General Election 2015: Why I have decided not to vote this year
When Russell Brand said last year that he had never voted, and urged others to follow his example, much of the political commentariat lamented his irresponsibility.
As ever with Brand, his thinking was faulty. He seemed to believe that politics itself did not matter. In his view, all politicians are much the same.
History shows him to be wrong. One only has to think how crucial the election results which made Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister were to the economic and social landscape of the country. While few would suggest either of the main party leaders today would transform Britain in the same way, the General Election arguably sees a sharper divide between the two parties than at any time in the past two decades.
The importance of politics, however, does not automatically mean that voting itself is important, or impose a duty on us to do it. In fact, although Brand now urges people to vote Green, I’ve decided after long and careful thought to abstain.
This is not a principled objection to voting. As an economist, I recognise that the probability of my vote having a decisive impact on the outcome in my constituency is infinitesimal. The expected benefit of voting is therefore tiny, and is likely to be exceeded by the (albeit small) cost of me bothering to walk to the polling station. On this balance alone, a rational person could decide voting wasn’t worth the bother anyway.
But this simple cost-benefit analysis is not decisive for me. Of course, democracy wouldn’t work if everybody decided not to vote – but the reality is that many people do, and the rest of us adjust our decisions on whether (or how) to vote accordingly. If I thought that the differences between the candidates or parties were large enough that the election of one candidate might significantly improve the electorate’s well-being, even a small probability of influencing the result might induce me to pick up the stubby pencil. This would be especially true in a marginal Labour-Conservative constituency, given how close the seat count of the two major parties is likely to be.
Yet my constituency is not a marginal. I’m registered in Vauxhall – a Labour stronghold. Kate Hoey will still be the MP after the election and, by all accounts, she’s a fairly good one. The likelihood that my vote will be decisive here is miniscule. Furthermore, I haven’t seen sufficient differences between Hoey or Conservative candidate James Bellis to suggest that a victory for either would lead to significant changes in the life-chances of local residents.
Crucially, even in the highly unlikely event that my vote would have a decisive impact on both the constituency election and the national seat count, thereby determining who would be the largest party, a brief look at the polls shows that it’s pretty clear that no party will win outright anyway. This means we have no idea how much of each party’s manifesto will be implemented after any coalition negotiations. With a small likelihood of my vote mattering, and such huge uncertainties about what I’m really voting for, does voting make any sense?
“OK”, some of my friends have said, “but surely you should just express your support for the broad set of policies you believe in. At least it will show up in the national aggregates. Plus, the act of voting itself is satisfying.” But I’ve never felt that way. Since I rarely agree with the full programme of a party, voting actually makes me feel racked with guilt at the prospect a politician will claim my vote provides support for them to implement an immigration or housing policy I don’t actually believe in. There is something in PJ O’Rourke’s expression “Don’t vote, it’ll only encourage the bastards”.
Then my friends get angry, just as the commentariat did with Brand. “People have fought and died for the right to vote,” they say, “and if you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain.” These arguments are absurd. I prefer to think people died for our freedom to make positive decisions on a rational basis – not for unthinking social conformity. In fact, I have spent far longer writing this article than the time it would take me to walk to the polls on Thursday. And as taxpayers, of course, those of us who make this decision maintain a right to complain!
So come 7 May, I’ll debate the issues on Twitter for 20 minutes rather than walk to my local polling station. Politics does matter, and this election is important too. But that does not mean everyone’s vote is crucial, or that we all have a moral duty to express support for a party whatever our beliefs and the circumstances of our constituency and the polls. In my case at least, Brand was right about voting, but for the wrong reasons.