Forget who fought for your right to vote – real reason you should use it is naked self-interest
Published 14/05/2014 | 02:30
If you feel disillusioned by the political system, you have one important weapon at your disposal – your vote. Last year, comedian Russell Brand said that democracy was irrelevant and voting was pointless.
"The only reason to vote is if the vote represents power or change. I don't think it does," he said.
Proclaiming that all politicians are equally bad, Brand said the best thing to do with your vote is to ignore it. Opt out.
Brand was addressing his polemic to the disadvantaged and the marginalised, those who feel abandoned by the political system.
The only problem with his spiel is that these are exactly the kinds of people who have already opted out.
Survey after survey tells us that it is the educated and the wealthy who turn out to vote in disproportionately large numbers.
What the research also tells us is that politicians' number one concern once elected is to win re-election, which is why they kowtow to the interests of the privileged during their tenure in office.
This may not be fair but it is rational. What is the point of a politician working to help disadvantaged people when those people are unlikely to vote and re-elect him or her at the next election?
So, unequal turnout leads to unequal political influence and the evidence of the malign effect of this inequality has been well documented for decades.
One study in the early 1990s revealed that class inequalities in the United States "multiplied" as turnout dwindled.
Research has also found that it is right-wing, conservative parties who benefit from society's ennui with elections.
A study of 19 developed countries, over a 40-year period, found that the left share of the vote increased by one-third of one percentage point for every percentage point increase in turnout.
Another found that low turnout provided "an inbuilt advantage" in the political system for the right.
This also has implications for Ireland where the left, which has long been weak, has been dealt a further blow by low turnout.
Other research has found that there is a strong link between turnout and tax and welfare policies – politicians enact laws that favour the privileged if they are the ones who put them in office.
So, voting does matter. It is just that those who support Brand's kind of politics aren't doing it in sufficient numbers to make a difference.
Carping on about a surfeit of Oxbridge toffs in politics, as Brand is prone to do, is all well and good, but following his advice would be akin to waving a white flag and letting the Tories take over.
Brand is right about one thing. We live in a representative democracy where vast swathes of the electorate are not being represented and this is hugely problematic.
But the answer to this is not less voting, it's more. Namely, compulsory voting.
If voters faced the prospect of a small charge if they failed to vote, equivalent to a parking fine, then the incentive to vote would be much greater.
This doesn't equate to mandatory voting. Voters could still opt to spoil votes or simply not vote at all once they turned up at polling stations, but it would greatly increase the numbers who use their franchise.
In Australia, which has had compulsory voting since 1925, turnout averages 95pc.
In Ireland, it hovers between 69pc, for the last general election, and an abysmal 33.5pc, for the 2012 children's referendum.
However, even when turnout is relatively high, as it was in 2011 when the nation gave a collective kick in the arse to Fianna Fail, differential turnout rates are stark.
For example, turnout in Dublin's leafy south side was above 70pc but it was under just 40pc in some working-class areas.
Nostalgic reasons, like the fact that people fought and died for your right to vote, are often cited as the main obligation to vote, but guilt trips no longer get people to the polling stations.
So, forget about dead patriots, the real reason you should vote is out of naked self-interest and because if you're unhappy with government they'd prefer if you stayed at home.
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