Complaining about the state of politics in our country has become about as habitual as Lords Reform rejection. So, why is it that one particular complainer gets everyone so riled up? What is it about Russell Brand that makes people label him a dangerous radical when, like the majority of us, he’s simply expressing his exasperation at the current state of British politics. Why is his admission of abstention different to any other form of political expression? The answer is, it’s not. The only reason people consider such an expression to be dangerous is because it reveals the flaws in British democracy.
Elections have become the litmus test for democracy, but unfortunately that test is flawed. In Britain, the combination of a first past the post system and an electoral map made up of single-member constituencies has created a situation in which so-called marginal seats take precedence. Indeed, from a political strategist’s point of view it makes little sense to allocate resources to seats whose voters are unlikely to change their allegiance, even if they’re your own voters. Thus, during elections periods the voters which receive the most attention are those who make up these marginal seats.
Unfortunately, as a result of this targeting, the nature of the voters who constitute marginal seats can end up dictating the content of policy proposals, as political parties aim to please these swing voters. Indeed, swing voters are the unique minority who do not necessarily place political parties within a broad ideological framework or, if they do, this factor rarely plays a role in their voting decision. Therefore, a shared characteristic of swing voters, as the name suggests, is their centrist attitude to politics. Their lack of ideological prejudice means that not only are they moderate, but also that their vote is easily influenced.
This combination of factors leads to political parties tailoring their policies to a centrist political attitude, resulting in a mainstream politics which is largely out of sync with the rest of the electorate’s political interests. However, if this is the case, if the majority of the electorate are further left or further right of the mainstream political parties, how come the Green Party, the BNP, and now UKIP, have never had a following that can match that of either Labour or Conservative? It’s a good question and one whose answer is complex and not entirely understood.
However, today, one of the most significant factors in election outcomes – a factor which has become a trend in recent decades as the British political sphere has morphed into a two-party system – is tactical voting. Just because I put a tick in the box next to a particular political party, this doesn’t necessarily mean I believe in their policies. In an electoral system where some constituencies are one fifth of the size of others and where marginal seats tend to dictate election outcomes, tactical voting has become a necessity either in maintaining that constituency’s seat or in bolstering its main opposition.
As a result, the majority of the electorate end up lumping for either Labour or Conservative, simply as a means to keep the other party out of power. So when the Conservatives, in 2010, ended up with a majority of 36.1%, that did not translate as 36.1% of the electorate got what they wanted. In fact, most likely, only the portion of swing voters who put a cross next to their Conservative candidate really got what they wanted. We can’t even say for certain that the loyal Conservative base got what they wanted, because, well, they probably weren’t voting on policy proposals. The government they voted for might tick the box in terms of historical ideology, but that ideology doesn’t necessarily match their now very centrist policies.
So, what do we do? How do we resolve the problem that we’re stuck in a vicious cycle of prioritising swing voters and tactical voting? Change up your vote next time maybe. That’s what I’m going to do anyway, but I doubt it will help. My constituency is in Scotland where things have radically changed over the course of the past year, but we as a county probably still don’t have enough protest votes to sway the political make-up of Westminster. One thing which would, for sure, radically overhaul the system would be mass abstention. There’s no denying it, the most sensible thing to do, given that my vote will only count if it’s given to one of two political parties whose policies I largely disagree with, is to not vote. Abstention isn’t dangerous, it’s rational, and that’s what scares people about Russell Brand.