Voting is like being Pablo Escobar

Politics, Pulpit

…in Prison.

Sitting high up in those beautiful mountains: the nation you’ve grown up in. Safe behind the barbed-wire and concrete of newspaper opinion pieces, pub chats and online forums, surrounded by booze and a roulette of ballot counts, polls, lottery tickets, stock prices, hoping that the nation is safely yours – owned by your side – hoping that you’re safe, waiting out a sentence that’ll never end: to be this “citizen”…to live, and live in a country.

We’ve just had a General Election in the UK. Bit late then to be talking about voting?

Not at all. We’ve elected representatives incapable of forming a majority government. Many people are raising eyebrows at this and exclaiming “we’re fucked then”. They’re panicking, they’re wondering in the back of their minds “would a benevolent dictator be better?” and “Why can’t we just leave it all to the market for a change?”.

Many people don’t understand how every vote is a victory, not for democracy, but for the common people, for society. Nor do they appreciate how this vote has produced a more democratic result than most General Elections of the century-and-a-bit just gone.

Last election round, 2015, we had Russell Brand telling the nation not to vote because a vote means nothing like actually having your voice heard. He said this sort of thing for months before suddenly flinging himself in with the Ed Milliband’s Labour Party. It got a lot of people quite confused, not least because a comedian with pretty basic views on the world managed to get so much airtime around what should have been campaign season. In the end it looked more like he was just having a big and probably quite profitable joke at the nation’s expense. Brand buried any questions surrounding our voting system alongside his own chances of retaining any respect in the UK political arena.  Kinda what Trump is doing too, condemning the worth of America’s “common man” with his own brash dogma.

Which brings us – the blogging observers – to that difficult question: what’s the point of voting when every option (even not voting) is something no-one wants to choose?

Clinton the Second or a fart with hair?

Thatcher’s Sith apprentice or a 70s Socialist?

This is what gets people picking up their Plato and wishing for a Philosopher King.

This is where people heckle democracy! Well, voting was never about democracy. Not properly speaking. See we use the term “democracy” pretty casually, mainly because it helps to prevent us from becoming an actual democracy, or a series of actual democracies. I.e. a stateless collection of individuals organising themselves by mutual and unanimous consent.

No, voting is about restricting the power of an oligarchy.

I’m trying to use the term “oligarchy” without context, so meaning “rule by the few” and forget all the associations with Russia and whatever else. (Or maybe don’t, I mean they vote too for all the good it does them.) In the UK we are ruled by an oligarchy that itself technically exists under a Monarchy, but officially and unofficially the British Monarchy has become so weak that we can safely say it is just for show. Although yes the institution remains a disgusting anachronism whose removal we should use in proposing the reform of Parliament and establishment of a proper democracy.

Oligarchy: we are ruled by 650 Members of the House of Commons and a varying number of Lords. They themselves then choose at least 20 from their number (the Cabinet) to rule Parliament, and form a number of committees to make sure this other few – the Cabinet members, the Ministers – are doing their job right.

It all works very historically. We had the monarch, the monarch needed advisers and the Lords of the time wanted power, so an equivalent to the Cabinet appeared to facilitate a method of ruling that would be more or less acceptable to all concerned parties. Certainly not perfect, but given that the main concerns of the time were pleasing God and trying not to die too quickly…it made a kind of sense. Then as society developed more people had more power – money, influence, followers, respect, desire – and so more people wanted in on government. The Monarchy repeatedly proved inadequate to the task of pleasing all of these power-mongers. So the second level of Oligarchy – Parliament – was formed with the notion that it would rule on the principle of representing the common people. At the time that didn’t really include poor people or women, who at rough guess made up 80-90% of the population for most of Parliament’s history, but it was something nonetheless.

That second level is where we’re still at today: the most powerful (legally speaking) branch of our government is Parliament. But we still have the pretense of a monarch and the reality of a Council of Ruling Ministers – a Cabinet. All increasing the franchise did was extend our right to the occasional representative opinion poll beyond the 10-20%. Elections don’t give anyone else a right within government or a right to power: just some promise that they might be listened to once every three, four, five years. Basically whenever the rulers decide they’re looking a little too unpopular they agree to a reshuffle and a rethink: a General Election. The reshuffle and rethink never include the idea that maybe these sorts of people should not be leading in these sorts of numbers. Two parties, 650 elected representatives, and a small cadre to try and give directions. They do try and work out what might be beneficial for the nation, for its future, but always within the very limited boundaries of what they as individuals can command the civil service and the general population to undertake.

