If you are a young person who has not voted before, perhaps a student or a disaffected millennial, then over the next few weeks you are likely to hear a great deal of pleading for you to register to vote. There are two broad reasons for this invocation. Often, this is a transparent call to ensure that as many of the left-leaning youth as possible support left-leaning parties in the general election. More often though, campaigners will say they are inviting you to ‘make your voice heard.’ Indeed, Labour’s attempts to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds are justified in these terms.
However, I would argue that these calls for the politically dissatisfied youth to mobilise – to be dragged to the polls, to tick off one of the fashionably left wing candidates – isn’t as damaging as the supposedly more honourable reason to encourage people to vote: for the good of political participation, to fulfil your democratic duty and to claim your future. After all, one can’t complain when things turn sour if one did not vote, or so we are cautioned. Whilst this supposedly noble rationale is often a cover for the self-interested one, taken at its word I would argue it is an even more disingenuous reason to get apathetic young people to the polling stations. I sometimes think, I’d rather they say outright, ‘We know you’re young enough to be left wing by default, or unsure enough to go along with whatever your friends say, so as long as you are sure you’re not a Tory, please register.’
To persuade by suggesting one will ‘have your political voice heard’ when the cohort one is persuading hasn’t got around to registering until right before the deadline is an appeal built on an illusion. We saw this clamouring at the last election, and we will see it again this time when the pleading continues right up to polling day. And so I ask: What voice with what strength of conviction are these people waiting to hear? The reason the turnout for young people is so low is that often they do not care much about politics. Many care just enough to register their cynicism about politicians in general, but remain unenthused about a candidate or party in the particular. I frequently hear 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 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 political memes. Whilst much of the media coverage and social media discussions of an election can be uninspiring, the underlying problem is that the convoluted and internecine process of parliamentary politics is not appealing to a generation with endless other more titillating options for consuming content. And for this they cannot be blamed.
Moreover, I can speak from direct personal experience when I say some of the group being beckoned to vote have only recently learned the difference between left and right wing, whilst others make the double error of confusing the Tories with the Conservatives. This might sound like an exaggeration for effect but, sadly, it is not. To be sure, democratic nations have a duty to pay attention to the voting preferences of these people when they are expressed on a ballot. No other system would befit our liberal instincts, and vice versa. But just as left wing commentators are concerned that an aging population of jingoistic blowhard Brexiteers have too much sway on elections, I am concerned that disinterested and naive young nod-along-conscripts for Corbynism might too.
Those young folks that will be registering to vote are newly recruited via anti-tory Facebook propaganda, and are being primed to back Corbyn’s sort-of-socialism based on the same myopic exposure to half-truths and unfulfillable promises-cum-bribes that underlies all politicking. I have no problem with this in of itself; after all, the wholly informed and rational voter is a man-made fantasy, not just a myth embodying some long-forgotten truth of a divine plebiscite. And the consequences of this are felt across all political groups. My problem is that concerns about ‘uneducated voters’ influencing elections are usually only expressed in one direction, from the enlightened ‘left pole’ from which all directions point rightwards into darkness and disinformation, as Steven Pinker might put it. That there are other groups susceptible to disinformation and that they are being induced into voting en masse might also be an issue worth discussion.
Still, 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 being fit for the job. This is an act of consent for a party to operate in a system when one neither thinks the candidate competent to operate nor the system fit for operation. The only option left to those who see all candidates 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 ballots incorrectly. 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 above’ option on the ballot paper would fulfil this need. I would vote ‘none of the above’ 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 rhetoric plods on, that it feels morally questionable to endorse one party over the other. ‘None of the above’ might get the most votes. The ignominy too great for a 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 if you don’t vote’, not voting is the original complaint and, given a system where we could properly 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 demographics’ voting habits to work in your favour come polling day, and instead of searching for a ‘political voice’ that often 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 important reason to call for the young to vote. Thankfully, many on-the-fence young folk see right through the pleading from left-wing campaigners, and refuse to be used as a political tool in what can feel like a generationally divided voting game. Many know they would not be summoned to vote if those doing the summoning knew their conservative leanings. Count me, like 1 in 4 young people, among them.