Dear Russell and Brian,
In the run up to this year’s UK general election, I have been closely following your respective approaches to getting people to engage with the pressing problems of our times.
On the surface of it, you both appear to be wanting the same thing: a fairer, more humane, compassionate and environmentally sustainable society with communities and ordinary people calling the shots as opposed to career politicians and corporate lackeys.
Russell, your message is much more nuanced than the simplified ‘don’t vote’ version of it regularly cited by the mainstream media. What you are basically saying is we need to disengage from the established political system as it is not fit for purpose and instead become politically active at the grass roots level.
Conversely, your message Brian is essentially get involved with the political system as it is by voting for decent candidates and policies in the hope that that will lead to the kind of changes you want to see.
As understandable and commendable as both these approaches are, the truth is that on their own neither of them can work in the long term.
I absolutely agree with you Russell that people need to look outside of the established political system and manage their own communities at a grass roots level. But that established political system will trundle on regardless, awarding thoroughly undeserving, corporately sponsored people disproportionate amounts of real power to ruin the lives of everybody else. So in conjunction with the grass roots engagement you espouse, we urgently need to radically reform the established political system into something that runs parallel to it and compliments those efforts – otherwise attempting to achieve real progress becomes a long, drawn out, stress and disease inducing battle with authority and bureaucracy. The New Era Estate campaign that you championed was inspiring and a perfect example of how and why people can win through when they organise and unite against injustice and corruption. But people shouldn’t have to go through all that just to get what is right. Not everybody has the gumption and fight in them that those people on that estate had. And for those that do, the stress levels involved with taking on the system undoubtedly take their toll in the long run. We need to create a society where it is not possible in the first place for people’s lives to be so utterly disregarded and ruined by a minority in pursuit of short term financial gain.
I also absolutely agree with you Brian that people should be able to influence decision making at a macro, societal level by engaging with the systems already in place. But, unfortunately, the established political system is absolutely a closed shop designed to ensure that no meaningful change of the guard can ever take place. I have written at length elsewhere about why this is the case. In a nutshell, no matter how many people vote and no matter who they vote for, the voting system in the UK guarantees that only one of two establishment parties can ever call the shots in government, even in the age of hung parliaments and coalitions. So Russell is 100% correct to say that engagement with that system in its current form is futile.
As stated, the problem is that this system trundles on regardless. Technically, even if considerably less than 50% of the population were to not vote at a general election, a government would still be able to claim a mandate as our system is not about vote share but seats: they will always be able to achieve a majority of seats in parliament and claim that that is sufficient mandate to govern. Yes, there would be an outcry and much hand wringing and calls for reform in that scenario. But technically there’d be nothing anyone could do about it. No amount of endorsing such a system by voting is going to change that paradigm. But, similarly, no amount of grass roots activism is going to prevent people of the political class from wielding disproportionate amounts of power over everybody else.
The solution to this problem, clearly, is to radically evolve the very systems by which governments are formed in the first place, in conjunction with grass roots activism, so that communities and ordinary people are truly represented at all levels of societal decision making. The million dollar question then is: “How on earth do we do that?”
There is a reason why I have devoted so much of my life over the past five years to campaigning for inclusion of an official None of the Above (NOTA) option on ballot papers – with formalised consequences for the result if the majority choose it – ahead of all other possible reforms and worthy causes. When you truly understand how the current electoral system works, it becomes clear that no meaningful reform of the kind that the Electoral Reform Society campaigns for (PR, right to recall, elected House of Lords etc.) can ever be achieved in the current paradigm. Because the only people that have the power to enact those changes have everything to lose and nothing to gain from doing so and there is currently no way of officially challenging their authority and forcing the issue.
By contrast, inclusion of NOTA on ballot papers is 100% achievable in the current paradigm as it can be clearly shown to be a democratic pre-requisite, impossible to argue against without arguing against democracy itself, once properly understood. This is because consent, central to the concept of democracy, is only truly measurable if it is possible to withhold consent. In the context of elections, consenting (voting) is a formal act. Therefore the withholding of consent must be formal also. Neither abstaining or ballot spoiling constitute the formal withholding of consent as both acts can be construed otherwise and neither affects the result in any way. The only way to formally withhold consent at an election is via a formal NOTA option on the ballot paper.
The powers that be can never be seen to be anti-democratic, even if they secretly are in practice. It stands to reason then, that with enough understanding among the general public of NOTA being 100% essential in any system claiming to be a democracy, it would become an inevitable government concession. This is essentially how votes for women and and the NHS were won. They weren’t benevolent gifts from on high, they were concessions to appease an increasingly politically aware populous. So could it be with NOTA.
Clearly, the fact that no reform other than NOTA is achievable at this time is not necessarily reason enough to champion it. But an understanding of how a post-NOTA inclusion political landscape would look is.
Introducing the possibility for the electorate to reject all candidates and parties on offer at an election would have a huge impact on the system as a whole. No party is going to want to be embarrassingly beaten at the polls by NOTA voters are they. So it follows that this potential would force them to put forward more ‘decent’ policies and candidates that would appeal to many more voters, potential NOTA voters included. So already, an organic levelling off and cleaning up of the political landscape will have occurred. The current two party oligarchy, while still favoured by the First Past The Post system, would for the first time be under threat as those parties will be just as vulnerable as any other to being visibly rejected by more people than not at the polls. In this new paradigm, the potential for further democratic reform would be greatly increased.
This is why NOTA is the ground zero of electoral reform upon which further democratic progress could be built. If we accept that the system cannot be ignored and must change, and if we accept that no other meaningful electoral reform is possible at this time, then we must also accept that campaigning for inclusion of NOTA, alongside grass roots activism, is the logical starting point for taking the power back.
Russell, you are right to call for disengagement from the current political system and encourage grass roots, community engagement. But we need to reform that system as well, otherwise we will always be on the back foot, stronger in numbers but out-gunned where it matters. There is a way to do this. It’s called NOTA.
Brian, you are right to want to see increased engagement with the current political system making a real difference. But the sad truth is that it can’t, currently. They have it sewn up. Engagement with the current system is simply to endorse it and ensure its continuation. We need to change the game before we play it. There is a way to do this. It’s called NOTA.
Thanks to NOTA UK’s lobbying, the parliamentary Political & Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) felt compelled to explicitly recommend in its final report, published in February, that the next government consult before May 2016 specifically on the issue of inclusion of a formal NOTA option on UK ballot papers for all future national elections. So we have an unprecedented window of opportunity to push for real and lasting democratic reform. This is a huge development. With that in mind, I have written an open letter to all party leaders asking them to state for the record where they stand on this issue. As yet, none have responded.
The three of us, you with your respective audiences and me with a clear, logically sound path to real electoral reform and a growing movement of people getting behind it, could genuinely make history. But all the while we are pulling in different directions, I’m afraid it will be business as usual for those holding the reigns of power for the foreseeable future.
Feel free to contact me via email ( stan(at)nota-uk.org ), I’d be more than happy to discuss these issues with you.