We may all know why we vote, we may have decided for whom we’ll vote but have you given much though to how you vote – that is to say what your role as a voter entails?
It’s a right viewed as so important that countries have gone to war to protect it, and yet it’s a responsibility for which there is no real preparation beyond the proof of one’s existence for eighteen years or more. We are rightly left to determine the destination of our own vote but it’s also left to everyone to decide how to exercise their choice – which means I’ve never been absolutely certain how to define the role that my right to vote gives me.
Like most peope, I am led to believe that I’m about to exercise ultimate power over those who would shape the history of the country – and yet the process itself has all the profundity of queuing up to visit a public portaloo. And then there’s the terminology: ‘voter’, however correct a description it is, sounds so indistinct and bland for such a supposedly fundamental responsibility. Especially these days, when we can be a ‘voter’ in all sorts of insignificant ways like TV talent shows, social media questionnaires and market research.
It all makes you wonder if the high-minded values of the democratic process are being rather cheapened by all this incessant, trivial vote-taking… So, in what capacity are you going to act when you make your cross on the ballot paper? Maybe that’s not as simple a question as you might think – especially when you consider a little historical context…
In days gone by, when only things that really mattered were voted upon, when there were arguably more basic problems for the country to address and when there was such a thing as ideology in politics, voting was merely the mechanism to express the capacity of each voter. In those days, people cast their vote as ‘supporters’ of one party or another. Things were simple: you ‘had’ a party and you supported it, much like someone might ‘have’ a football team to support.
Generally, this was a position you inherited from your birth and upbringing, again, like football. This primary-coloured polarisation could occasionally lead to bitter, hatred-riven tribalism, like…okay, you get the picture. Anyone who chose to reject the birthright of their tribe was described, usually disdainfully, as a ‘floating voter’ and dismissed as a clueless, dithering dilettante of a person, a traitor to their roots for having the temerity to even question the right to govern of their own tribal affiliation. Given how democracy works, it was always something of an irony that this small proportion of the population often held the balance of power – which tended to do little for the esteem in which they were held by everyone else.
Eventually, the damned capitalists put paid to the nobler principles of ideology and sentiments of consumerism began to replace the raw, bipolar ranks of the electorate. People suddenly found that they had a vote to ‘use’, rather than ‘give’ and that they would remain to be convinced until it was time to use it. Increasingly, voters became less defined merely as ‘supporters’ of parties but chose to view their political affiliation in a similar way to their choice of supermarket. From the 1980s onwards, but particularly since the New Labour era, parties would place a huge emphasis on commercial market research techniques, such as focus groups. Whether they realised it or not, voters had begun to act – and be treated – like ‘customers’.
For better or worse, there seemed to be less of a stigma in tactical voting – as with your choice of restaurant, If you didn’t like the experience of your last outing, you could simply transfer your allegiance to the next best alternative the next time.
This should have come as no surprise. In almost every societal and cultural way imaginable, Britain had, for most of the 20th Century, followed a path forged by America. Capitalism had bestowed its children Aspiration, Meritocracy and Consumerism across the land. In the 1970s, the country which had spent a decade largely identifying with the ideological right of strikers to strike looked, mystified, across the Atlantic at a two-party system in which there was little discernible difference between a donkey and an elephant. By 1992, after a Winter of Discontent and a decade of Thatcherism, when Bill Clinton’s campaign mantra was ‘It’s the Economy, stupid’, the statement about the electorate’s motivation seemed to be as true in Britain as it was in the US. Plurality had become a prize gained not by the collective voice but by a collection of enough individual voices.
Whether or not you regard this societal shift as a positive development is, of course, your prerogative. In a Western capitalist economy, it certainly seems like a natural progression to empower the individual to exercise an informed choice unencumbered by irrational tribalism. Have we therefore arrived at the natural, logical conclusion – where the expression of one’s political affiliations is roughly similar to the way we choose a breakfast cereal?
