When one of my grandmothers was born, women my age didn’t have the right to vote in the UK.
It was that recent.
A few years before that grandmother was born, Emily Davidson died. She died because she believed that by excluding women from the ballot box, the British government were treating women as children, who had no stake in their country, who were governed and oppressed by men who refused to hear them. Her fellow suffragettes were locked up and effectively tortured through force-feeding and physical violence. They fought and they fought because they knew the right to vote was important. It was the signifier of a society that believed women had the right to a voice.
It was not that long ago. It was so recent that I’ll repeat it. It was in my grandparents’ lifetimes that women my age didn’t have the right to vote.
The Civil Rights Movement, who fought to end unequal application of voter registration requirements in the USA, was in my parents’ lifetime.
It was that recent.
In my lifetime, women and men across the world are denied the right to vote. They are denied a voice in the way their society is run. They are dying and being imprisoned and being tortured for asking for the vote.
Men could do with remembering that they haven’t always had a right to vote. The right for all men to vote in the UK isn’t that old – beginning with the 1832 Reform Act and extending from there.
It’s very easy to not vote, when you have the right to. It’s very easy to be Russell Brand and say ‘don’t vote’ when we have the choice to or not. It’s very easy to forget how recently we were denied a political voice in the UK. It’s very easy to forget that this is a right many believed was worth dying for. Believe is still worth dying for.
I have sympathy for Russell Brand’s anger at today’s politicians and I think he made a lot of good points – both on Newsnight and in the New Statesman – about why people are disaffected with politics and why change is needed. After all, I am angry too. I want a revolution. I don’t like the system we have today. (I also don’t like Russell Brand’s diminishing of editors of national magazines to ‘beautiful women who ask him to do stuff’ – but that’s an argument for another day.)
But changing the system doesn’t happen by not voting.
I believe that when you don’t vote, you take yourself out of the conversation. You might not vote because you don’t want to validate a political system that is led by someone as objectionable as David Cameron. But David Cameron doesn’t know that. He can shrug at that non-vote, and assume you didn’t vote because you can’t be arsed. And then he’ll disregard your non-vote, and carry on creating policies that trash the lives of those who they know traditionally don’t vote – i.e. under-25s.
Not voting is not a political or revolutionary act because no one knows you’re not voting. No one cares about your reasons why you’re not voting. Sure, it might be a conversation point on a current affairs show. But the politicians in power don't care why you're not voting, as long as the ones who do, vote to maintain their status quo.
For decades, voting has been the revolutionary act.
It was revolutionary when the Chartists did it. It was revolutionary when the Suffragettes took to the streets. It was revolutionary when Civil Rights activists marched on Washington. It was revolutionary during the Arab Spring, as people took to the streets to fight for an end to dictatorships and demand the right to the vote.
It was revolutionary when men and women fought and died for it. When they gave their freedoms and their lives.
Not voting isn’t revolutionary. It’s a negative. It’s just a not. It’s not recorded, it’s shrugged off. It changes nothing.
I know how bad politics looks today. Here in the UK, we have a bunch of politicians who argue amongst themselves, contradict one another to make political points, snuggle up to big business and have a list of principles you could fit on the back of a stamp.
But that system doesn’t change by us taking ourselves out of the conversation. Not voting doesn’t change anything.
That’s why they didn’t let us vote for so long.
Voting is the result of revolutions and revolts.
I feel proud every time I vote. I feel connected to those brave women and men who fought for my right to mark the cross in that box, and I feel respect for those still fighting for that right. It is a right that was hard won and is easily removed.
And of course I was furious when my last vote was betrayed by the Lib Dems. But it is too precious a right to throw away because of bad politicians. It is the badness of politicians that makes it even more important to preserve the rights we have to demand change.
I’ll leave the last word to Hunter S. Thompson:
‘Vote. It ain’t much. But it’s the only weapon we have against the greedheads.’
‘Anybody who thinks that 'it doesn't matter who's President' has never been Drafted and sent off to fight and die in a vicious, stupid war on the other side of the world--or been beaten and gassed by Police for trespassing on public property--or been hounded by the IRS for purely political reasons--or locked up in the Cook County Jail with a broken nose and no phone access and twelve perverts wanting to stomp your ass in the shower. That is when it matters who is President or Governor or Police Chief. That is when you will wish you had voted.’
Russell Brand has good points to make and he makes them well (when he's not patronising women). But he isn’t the one facing the bedroom tax. He isn’t the one whose life is being disregarded by politicians, because those politicians believe they don't have to care about certain demographics. After all, those demographics don't vote.