safe as you think, if all registered voters actually turned up and to vote?

    http://www.votenone.org.uk/real-election-results.html

  • mark Flanagan

    We are doing something similar and if you live in Leeds North West, Cheadle, Ealing Central and Acton, Clwyd West or Sheffield Central you can Voteaboveandbeyond Voteaboveandbeyond.org… The party of none of the Above.

  • Vivienne Dobbie

    My daughter recently put the idea of online voting to me and it does seem like a way forward. Also, I think we have to remember that things take time and have to start somewhere. Someone has to start the changes and have the faith and courage to do so even if they don’t live to see those changes happen… just as the suffragettes did all that time ago.

  • cynique

    Simon wrote ‘blah, blah, blah’…
    lol, Sorry – wait, no i’m not.

    The point is, dear darling, that if you think not voting will achieve something and you that you wont get ‘a dictatorship’ that way, you should probably be locked up to prevent you from voting; or prove me wrong.

  • Rachel

    I totally agree.

  • Simon Pardoe

    Not voting does not achieve anything. That is the point of the article. I was responding to your anti-democratic statement that “People who don’t vote are not qualified to vote so why would we want their vote anyway?” Having spent most of my life working in social research, public consultations and second chance education, I have a more positive view of the great British public.

  • Simon Pardoe

    (You can use the article to link to your own campaign. But link back too.)

    To reiterate: “There have been campaigns requesting None of the Above (NOTA) on the ballot for many years. But like the UK campaigns for votes for women in the early 20th century, success doesn’t come just from asking. The demand for NOTA can and should be demonstrated. A political change is better understood, better used, and potentially more powerful if it is demanded from the bottom, not delivered from the top. In this case, potential protest voters already have the vote.”

    Adding a NOTA box to the ballot won’t suddenly get 16 million non-voters to vote NOTA. Neither does it give the NOTA vote any real power. Indeed, whether we ever need a NOTA box formally on the ballot is another question. The real challenge is the re-engagement of people in democracy and hope, not an administrative change. It requires just some of the ‘unheard third’ to re-engage to show the lack of mandate of the government, show there are priorities beyond those of the current parties, and demonstrate there is actually a demand for better politics rather than apathy.

    More than any petition, that will make the case for the protest vote. By numbers and clarity, it will make the Commission’s current lack of a protest vote category untenable. Protest and direct action change the debate. So yes, if the 1% protest vote is multiplied by some of the 34% who didn’t vote last time, and the votes are clear, it will fundamentally change the result of this election.

  • Andy

    your idea has some weight, but it relies on the media reporting “voter intention uncertain” as equating to “NOTA” – otherwise the touchpaper won’t even get lit on a debate about reforming our miserable sham of a democracy.

    You and I both know that the media aren’t interested in that kind of story: post-election coverage will be an endless stream of statistics, pundits and party political stooges discussing what the 68% who VOTED have decided to vote for, not the other 32%.

    Without a way forward which comes from inside Westminster, I’m afraid we’re all just howling into the void of entrenched and vested interests.

  • BF

    There are lots of rational reasons not to vote. For example, the realisation that your vote only counts if the election would otherwise be exactly drawn, something that for a general election literally wouldn’t happen in a million years. Or because you don’t know who the best candidate is (because you recognise that you don’t know enough about politics/economics, and even if you did, you wouldn’t be confident that the candidate would implement their policies or what their outcome would be). Or because you don’t approve of first-past-the-post voting as it’s often grossly unrepresentative. Or indeed because you ‘can’t be bothered’ – not necessarily indicating apathy but because you realise that the benefits of voting (infinitesimal chance of influencing the outcome) are smaller than the costs (your time) and so it genuinely isn’t worth the effort.

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