So we have an oligarchy whose primary motive is to try and represent the views of the population, largely (but not entirely) excluding those under 18 years of age. It’s so earnest in pursuing this motive that it bases its power off regular nationwide referendums – General Elections – which allow a particular area to decide who they want to represent them in the Oligarchy. Although the area vote is now being bought out by false promises of strong PMs and manifestos. It’s very clever. I mean governments have always tried to establish a solid power base in some sort of common good. God, for example. The perfect and all-powerful truth-giver supposedly selected every King and so they claimed to rule – for many years – by Divine Right. Something the entire population of the time could get on board with. During the Russian Revolution different leaders promised a communist heaven and, at least, that the Tsardom would end. Again, something that could sound very good to a very large number of people…until of course the office of Tsar returned under a new name with a series of dictators, from Lenin to Gorbachev. Many crimes were justified in the name of the people.

The point all along being that for people to agree with the social contract that a nation offers them, they have to believe that they are sufficiently secure, that their leaders do at least a few things that are important to them, that they have a good chance of being able to offer and receive a healthy number of goods and services. A nation isn’t something that you have to belong to. It’s something that you choose. Just because many people live their entire lives without being aware of this choice, doesn’t mean that it fails to exist. There are other countries, there are difficult ways of existing within a nation without meaningfully belonging to it. You can choose not to be part of a nation but still find yourself forced to live within it or an equivalent. But the point is: choice. Social contract. Agreements, consent. We don’t have to do what we’re told, although it often saves us from a lot of trouble if we do.

All power in human society necessarily comes from individual humans. Everything we have socially is built up on collections of individuals living as best as they can. If God exists, God does not make Parliaments nor Kings nor Referendums. People wanting to convince other people to follow them and work for them make these things. Mechanisms of organisation: ways of making disparate individuals with their own motives, preferences and purposes, do something that requires more than one person to achieve. It’s probable that in the early days of humanity’s existence, some of us realised how to utilize our emotions and animal instincts to exploit and command others. These people became champions and tribal chiefs, and the rest follows from there. Like animals we have been too busy doing the vital stuff of life – surviving, finding a measure of happiness – to spend all that much time pondering how good our organisational methods are. And even if one person works it out, how do they show all their workings to everyone else?

So…social organisation progresses at a natural speed that’s “comfortable” (an ironically uncomfortable word to use here I know) for everyone concerned. People are different, have different views, have different motivations, whereas all our major achievements are based on people working together. Voting for our oligarchy is not a bad thing, it’s the furthest the union of peoples forming British Society have come to a really efficient form of social organisation. We’re not at the best yet, we can’t have democracy yet, so this will have to do for now.

The point of my writing is that we should all be able to understand this and not be ashamed of it. We should understand why we are in this prison that we have made for ourselves, full of vices and virtues, laws and lawlessness. We’re looking – consciously or not – at the beautiful picture way down the road of achievements, healthcare, technology, learning, entertainments, all in all a more efficient, a more perfect world, and something that can only be achieved by our communal effort.

We do not need to and should not pretend that we have democracy now, or that we are at the end of history with no-where else to go. We have oligarchy, and on a separate point we have capitalism. It’s so not perfect, but as you’ve seen we do get a voice, we do get a good chance at achieving many of the things we want. There are clear benefits. This is why we want to believe the lie that we have democracy and that this voting is democracy – because what we have already really works for a significant number of people. Works, but again, isn’t quite perfect. No-one’s too keen to point that out though without knowing that the imperfect thing could become perfect: no point worrying yourself about something that’ll never happen right?

Wrong. How can we know where to go, what to do, what more efficient is, what a better purpose would be, if we’re not trying to see what’s wrong here and how we might fix it? It’s much slower to wait for reform to accidentally happen. Much better to discuss it thoroughly and openly, plan it, and then roll it out methodically and with ample consideration for the need for flexibility and change.

