Royal Holloway University, my alma mater, has been running a social media campaign, #votebecause, in which students share the reasons why they are voting in the General Election next month. The results of the campaign suggest that most people are voting either because they want to have the right to complain afterwards (how very Britishly pessimistic) or because women died for their right to vote, which, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t logically necessitate that we ought to vote.
It is telling that very few participants wrote that they are voting because it actually makes a difference. Could that perhaps be because few are convinced that the vote on May 7th will make much of a difference? I dare say it is. Many people wrote perfectly noble things such as ‘I don’t want bad people to run our country’ and ‘everyone deserves the right to be heard’. I am in total agreement with these two statements. But does a vote in a General Election ensure good leadership and representation? I don’t think so.
Before I go any further, let me stress; I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote. But the danger of such campaigns as Royal Holloway’s #votebecause campaign is that they suggest that voting is the be-all and end-all of political engagement. In reality, voting only scratches the surface of politics. There are a whole host of activities you can do to engage in politics on a local or national level, and in my opinion, voting is one of the most boring of them!
Voting only goes to decide who will represent your constituency in the House of Commons - but you have five years ahead of you to decide how you want your constituency to be represented. This decision might lead you to write to your representative, to go on demonstrations, or to bring your local community together for a common cause. Last summer I did an internship with the Centre for Theology and Community in East London, learning how people can enact political change in their immediate neighbourhoods. You can read about my experience here. The most important things it taught me were that: Change is possible; Politics doesn’t need to be left to the Westminster wafflers; Everything we do is political.
The economy is the alpha and omega of modern politics. In 1973, the economic philosopher E. F. Schumacher wrote that ‘with increasing affluence, economics has moved into the very centre of public concern, and economic performance, economic growth, economic expansion, and so forth have become the abiding interest, if not the obsession, of all modern societies’ (1). Having listened to Cameron last week, on Channel Four's The Battle for Number 10, say ‘what I’ve learnt in the last five years is that nothing you want to do will work without a strong and growing economy’, it seems as though Schumacher’s observation is as true as ever. If this is the case, how we participate in the economy is a deeply political issue. Forget May 7th - you’re voting every time you open your wallet! Ever since you’ve had a bank account, you’ve participated in this political discussion.
Where do you keep your money? Is your bank transparent on its investments? The Church Credit Champions Network is helping churches establish better community finance by, for instance, saving money in local Credit Unions which support local people with affordable loans. It is easy to complain about the bankers taking reckless risks with our money - and the politicians who bailed them out - but what decisions could we make with our money that are better for society?
Which multinational corporations are paid by your university to provide services and resources? Do they pay tax? Christian Aid has launched the Sourced campaign which calls on university procurement departments to incorporate questions about companies’ tax practices before awarding service contracts. The SCM group in Essex University, Progressive Christians, have seen the first success of this campaign which you can read about here. If you’re interested in launching the Sourced Campaign in your university then have a look at our campaign resources.
What do you personally spend a lot of money on? Does your spending support ethical, humane practices? Or are you fueling unjust, abusive markets? Does your money end up with the families of your local producers, or in the pockets of the super-rich? Organisations such as Stop the Traffik are doing excellent work campaigning against immoral practices and promoting fairer alternatives. If the issues of financial inequality and foreign aid are important to you in the General Election, let them be important the next time you shop too.
Political engagement isn’t limited to ticking a box on May 7th. By all means, do please vote. Our democratic system is much better than some other political systems out there, and it is worth upholding. But don’t think you’re done for the next five years. Don’t resign yourself to the role of complainer. Don’t leave politics to the professionals. The capacity to change the nation doesn’t lie solely in Westminster. Vote on May 7th, but keep voting, every day. Vote for justice with your wallet. Vote for peace with your voices. Vote for equality within your own communities.
1.E. F. Schumacher: 'Small is Beautiful' 1973. London. pg 34.