My sons do not want to exercise their constitutional rights at the next election, and nothing I have said so far has changed that view. They both have views on politics, understand that it affects their lives, follow current affairs and have a reasonable grasp of the battle for universal suffrage. They both say that their reluctance to vote is not about apathy; they point to the Scottish Independence referendum and say that, if they really thought their vote would change something then they, like young people North of the border, would vote.
Their reasons differ in places, overlap in others.
One of them feels ill-equipped to vote. He is concerned that he does not know enough about politics and economics. He is worried that he might vote for the *wrong* person or party, and that, in doing so he might be responsible for the *wrong* person or party gaining power and somehow, personally be responsible for all the ills the country suffers as a consequence. This seems to me to be a fundamental failure to understand maths and statistics, or to grasp the principle of a collective voice. He merges the kind of magical thinking which allows people to play the lottery, combined with a lack of confidence in his own judgement.
Is that my fault? Recently he raised with me the letter sent to Muslim leaders in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders. He wondered why any politician would think that was a useful or right thing to do. “It isn’t,” I explained. “It’s dog-whistle politics.” He looked confused. “The letter was addressed to Muslim leaders, but the message was meant to be heard by UKIP supporters and possibly the Jewish community. Those are the votes the letter was chasing. If you really wanted support from Muslim leaders on tackling radicalisation, that is not the way to get it”. Have I made it all seem too difficult and sly?
I remember as a teenager feeling excluded and ignorant when I didn’t get the in-jokes and references in Private Eye. But there was a counter-balance to that; I learned about politics from music and programmes like Spitting Image and Not the Nine O’Clock News. It was accessible, funny and illuminating; clever, without being “clever, clever” or smug. Last week’s Rory Bremner show was the first time I have heard someone impersonate David Cameron. Ever. Which other PM can you say that about? Perhaps his lack of confidence isn’t all my fault.
There are issues he cares about and does understand. Those are the issues he should focus on when deciding who to vote for. If it is important to him, then by making them his deciding factor he moves them up the political agenda in a small, personal way. I point him toward the grey vote, who do vote and so have power. Look at the difference between the ending of universal child benefit and the preservation of winter fuel benefit, I say. And not voting does not absolve him of responsibility for the future of his country. Not voting still has an impact and can still change political outcomes.
His brother, by contrast, believes that the system is corrupt to its core and that everyone should refuse to vote, swiftly followed by revolution, where, think, he would like Anonymous to take charge of everything, everywhere. He speaks of broken promises – university tuition fees; of corporate lobbyists and the power of money – the banks, HSBC and the privatisation of the NHS; of the cost of housing, low pay and inequality. And he seems resigned to the idea that this is how it is and always will be.
He doesn’t want to hear that the 5 pillars of the welfare state were political creations, within his grandfather’s lifetime. Politics can change things. No-one has given him a vision, a positive ideal he wants to vote for. A couple of years ago my sons told me that, apart from them and a neighbour’s daughter, all of their childhood friends were either in university or in prison. And yes, they recognised that the student fees marches and the Summer riots had skewed the picture somewhat, but still this represents a massive political failure.
There is a passion and a force to his views which I think can be harnessed, for cynicism only comes from broken idealism.
I am not against direct action, but my son cannot tell me what he sees coming after the revolution. If you reject democracy, you are left with a dictatorship. I point him towards Tony Benn’s 5 questions for people with power:
What power do you have?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you use it?
To whom are you accountable?
How do we get rid of you?
And he has no answer, he doesn’t want to think about the question, because all he sees is the entrenched power governing his life today.
I put the question out on Twitter and here are some of the crowd-sourced replies I’ve received.
@brokenbarnet supported direct action “get hold of them by the scruff of the neck & march them to the polling station, under maternal supervision, backed up by threats”. But also “ask them if they want to help people suffering under the current regime.” and “point out that people who say they don’t do politics have politics done to them.”
@sophiewarnes said “I vote partly out of respect for those who died for it and partly because (and it took me a long while to realise it) the political is personal, and politics governs everything you value.”
& @adamnieman said “Maybe tell them: not turning up says to politicians: do whatever you want. Spoiling your slip says: none of you are good enough.”
Feel free to offer more advice here, or knock on the door & canvass them.