The bellows calling for the young, the 18-25’s, the millennials, to vote reached their apogee on the evening of the May 22nd deadline. There are two broad reasons for this invocation. For most, this was a transparent call to ensure that as many of the notoriously left wing youth as possible are firmly on their side come June 8th. This motive shamelessly weaponises what I like to call the default left. These are those whose interest in the election stems from social media exposure to deliberately and dogmatically anti-Tory memes, who nonetheless default to old lefty sentiments on instinct. So be it. If you intuitively fall for the soft and friendly wave of sort-of-socialist policies designed to win the vote of but not actually help ‘the many,’ then vote away. There are worse reasons to vote labour, like actually thinking (unlike 172 of his own MPs) that Corbyn is a stand-up guy or that voting Tory means you’ve imbibed media bias and are an evil, bigoted blowhard like your grandparents.
Thankfully, many on-the-fence young folk see right through these fawning appeals and refuse to be used as a political tool in a generationally divided voting game. They know they would not be summoned to vote if those summoning knew their conservative leanings. The introspection of the young, Corbyn-loving left extends to figuring out their Facebook reach is probably an echo chamber. They usually think this so as they couldn’t possibly know or have befriended anyone not as virtuously progressive as themselves. More often the truth is that they selectively narrow the range of opinions on their feed every time they delete friends with openly right-wing convictions. Sadly for them, the shy or recent Tory converts haven’t outed themselves and are still hanging around their facebook posts. But by far the likelier reader is those who say they won’t vote because they don’t know enough about politics. It is no secret that it is from this pool that those who have graduated to what Maajid Nawaz calls the ‘CTRL left’ hope to find newly ‘default left’ voters.
However, these calls for the politically disaffected youth to mobilise – to be dragged to the polls, to tick off one of the fashionably left wing candidates – isn’t as damaging as what is often billed as the more honourable reason to encourage people to vote: for the good of political participation, to fulfill your democratic duty, to claim your future, to make your voice heard. After all, one can’t complain when things turn sour if one did not vote. Whilst this supposedly noble rationale is often a cover for the self-interested one, taken at its word I would argue it is a worse reason to get apathetic young people to the polling stations.
To persuade by suggesting one will ‘have their political voice heard’ when one hasn’t been able to get round to registering until right before the deadline is an appeal built on an illusion. What voice with what strength of conviction are these people waiting to hear? The reason there are so few young voting is that they patently do not care, and where they do, you are more likely to hear blasé, overarching cynicism than partisan zealotry. I frequently here from friends who say they reject out of hand the plea from all politicians, on the left and the right. That they are all smarmy liars, much worse incompetent and ill-prepared for questions ranging from the essential; how much will that cost, how might you pay for it, the prerequisite; what’s the name of the foreign minister you’ll be talking to when you go to do your job in France, or the more rudimentary still; how much does a pint of milk cost?
For many of the students ripe for persuasion, voting for one party over the other is like choosing between going to the library to do coursework you should’ve started last week or revising for an exam coming up next week; both options are so dreadful you end up doing neither and stay at home instead. For whatever unfeeling voice these people can muster to be heard, they need a robust basis from which to share their disbelief in politics as it is played out through the media, targeted online adverts and the nuance-light medium of memes. After all, you see more interest in a video of a ‘pale, stale, male who just got owned on question time’ than you do incisive political commentary in any of the broadsheets. Whilst the election and much of it’s media coverage can be uninspiring, far more often the problem is being unamenable to inspiration if it doesn’t come with a cheap joke or otherwise facebook-ready comic relief. I can speak from direct personal experience when I say some of the cohort being beckoned to vote have only recently learned the difference between left and right wing, some do not know on which stem of this bifurcation you’re more likely to find a liberal, others make the double error of confusing the Tories with the Conservatives.
For those who reject what is being offered on all sides, voting would be an act of legitimising candidates who one does not see as fit for the job. This is an act of consent for a party to operate in a system when they neither think the candidate competent to operate nor the system fit for operation. The only option left to those who see all names on the ballot as quacks is to abstain or to spoil the ballot, the former leaving them lumped in with the statistics for the apathetic who couldn’t be bothered to turn out, and the latter lumped in with the useless who accidentally filled out their ballot wrong. We need a powerful way to say ‘I refuse to endorse any of you unscrupulous charlatans’. As Peter Hitchens has long suggested, a ‘none of the below’ option on the ballot paper would fulfil this need. I would vote ‘none of the below’ if it was an option. But as it stands, I want my vote to be counted, though I wish it did not count, so to speak.
The inevitability that a government will be formed (so you might as well get on board with those you least dislike) is the only honest rejoinder to this line of thinking. However, if you think the entire bunch is bad, there is no best to be rescued from it. If you detest all parties, your preference could be so minimal, more narrowingly arbitrary as the election plods on, that it feels morally questionable to endorse one party over the other. ‘None of the below’ might get the most votes. The ignominy too great for the second place MP to claim a mandate, the seat would have to be re-run until someone worth voting for put themselves forward. This would be a fine way to weed out liars and let the unelectable face up to their unpopularity. Far from not being able to complain as a result, not voting is the original complaint and, given a system where we could quantify the sentiment, potentially the most powerful one.
But absent this option to ascertain the level of voter antipathy, not voting does not quite carry the same message. Still, instead of transparently calling for the young to vote because you’re counting on their demographic’s voting habits, instead of searching for a ‘political voice’ that just isn’t there, why not drop the pretence and be more pragmatic about it? Say straightforwardly “whether you’re voting left or right, whether you feel disaffected or disinterested or not, vote now because a higher turnout this time will mean politicians must address your concerns next time.” This might be the most honest and most pertinent reason to call for the young to vote; maybe then MPs will offer something beyond trite rhetoric and meaningless promises for us to really vote for.