Votes for Everyone Vote Swap!
Tuesday 5th May
The evening of the vote swap was upon us. We had gathered for a variety of reasons: some were there to give their vote; others without that right were there to receive one; others still wanted to be part of a process which questioned the very nature of voting in the UK today.
So why had a group of people gathered three floors up in a gloomy, oversized classroom in Holborn one evening, two days before the election, to swap votes? We had become a part of the Votes for Everyone project because we wanted to overcome the negative effects of excluding certain people from the voting process.
These people include migrants, those in prison, those between the ages of 16-18 and those who are homeless (who, although technically able to vote, face serious practical difficulties when attempting to register). These are people who form part of our society and yet who cannot take part in our political process. We feel this is grossly unfair and this is a chance — a first step — to share the experience of voting with everyone.
Votes for Everyone is a symbolic experiment, one that questions why our political system seems from some perspectives to be so clearly undemocratic and grossly unfair. On what basis can we justify excluding anyone in our society from a decision making process that affects all of us? Having gathered, we sat in a circle and tried to answer this question.
One of the most passionate debates revolved around the nature of the act of ‘giving away your vote’. Some of those who were there to accept a vote from somebody else felt that there was an air of condescension about being ‘given’ someone’s vote – a vote which had itself been belittled by the very act of tossing it away to someone who actually wanted it. How is this politically empowering? It’s almost as if someone were saying: ‘Here have this vote, I don’t care about it anyway’.
One response was to view the act of voting as disempowering and divisive; a form of ‘polite politics’ which is acceptable precisely because it does nothing to really challenge power in our country. In fact, it is worse than nothing, effectively legitimising the undemocratic decisions of an elite. There is a reason why we can’t occupy empty buildings, tear down exclusionary gates, hold mass rallies without police consent, refuse to pay extortionate rent, spray paint our disillusionment on walls, or any other number of democratic but illegal actions. It’s because they actually do make a difference by directly challenging the power of those at the top of the social ladder.
One person suggested using the vote to send a message: ‘this vote is not for you to tell me how to use. This vote is for me to challenge your authority. The best way I can challenge your authority is to tear away your veil of legitimacy, hand in hand with someone else, and to reveal the rotting corpse of democracy which lies beneath it. That is what my vote is for.’
The most support we had for the Vote Swap came in the form of the argument that migrants should have a vote. One argument raised was that migrants contribute to the economy through their labour and the taxes they pay. They should therefore have the vote. Of all peoples the British should know the power of the phrase: ‘No taxation without representation’.
Others pointed to problems with this argument. It assumes that people must have a ‘use’, or serve a ‘purpose’ in order to be worthy of a vote. The argument was raised that people should have a vote by virtue of their humanity alone. If you are part of our society, you must have a vote. After all, who decides what is useful or not?
Increasingly ‘use’ is defined in narrow economic terms. But our economy is geared towards a certain class of people who stand to benefit from the current structure which is at present defined by the massive inequalities of wealth across society (the richest 10 per cent own 44 per cent of all wealth in the UK). Because ‘use’ and ‘worth’ are therefore incredibly subjective terms which change in accordance to societal views (often dictated to a large degree by the media monopolies of a wealthy elite), we must concentrate on that which does not change – our common humanity.
Our discussion extended to include the structure of the UK’s democratic system. The First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, one of only three in the world, disregards any votes which were not for the elected MP in a particular constituency. Everyone felt it was a grossly unfair and outdated system, and one that perpetuates the general disinterest we feel towards formal politics in the UK (35 per cent of those eligible to vote didn’t in the 2010 general election). Moreover FPTP leads to absurdities such as tactical voting, which further prevent people’s votes from having the intended, democratic effect.
After a passionate and engaging discussion those who wanted to be involved in a vote swap signed up to be matched with a voting partner. The time had come, and just in time for the General Election. Conversation turned towards action. Democracy was no longer a narrow process defined and controlled by the wealthy – it was ours. We left the room having together rediscovered what we had always known, but somehow allowed ourselves to forget: that we are all human, that humans are all equal, and that our votes belong to everyone.