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A Debate on our Democracy

To Spoil a Ballot or to Take a Chance?



Articles shared via social media can spark fascinating discussions. Similarly, during our organisation's conversations about the Local Elections, we shared an opinion article from The Guardian with our audience, entitled: "I’ve been restricted from voting my whole life – I can’t bear to see apathy disenfranchising my friends".


One of our members, James Murphy, commented on our post:


"I understand the position of Joyce and others, but fundamentally disagree. The act of withholding one’s labour from a system that doesn’t afford people the choice of 'none of the above' is valid too. Don't get fooled. Change isn’t born in a moment, it is built through struggle."


While disagreements are normal, it's important to give different viewpoints a platform and a voice. Therefore, we engaged James in a dialogue about his opinion and V4CE's stance on the issue. This blog is a result of that dialogue and highlights differing opinions about spoiling ballots.


James' View


In the shuffling, pomp riddled madness of our parliamentary system lies the essence of participatory democracy—a notion of green and pleasant land built upon mutual consent and the ideology of majority mandate. But, what happens when the system that turns the soil, also ploughs deeply into a bed for injustice and inequality, entrenching it over centuries, with little appetite for adapting to modern issues facing a society which is very different to the post war consensus order. It's a question that for me strikes at the core of our cultural and societal development, resonating with echoes of our imperial past.


My perspective on the purpose and efficacy of the national ballot isn't static, the realisation that my attitudes and beliefs are born from a place of rarified privilege is something I'm confronted with in my life and work pretty much every day. I am a man, a white Yorkshireman at that, and one who has benefitted from many educational opportunities. Having also had the opportunity to work within and around spaces where (in the past) the nuances of power have shown themselves brazenly, and without fear of any form of serious reprisal, I can feel the entitlement that this experience of life has created within me. I can say with a good degree of certainty that, until relatively recently, I didnt even begin to understand the difference that it made when empathising and valuing the views of people with whom I disagree. 


An attitude remains,  profoundly shaped by an academic journey delving into the intersection of politics, art, architecture, and design. I think of figures like Stuart Hall, whose teachings remind us that understanding culture and origins of our exalted systems, like the vote, necessitates grappling with a very real and very present crop of imperial and colonial legacies. These legacies manifest of course in various ways, some obvious, and some not so much. From the unapologetically overt implications of new "Voter ID" rules to the opaque workings of the Whip system - I see the ballot today for what I believe it actually is, a way to perpetuate a deeply flawed status quo, and my participation within that as being fundamentally at odds with the values to which I aspire. 


The belief in the equality of value inherent within an individual’s vote is, at best, a facade. For the privileged, it's an orchestra of affirmation, a booming clap of self-expression and continuity, whilst for our marginalised communities by comparison, the distant  echo of expression; the sound of sought validation, a whisper by comparison of shared space, humanity and hope.


Civil Society then emerges as a beacon of hope amidst this shrouded unacknowledged complexity. Its significance, often underestimated and undervalued in the corridors of capital, I believe holds the key to our collective progress. Whilst I may not fully align with Joyce Yang’s perspective, I recognise the critical role each individual plays in shaping society through a multitude of daily acts. Your value within our civil society cannot and should not be condensed into sporadic endeavours reserved for election seasons and ballots, but considered as built into a continuous commitment, 24/7, 365 days a year. I have hope that it is possible for our civilisation to, in the words of the great man, “live out the true meaning” of itself  by seeing and valuing everyday, that process of Social Living in which we are all engaged irrespective of background. For me and others like me it feels like this may be a greater expression of love for the places we cohabit, compared to the blunt act of voting once every Sheffield flood. 


Until our democratic systems embrace perpetual reform, they will remain incapable of equitable self-regulation, and rely only on the moral sanction afforded to them by the ballot box. They are the horse draw drill of democracy, a technology unfit for our time. “..but they are what we have!” I hear you say…very true. My answer to that is, I have a bike with a rip in the tyre…until I get some new rubber on that bike I'm not tearing down a hill on it!


As I join the ranks of those who turn up, spoil their ballots, and witness the political drama unfold, I ask you to consider if being afforded the right to vote for “None of the above” is too much to ask? Would it be an act of power or apathy from your own perspective? I remain steadfast in my dedication to an evolving civil society, but will remove my labour from a system that will not change to match it.


V4CE's View


At Voice4Change England, we deeply resonate with the reflections on the challenges and shortcomings of our parliamentary system, particularly its deep-rooted inequalities and resistance to change. The critique of voting as a mechanism that perpetuates a flawed status quo is an important one. However, we believe that voting remains a critical tool for empowerment, especially for BME communities in the UK. 


After the leadership debates on TV in recent weeks, many views and arguments have been more about which party it is necessary to keep out rather than which one to endorse. People instinctively understand that they mustn’t waste a rare opportunity to make their voice heard, but sadly many have also expressed a view that, despite their best intentions, their vote was likely to be wasted. 


As a general election approaches, Britain (like the US, Mexico and more recently South Africa) is in desperate need of some genuine choice between competing political visions. Such choices and visions can only emerge based on collective interests, as the old politics of left and right did in the past. But before anything like that can happen, we each need to see ourselves as morally autonomous individuals and active agents of our own destiny, rather than cynical observers and passive consumers of media served politics. 


We accept, our democratic systems indeed require significant reform, the act of voting offers one of the most direct ways for marginalised communities to influence and demand change. For many BME individuals, systemic barriers and socio-economic challenges limit opportunities to engage in broader social work or civil society activities. In this context, voting is a powerful platform for making our voices heard. 


What the recent local elections proved is there is a real appetite for public engagement; millions of people still want to be thought of as responsible citizens. It is important that this potential is harnessed towards a positive purpose. For better or worse, political life is more open and fluid than at any time in recent decades. V4CE thinks there has never been a better time to actively exercise the right to vote for changes in society.  To ensure that there is a substantial group of open-minded, liberal-thinking upholders of individual rights.


Encouraging BME communities to participate in elections is not an endorsement of a flawed system; it is an assertion of our presence and a demand for representation. Voting allows us to hold elected officials accountable and advocate for policies addressing our specific needs and challenges. It is a means of asserting our presence and ensuring that our issues are represented in the corridors of power. 


Moreover, the collective act of voting demonstrates solidarity and unity within our communities. It sends a clear message that we are engaged, vigilant, and committed to driving necessary changes for a fairer society. By participating in elections, we strengthen our position to influence reforms and highlight the importance of continuous engagement with democratic processes. 

  

At V4CE, we continue to encourage our community members to vote because every vote counts and every voice matters. While we strive for systemic reform, we recognise the immediate impact that voting can have on our daily lives. Through this dual approach—engaging in both civil society and electoral politics—we work towards a more just and inclusive society. 

 

Spoiling a ballot, while often intended as a protest against flawed political systems, ultimately undermines the power of our collective voice, particularly for marginalised communities. Each spoiled ballot represents a lost opportunity to influence critical decisions that impact our daily lives and our future. For BME communities, where systemic barriers already limit engagement and representation, every vote is crucial in demanding accountability and advocating for policies that address our unique challenges. By casting a valid vote, we assert our presence and our rights within the democratic process, ensuring that our issues cannot be ignored. Voting is a powerful tool for change, and by using it effectively, we strengthen our ability to drive the reforms necessary for a more just and inclusive society. 

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