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Don't vote and the big parties carry on with the smug assumption they own this place

Nearly half of those eligible to vote on May 7 won't bother. This time around former tactical voter Malachi O'Doherty will be putting his X beside the candidate he most wants to win - but he'd rather put an O against the party he'd most like to lose

Published 21/04/2015

X Factor: almost half our electorate won’t bother voting this year
X Factor: almost half our electorate won’t bother voting this year

The strongest argument for not voting is that it won't make any difference. And that seems a logical argument in constituencies where the result is predictable.

Where there are going to be whopping majorities, then you can tell yourself there is little need to add your vote to the winner, or little sense in putting yourself out to back a candidate who hasn't a chance.

Even if you are registered to vote in a constituency that is finely balanced, like North Belfast or Fermanagh-South Tyrone, there are excuses you could offer for whistling past the polling station.

Neither of the big hitters may be to your taste. You don't want to get caught up in the recurring drama of sectarian politics, so you'll just leave them to it. Then, there are the people who think that politics is just boring.

I have had young people groan at me when I have brought up politics in discussion groups, or classes. They regard politics as being on a par with football, or hip-hop; it is something you may have an interest in, or not, as your taste and notions dictate.

Turning your back on it is of no greater significance than preferring Strictly to X Factor, the Mac to the PC. If you argue back that politics is about how the country is run and that you are irresponsible if you give up your hard won right to a say in it, they glaze over.

Because they don't believe they really have a say at all. They say all the parties are the same in the end.

And more, they see politics in its plain sectarian division as a relic of a ghastly past that was none of their doing. It's much more cool to ignore it all and not to implicate yourself in the divisions of a broken society.

Then why not vote Green, or Alliance, or the Workers Party, or one of the others? "What's the point?"

I have a feeling that these arguments have little traction in Scotland this year, where political interest has been re-energised in a way that is hard to imagine happening here.

There, the independence referendum and the rise of Scottish nationalism and the prospect of achieving a balance of power in Westminster have fired up a new generation. And with similar passion on the other side, against nationalism, campaigning for other causes seems equally important to the shape of the Scottish future, even to the British future and our European future.

But here? We forget that political interest was as highly charged here just 20, even 10, years ago.

Turnout at elections is falling here and politics is now a turn-off. But if things are dull and unproductive, then the non-voter has a responsibility for that, too.

It is true that something stifling has ossified here and that there is little prospect of early change. We will elect 18 MPs and probably five of them will decline to take their seats.

Sinn Fein, which is a coalition party in the Executive, campaigns eagerly for votes to Westminster then argues that they can do better for their constituencies by not even going there. They argue that they can do better by negotiating directly with the prime minister.

They say this as blithely as if they think this would be good strategy for the Lib Dems and the Scottish nationalists to abstain as well.

If other parties did follow their advice, democracy would die and we would have a dictatorship; political parties would give up their voting rights and become lobbying groups.

It's true that you don't give up very much if you are never going to hold the balance of power, or get a seat in the Cabinet, but in the new multi-party politics in Britain, these prospects are potentially coming within reach.

Incidentally, Sinn Fein posters, urging people to vote, claim that the franchise was won for them by the civil rights campaign. It wasn't. It was won in the British House of Commons by people who went there and stood up and voiced their demands. It was won on English battlefields and by the suffragettes.

The civil rights campaign changed a system of qualified franchise in council elections; an honourable achievement, but smallish compared to the Reform Act of 1832.

And as colonies and dependencies of Britain broke away, they retained the same governmental system, not because it was an imperial imposition branded on them, but because it is the best system of government there is.

I will vote in South Belfast on May 7. I will vote for a party that is not likely to win the seat. In fact, it will be a miracle if the party I vote for wins.

I will not vote tactically this time, though I have in the past. Occasionally, I have given a vote to a party I did not feel a strong commitment to, just to help block the progress of another party I wanted to see defeated.

Now, I think it is more important for people to vote for what they actually want.

I can see ways in which I think the voting system could be improved. All votes currently are positive votes. We put an X beside the party we want to win.

I would like to be able to put an O beside the party I would most like to see lose. I also see some merit in the "none of the above" option, as a means of telling our political parties to get their act together.

Under the present system, people express their disaffection by not turning up or by spoiling their vote. That's not the way to do it.

A big turnout with lashings of votes for a wide range of parties would have a radical impact on the lazy and stodgy big parties that take us so much for granted, that coast along through the generations in the comfort of the smug assumption that they own this place.

It would remind them that they sail not on calm waters, but on a choppy sea.

The option of not voting, taken by nearly half of the eligible electorate, allows those who win to inflate their importance. They will claim to represent you, anyway. They will act as if they have your support; they will show up at meetings with ministers and public bodies and at committees in Westminster and in Brussels as the elected representative of constituencies in which they may have won only a third of the available votes.

We can not change the whole system yet, but we can force them to put those votes in perspective against thousands of others, but only if we use them.

Belfast Telegraph

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