SO, IT is all over. Another election where the UK’s political landscape is thrown into the air, and we now see where the pieces have fallen (although, at the time of going to press, the result was not known). The democratic ritual of casting a ballot has been completed; but now comes the real task of engaging with our new political representatives.
I always enjoy election season. Yes, the campaigning can seem repetitive, and, if you live in a marginal seat, I am sure that the endless stream of printed leaflets being stuffed through the letterbox can become tiresome.
But it is the time of year when all voters are forced to think about their political views, and to consider which party or candidate merits their support. “Do you know who you’re going to vote for?” becomes a question raised in the pub or over coffee at church. It generated a fascinating conversation in mine on Sunday morning (church, not pub).
BUT whom one votes for is one of the vaguest democratic acts that a citizen will undertake in a given election cycle. Not only do most people live in safe seats where their vote has less potential impact: it is a completely blunt tool, and will almost certainly be misinterpreted.
In this election, was a vote for the Conservatives a vote for Brexit or energy-price caps? Was a vote for Labour support for Jeremy Corbyn as leader, or to back the local Labour candidate? What if somebody wanted to support Mr Corbyn, but his or her Labour MP was a critic of his leadership — how should that vote be interpreted? Will an Evangelical Lib Dem who votes to support the leadership of a fellow believer, Tim Farron, be viewed as doing so, or as supporting the party’s policy to decriminalise prostitution? Did a vote for the Christian People’s Alliance signal agreement with the party’s policy of replacing Trident with a defensive missile shield? The list is endless.
After the contested 2000 United States presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, which ended in the courts, owing to a recount dispute, Bill Clinton said: “The people have spoken. But it’s going to take a while to figure out what they have said.” I would suggest that that is the case in every election, but there is never a clear answer.
And that is why I am sad that this is often the only time when people really think about what it is they care about politically — about which values they want their vote to represent.
A single letter to a government minister making the case for a cause that a citizen believes in, one question posed at an election hustings, or one visit to an MP’s weekly constituency surgery is a more powerful act of democratic engagement than all the election votes that somebody will ever cast. Because, when a citizen does one of these things, he or she is the one who defines what that intervention means. The interpretation is not left up for grabs, as it is at election time: the citizen gets to make his or her case with crystal clarity.
I would not wish to downplay how lucky we are to vote, or to belittle the campaigners who worked to secure universal suffrage; I want us to honour them by making the most of our democracy. Hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak of the joy of being able to vote for the first time at the age of 62 makes one realise the extent to which hard-won rights can be taken for granted.
BUT the fact remains that most people are not tribal in their politics. They care about a range of issues and policies, represented best by different political parties, or sometimes by none at all. Even people who are politically tribal will, no doubt, have things that they want to see done, regardless of which party is in power. As Milton Friedman said: “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.”
I want to be a part of creating a world in which whoever is in power will be motivated to make the right choices.
The potential to make ourselves heard and bring about change is all around us if we use it; that is the real power of the country’s democracy. That is why campaigning organisations such as Christian Aid have “local lobbyists” — armies of volunteers from churches across the land who have signed up to urge their MPs to help tackle injustice and end poverty. These advocates are given training and support to maximise their democratic voice through visiting their MPs’ surgeries, writing letters, and attending events in Westminster.
A new Parliament is a great time for people to get involved and to begin a dialogue with their MP about issues that matter to them. The UK has new political representatives: new MPs and new government ministers. Let’s tell them what we want them to do.
Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid.