There are local elections today in the UK, and a vote in London to decide who’ll be Mayor for the next four years.
And there are referenda in several cities about whether or not to have an elected Mayor, as opposed to just a council leader, the head of the party with the most councillors.
Here’s what Matthew Parris had to say in 2005. It was about the general election that month, but the arguments are essentially the same for every election, general or local. This was originally published in The Times, and yes, it’s now behind a pay wall. But it wasn’t then, and I think it’s important enough to reproduce in full.
Seven bad, lazy reasons to vote on May 5
There is one and only one supreme and luminous reason for exercising your right to vote. But the rotten ones are numerous. Here are seven bad reasons for voting on May 5:
It’s your civic duty.
Our ancestors fought and died for the right to vote.
Governments need a mandate from voters.
Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.
If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.
Unless you vote you are lazy/apathetic/feeble/dim.
Voting is easy these days. You can do it by post.
It’s your duty
No it isn’t. How preposterous to use the language of civic responsibility like this. To make voting sound like picking up litter or taking a pooper scooper when you walk your dog, misrepresents the act of casting a vote. Voting is a solemn, considered and voluntary thing to do: you can choose; there should be no pressure. That you don’t have to dignifies the action.
Your grandfather fought for your democratic liberties
Well thanks, granddad, but we should not be blackmailed like this. Lost causes as well as good ones have their heroes and martyrs. Earlier generations fought and died for the Empire but when the time came to quit our colonies, we quit.
A government needs your mandate
But you can turn that on its head: “Don’t vote: it only encourages them.” Unless you, the voter, are personally persuaded that government action is needed and you can identify a party or candidate that you trust to take it, why swell the turnout in the vague belief that a big turnout in itself is somehow “good for democracy”? We vote for MPs, for parties, for manifestos and for governments; we do not vote for democracy.
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing
Lord Acton was right, but a British general election is not a fight against evil. It is a choice between different ideas for the betterment of society.
I know few men or women in politics whom I would call evil and it is silly to characterise our democratic process in these terms.
If you don’t vote, you can’t complain
Why not? Some might retort that those who did vote a party into government are the ones who cannot complain later. The truth is that we are each of us free to find fault with our political masters, whether or not we voted for them, or voted at all. It is our right.
It’s lazy, feeble, apathetic or stupid not to use your vote
It might be. But until politicians consider the other possibility, they will miss what makes politics tick.
There are millions in Britain who do have the time, the energy, the intelligence, the interest, the sense of responsibility. They want to vote. But they are unconvinced or unattracted by any of the parties or people on offer. They take a conscious decision to abstain.
It is time that our political class respected that decision and asked itself whether it might be the problem, rather than the voters.
Some MPs talk as though it were the electorate which needs chivvying up, not them.
It’s no sweat to vote by post
This is an insulting argument. That something takes no effort is the worst reason for doing it.
Politicians cut the ground from under their own feet when they try to make it effortless to vote, slashing the price, as it were, of stock that they are finding hard to shift. They devalue their calling and underestimate their electorate if they think special give-away offers – postal voting, text message voting, voting from your own sofa by pressing the red interactive button on your television set – are the way to stir us. You stir people by showing them something worthwhile, not by showing them something easy.
Our politicians need to take care that campaigns to increase turnout amount to more than a sneaky attempt to validate themselves, to boost their own sense of self-worth.
So much for the bad reasons for voting on May 5. Am I, you may ask, in danger of arguing myself out of my own opening statement: that democracy matters? By no means. There is only one good reason to vote but it is the best reason on earth.
Voting changes things.
Elections matter. For better or for worse, your life and mine in Britain have been shaped by the general elections since the Second World War. The changes in national mood and direction — huge changes in the country that we see around us — have been dictated by forces, some of which are beyond our control; but the ideological temper of the government of the day has been at the forefront of these forces, and this is within our control.
People sometimes talk as though social and economic change were like the weather; as though change happens to us. It does not. We, the electorate, choose change. There really are forks in history’s road.
And just as choosing a new road does not bring any immediate change in the countryside, so choosing a government seldom makes a sharp difference at first. Change is gradual, halting and slow, but in the end a new journey brings you to a new place.
Look at some of those key elections since the end of the Second World War. If, in 1945, Winston Churchill and another Conservative Government had been returned, we would not have had the National Health Service. Sooner or later, some sort of medical help for the poorest would have been brought in by any government, but not the NHS as we know it.
That was what the British people were voting for in 1945, and we got it. We got – we chose – the nationalisation of British industry too. If the Tories had not been elected in 1951, that nationalisation would have continued towards a full-blooded socialism which, in the event, Britain never tried. We changed our mind.
If Edward Heath had not been elected in 1970 it is unlikely that Britain would have entered the Common Market when we did, and uncertain that we would have ever done so. Entry did not just happen: it was brought about by the absolute determination of one man. We the voters put him there.
Does anybody – friend or foe of Thatcherism – really think that Britain in 2005 would be or feel anything like the country we recognise today if the general election of 1979 had not brought Margaret Thatcher to power? The sale of council houses, the privatisation of state industry, the Falklands conflict, the shackling of the trades unions — the list is formidable.
That election presented a brutal but simple choice, as the voters recognised. A quarter of a century later, the choice is more subtle but I think that voters on May 5 will understand it well enough. It is not really about bringing in a Conservative government, although that is what the Tories must pretend. It is about the raising up or the humbling of a Labour Prime Minister.
The country is being asked to give the thumbs up, or the thumbs down, to the most presidential PM we have had. If you think that whether Tony Blair walks out of May 6 and into May 7 with a limp or with a swagger, will make no difference to the years ahead, you will live to revise that opinion.
Elections swing things. There are some who recognise this, who have views on which way things should be swung – and who still stay home on polling day. “What difference is my vote alone likely to make?” they ask.
The honest answer in most constituencies is “probably none”. But most – almost all – collective human effort is the same. In how much that we do is our own effort the critical, the make-or-break contribution? Does this stop us singing in a choir, contributing to a charity, joining a demonstration or supporting a football club? A desert dune moves so slowly that motion is almost imperceptible at first. It moves by the windborne propulsion of a billion individual particles of sand, separately and one by one, flying from the windward to the leeward. No individual particle makes a discernible difference. Yet the movement of the whole can bury pyramids.
In a vast democracy like ours, each of us is no more than a single piece of grit. But when we move together, history moves. So if you feel the wind, fly. It’s called voting.
Matthew Parris is a Times writer and columnist of the year