So why isn’t the ‘customer’ metaphor a suitable basis from which to execute the solemn duties that come with the franchise? What’s the difference between buying and voting? Consumption can involve an equally active choice process but, having bought something, the choice is supposed to be an end in itself: ‘Forget blocked pipes with XYZ drain cleaner’. Once you’ve bought the item, the issue you’re trying to solve can just automatically disappear. It’s seductive because a brief activity then turns the customer into something passive. You’re invited to believe you can then stand idly by while the product (or service, whatever it is) takes over – and improvements just…happen. Does that sound like any Government, ever?
Worse than mere passivity, a consumer may then go on to feel a sense of entitlement. It’s a human flaw that has compelled us all, at one time or another, to attempt to justify any unreasonable position on the basis that ‘it’s always been like that’ or ‘I know my rights’. This is fair enough if you’ve handed over your hard-earned cash to buy something that then goes on to disappoint; you usually have the entitlement to expect redress. Again, is that really how government works?
Passivity and Entitlement is a mixture almost certain to disappoint as you live through the four or five years of the next parliament. You’re guaranteed to see things happen that you don’t like: you can’t do anything about it, but you feel you’ve been promised more of a sense of redress than you find you have. As a consumer, you can always have your money back but as a voter…sorry, that’s it.
There has to be a further step of evolution. Tribalism is simplistic to the point of being undemocratic, Consumerism rewards self-obsession but includes the redress to ‘reset’ the ‘transaction’ that voting lacks. In what capacity should we really be casting our vote?
If politics today is less about the big ideological questions and more about the appointment of competent administrators in a global economy, the next logical step, to me at least, is to regard our politicians not as our tribal heroes, nor indeed as our chosen suppliers, but simply as the Board of Directors of The United Kingdom, an organisation in which we all have a single, equal share. As shareholders, we can expect the right to appoint and remove our Board members at regular, pre-defined intervals and we expect a certain level of financial return as a result of their competence – with a certain level of performance measure being communicated regularly and in a particular format.
Surely, this is a much closer metaphor to the state of being a voter. It promises no solutions, allows no sense that any change in personnel on the Board is a victory in itself and removes any illusion of stakeholder passivity or indeed consumer entitlement throughout the piece. Like corporate shareholders do of the Boards they appoint, we should almost expect our Governments to fail, to err and to disappoint – and simply guard against it.
Currently, we certainly don’t have clear enough, accessible enough measures to quantify by how much our Governments do currently fail, err and disappoint. As shareholders, need this to remain better informed before our next opportunity to exercise our right to express our confidence – or otherwise – in their stewardship of our company. If the General Election is our (if not annual, regular) AGM, we should also expect a (categorically annual) Annual Report to inform it.
The closest thing we have to such a mechanism is the Budget, which must contain a huge amount of fiscal data before the fact but is not really compelled to offer the same level of transparency after the fact. The absence of such material allows all parties to exercise spin and obfuscation about the ‘facts’ they contest when the one thing voters consistently complain about is lack of honesty. Where is the Balance Sheet and the P&L for the UK – and its subsidiaries, the NHS, the Armed forces and our other public institutions? Even where they do exist in some form (as exemplified by the BBC), who decides the format they take, the areas they must include and the items they can choose to omit?
The Lords, or perhaps even the Monarch, should be our financial regulatory authority, apolitical, free of the party system, acting in the interest of the shareholder. He/She/They should define the level of detail we can demand to see every year, even every quarter. Terms should be clearly explained (what exactly is defined by ‘unemployment‘ when calculating the figure?) and items which cause needless contention can be objectively listed in the reporting structure.
Of course, it’s wildly optimistic to expect every voter to read every line of detail – it’s our right to engage, or disengage, as much as we want in the whole process. Whether you choose to engage or not, the lack of availability – or validity – of the information you require should never be a factor in your choice.
You may agree with everything I’ve written or you may disagree vehemently – that’s the essence of the right to vote. It doesn’t matter whether you believe, as I do, that people these days seem to vote less like a supporter and more like a consumer. It doesn’t matter whether you agree that rationality and indeed democracy is better served if we all voted as a shareholder would vote, with facts and independently-verified figures. None of that really matters – it’s just my opinion. What does matter, hugely, is that you even consider in what capacity you are going to vote when the time comes. If all of this thought process does nothing to change your conclusion, all well and good. If any of it makes you challenge your own status quo and think again about why you vote for who you vote for, isn’t that a good thing?