Opinion: Is it really worth voting in the General Election this time? Says Matt Gaw

Voting isn't the only form of political engagement

Voting isn't the only form of political engagement - Credit: PA

The ideological machine that is meant to serve us has gone wrong and is tyrannising us, but that doesn’t mean we should boycott the ballot box

The race for Number 10 is on.

With the dissolution of parliament yesterday the starting gun for the General Election – billed as the closest and most exciting in living memory – has finally been fired.

For the next five weeks, media outlets across the country (including this one) will dedicate pages of newsprint to who will be lowering their handsomely paid rump onto a parliamentary seat. There will be swingometers, polls, kissed babies and more political pamphlets than can be sensibly contained in the cat’s litter tray.

But despite all the brouhaha about changing political landscapes or speculation about which party will be left holding the balance of power, I have found it hard to get excited. In fact, despite using my vote at every opportunity since turning 18, I admit I have even thought about sitting this one out.

Because no matter what party gets in I can’t see there being any real change beyond a soft shoe shuffle to the left or right of centre – the ruling party will remain wedded to a system shaped and warped by globalisation and the increasing entanglement between private and public sectors.

Political scientist Colin Crouch famously described the situation as being post democratic. This is essentially the idea that although states are being run by democratic systems (i.e. there are elections, governments are selected and rejected, there is freedom of speech) the application of those systems is extremely limited.

Most Read

Instead, democracy becomes more akin to an aristocratic regime, with politics and business becoming regular bedfellows. After all, lobbying companies, especially multinational corporations, are in a much stronger position to affect legislation than any inhabitant of the state.

It seems that, as Russell Brand said in a roundabout, Booky Wook way, the ideological machine that is meant to serve us has gone wrong and is tyrannising us, standing in the way of real change – a change that might stop the richest 1% of British people having as much as the bottom 55% combined.

The notion, then, of casting a vote (especially in a region that is likely to see few seats change hand) seems depressingly futile. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that this view is borne out by statistics.

According to the Electoral Commission, the past four General Elections have recorded the lowest ever voter registration rates, with millions staying away from the polls.

Young people especially have been absent from the voters’ register. Figures released in 2014 stated that 70.2% of 20 to 24-year-olds registered to vote compared with more than 95% of those over retirement age.

In 2010, only 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the General Election compared with 76% of people aged 65 and over.

It seems that sizeable increases in student fees, cuts to youth services and anxieties over jobs and housing have left the young feeling ostracised by politics, rather than galvanised to vote.

So will I be joining them in boycotting the ballot? Well, no. Because, while I agree that a single cross on a voting slip is unlikely to bring about a much-needed root and branch review of the entire system, it is a start.

Choosing a candidate or political party that you feel represents you may not result in a new or different Government (I think it was only in 1997 my chosen candidate didn’t lose their deposit), but it is still a powerful statement. It is an expression of belief, of desire or, at the very least, hope.

The thing to remember if we are serious about bringing about real change is that our political engagement should not start and end in the polling booth.

There are numerous recent examples that demonstrate how social change is still possible in a post-democratic age. Take the case of Focus E15 in Newham – 29 single homeless mothers who were told they were to be evicted from their hostel.

After following all the “correct channels” they set up their own campaign. They stormed council offices, held a party in the show flat of the housing association that was evicting them – they got the media’s attention.

It soon turned out that the eviction notices were a mistake.

Or what about Greenpeace’s Lego campaign? Their film led to six million people pressuring the toymaker to cancel sponsorship with oil giant Shell.

This is why I believe initiatives to encourage young people to vote through smartphone apps, vlogging and social media campaigns are so important. Not because it might mean that the five million strong youth vote would mean the political elite would have to take notice (it really could), but because it might start to change how people think about politics. After all the real issue is not so much about just getting people to vote, but getting them engaged.