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This Thursday is Election Day here in the UK, but given the recent media furore over MPs’ expenses, and an increasingly confused general public, I’m not alone in worrying that many will be turned off going to vote. It doesn’t help Britain’s persistently poor voting turnout that it is a complex process, which remains largely unexplained to those most liable to become apathetic. So, what exactly is happening?

European Elections

Firstly, everyone in the country (and across the 27 EU member countries) is eligible to vote for the European Parliament. Constituted of 785 MEPs, they are responsible for “environmental protection, consumer rights, equal opportunities, transport, and the free movement of workers, capital, services and goods.” Ultimately the EU decides about 40% of our national policy, so it’s not to be dismissed.

Also, the electoral system is proportionally representative, meaning that smaller parties outside The Big Three have a better chance of gaining seats in many areas; last time UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all gained a share of our 78 MEPs in the European Parliament.

Local Elections

Meanwhile some local councils are up for election (check if your area is one of these here). Local councillors, as the name suggests, represent your ward on the local council; it is a significantly smaller district of jurisdiction, so these elections are about localised contextual issues. You can find out who your local councillors are here. They represent your views on education, strategic planning, local transport, highways, and social services amongst other things.

The Crucial Differences

It is imperative to distinguish between both MEPs and councillors, and our favourite media villain of the moment, MPs. Whilst the former are often associated with the major parties (both of which will undoubtedly haemorrhage voters’ support along with trustworthiness) the different kinds of issues that fall within their job descriptions mean you should consider your vote carefully and seriously.

Whilst MPs deal with national centralised decision-making, if you are passionate about certain issues, this should not affect your decision to vote on Thursday, or even to whom your vote goes to, because it makes no difference to the ‘cheating’ MPs in parliament. The only thing that can be gained is temporarily embarrassing the party leaders – but is that kneejerk spitefulness worth wrecking yours and everyone else’s long-term political local and international representation for the next four years? I think not.

People need to know about the relevant issues those point-scoring politicians seem to be avoiding themselves in the Expenses-Gate PR scramble. For example, if you worry that the EU is not doing enough collectively to reduce its carbon emissions (as I do), then you’d do well to vote Green (as I will). Meanwhile if you’re concerned that your local Tory councillors haven’t been doing enough to improve local transport routes for the last four years, then perhaps you should chose to vote local Labour councillors instead, who may be able to fix the problem at hand.

It seems the problem of confusion lies in the differentiated levels of powers. I’m in the currently Conservative local ward of Kenton West, in the Labour national constituency of Harrow East, and represented by 12 different MEPs from the region of ‘London’. It’s not difficult to see why anyone less determined about political participation than myself would just shrug and give up.

Don’t Punish Democracy!

However, I’m urging everyone I know to get off their sofas on Thursday and head on down to their polling station to have their say in their elections. It will take all of ten minutes, and the usual arguments still apply – thousands of people died for the vote/you’ll have no right to complain if you don’t/the BNP will sneak ‘in the back door’ if the turnout is too low, and so on.

Democracy can only work if everyone engages in active citizenship.

I appreciate 100% turnout is highly unrealistic, but the fact that only 38.2% of eligible British citizens voted in the last European elections, means that only about 10% of the population decided the Conservative majority in our share of MEPs. That’s not particularly representative by anyone’s sums.

Ultimately it’s about exercising your civic virtue, so exhibit your anger by educating yourself and casting an informed vote – besides, I’m sure there’s nothing much more scary to a ‘corrupt’ parliament than a population that knows its mind and is willing to hold them appropriately accountable next time round.

For more information on:

  • Voting in general, try AboutMyVote
  • Q&As on local elections and European elections, head over to the BBC
  • Finally, if you’re looking for some guidance on who to vote for in the European elections, try VoteMatch – but obviously only use it as a indicator, I’d highly recommend reading up on manifestos and so on before heading to your station on Thursday!
  • Why we should brush aside the smear campaigns – an excellent article by Garbo @ The Wardman Wire
  • And finally, a slightly biased Green Party video, doing the best job I’ve seen yet explaining how the vote-counting system works, and thus why the smaller parties have a decent shot at getting seats.

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3 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Rational

  1. Well said!

    I think one of the problems is that everybody knows the rational arguments for voting, but somehow exempt themselves from them with the “I’m only one person/my vote can’t make a difference” line.

    My only conclusion is that actually, despite what people may say, the vast majority won’t actually care about the risks of the BNP until their policies have already been implemented and it is too late.

    • Cheers Martin!

      I agree, the biggest problem with political participation is that ultimately each person’s vote is so diluted that they have very little sway on the outcome – the ‘drop in the ocean’ excuse is statistically a valid one.

      Also, within the democratic arithmetic, a well-informed vote counts for no more than an ignorant one, so on two counts there is no real benefit to be had from bearing the costs of educating oneself about who they’re voting for.

      The only argument I have against that is if the remaining 62% of the country voted, then a direct effect would be had. Also, given the vote-counting system, smaller parties (who you may be more inclined to vote for) have a significantly better chance of gaining seats, and since ther are now parties covering pretty much all shades of the political spectrum, that doesn’t wash with me either. I forgot to include a link to a rather handy Green Party video explaining how the counting works.

      Also, I forgot to mention that if people truly want to exact a protest vote, they should turn up and post a blank ballot, or a ‘none of the above’ if thats available. That’s a REAL protest vote, stating that you are not impressed with the candidates available, rather than the indistinguishable message of “I couldn’t be arsed that day”.

      • I agree that spoiling your ballot paper is the correct way to register a “protest vote”, but it must be noted that the moral validity of registering such a protest may be heavily offset if extreme minorities are handed power as a result.

        It is frequently claimed that the source of voter apathy is to be found in the homogeneity of mainstream politics. Perhaps it is worth considering that the reason that such a relatively minor gripe (MPs’ expenses) has created such a storm could be because, for the most part, the British public are happy with our, for the most part, liberal political climate. Alternatively, it could be because somebody wanted this to be overlooked: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cash_for_Influence

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