Earlier I wrote “this vote has produced a more democratic result than most General Elections of the century-and-a-bit just gone”.

Maybe you’ve been wanting some explanation for why I say that.

We have a hung Parliament. This is at a time when the Conservative Party is clearly struggling to remain a powerful and cohesive popular force. When the Labour Party is also collapsing under the weight of its own out-of-date and war-weary ideology. When the Liberal Democrats echoing the beautiful memory of Liberalism have been stabbed in the back by their own leaders’ decision to participate in government, and their chosen method of promising much and delivering nothing. I’m saying we have a hung Parliament at a time when the very idea of government by political party is ready to be challenged, and is simultaneously ready to collapse.

You’re probably worried that this means what…anarchy?

We’re taught to have the opposite of faith in humanity. Most of what we believe, what we hear about and find in popular culture, tells us to take a pretty hefty dose of cynicism daily. We don’t need that. We need to try – and know that we will fail but try anyway – to be neutral about ourselves. To judge on emotion, reason and motivation without emotion, without bias, simply seeking whatever most closely approximates a truth.

And the approximation following this election is that all the MPs in Parliament will be forced to engage across party lines more than has previously been the case, because the nation has little (meaningful) faith in either of the main parties, because Brexit will be happening and someone has to make it happen well, because of the questions this will raise about Ireland, because of the shit state of the NHS and the British school system, because of terrorism and our failure to adequately integrate the thousands of people from different cultures trying to become part of Britain. And all the rest. And the fact that no-one seems to properly agree on any of it.

The Parties must work together. It happened to some extent in the pre-war National Government 80 years ago. It can happen again, and much better than last time.

Why am I so happy that the parties must work together? Because they will then represent – finally, brilliantly – more than 50% of the population.

So far I’ve focussed on the term “oligarchy” because our government is by definition that, and we need to be aware of that while working on improvements to what is fundamentally a problematic mode of governance. What improvements you ask? Well, first better awareness of what our government actually is. We need informed, public, frequent discussion. Easy enough? Second: our voting system regularly allows popular government without any meaningful popular consent. This is not something I need to prove – it’s widely recognised as a feature of our electoral system, but again it’s neatly ignored. Elephant in the room.

The election has at best a 70% turnout from an electorate that’s already not the total population (think young folk, criminals, infirm…). Then a party gets into power on 30-40% of that turnout. In 2015, the Conservatives formed a majority government on 37% of a 66% turnout. That’s 11,334,920 people getting representation versus 51,846,855 people in the general population (figures based on the 2011 Census) given a government they disagree with. In 2010, it was 36% of a 65% turnout: 10,703,744 people, so what roughly a sixth of the population – 17%! – getting representation.

We don’t even give consent to our oligarchs in the most basic and unrepresentative way – with a universal vote to decide the members of a governmental institution.

Party shares.


Imagine something more proportional: every vote counting towards something, every voice being heard at least a little bit.

So maybe you’ll understand my pleasure at not having a majority government – it gives the other 83% (or more) whose vote didn’t matter a little crack in the door through which they can shout suggestions and pass insulting notes. It gives the opportunity for a cross-party group of Brexit planners and negotiators to emerge. It grants the possibility of many good co-operative and communicative developments in British politics. And there’s a slim chance that we’ll actually have demand for that.

Although I’m not sure that a proportional voting system would work that much better than what we have now. Being a democrat, I’d prefer that we just take power away from national government and get rid of political parties. Proportional voting would in all likelihood just give party voting blocks more power. We’d have more terrifying manifestos, the wording of which we cannot change, and the potential for more party leaders – not chosen by us – becoming Prime Ministers and forming governments. But, as mentioned, at least the oligarchy would be tethered by 80% or more of the population, rather than the standard 17% odd.

Government, eh? What’s it like.

I’m signing off on this one all you little Pablos hidden in your plush prisons with your big TVs and internet connections. But I’m hoping to do more in the same kinda theme, giving more explanation, more room for discussion. Headlines: “Patricide”; “How to do a democratic revolution”; “Mass consciousness and you: finding a place in the machinery of the universe” etc.