Since the Conservative party "won" the UK general election on May 7th, people have taken to the streets across the UK in a defiant display of disenchantment with the electoral system and the austerity consensus of the major political parties. The prospect of 5 more years of crippling austerity has prompted many to reclaim the future of UK politics.
Protests in central London on May 9th were labelled "hate mobs" by the Daily Mail, with the media characteristically focusing more on insignificant graffiti than the concerns of the protestors. Right-wing pundits have gone to extreme lengths to claim this surge in protest is merely "the left being bad losers", with the tens of thousands taking to the streets characterised as anti-democratic "hypocrites".
The resounding response to the burgeoning anti-austerity movement aims to discredit protests by alluding to the fairness and democratic nature of the election results. Despite this, the reactionary diatribe of the political establishment's response to anti-austerity protests demonstrates the weakness of their defence for the UK's "archaic electoral system". Protestors are told to accept the results and wait 5 years for the next general election. But why should the British public "accept" the results?
"We are the 80%"
Considering the Tories improved their share of the vote by 0.8% from 2010, but increased their seats by 24 and gained an overall majority, something seems rotten in the state of the UK. Although they received 37% support from voters, this number falls to 24% when we count all registered voters. The number becomes lower still if we factor in the 15% of British citizens who are not registered to vote but who still have a stake in this country's future.
It seems clear that the Tories managed to steal the general election without significantly increasing their electoral support. Their "victory" stems from the un-democratic nature of the first-past-the-post system, particularly the majoritarian constituency system. Only "winning" parties in each constituency are represented in parliament, dis-enfranchising those who voted for smaller parties.
Although the public commentary is filled with self-righteous condemnations of the near 50% of UK citizens who did not vote, the electoral system discourages the right to vote for the party you believe in. In practice, there is little difference between those who abstain and those who vote for unsuccessful parties, as neither are represented in parliament.
Take the example of UKIP and the Green Party. They received over 5 million votes (i.e. 16.4% of the total share of the vote) but only one MP each (0.3% of all MPs). Or the example of the Democratic Unionist Party, which received four times the number of MPs of the Greens and UKIP but only 184,260 votes. The Liberal Democrats in turn received the same amount of MPs as the DUP, but they received 2 million more votes than them.
There are countless other examples which demonstrate that it is not popularity or genuine representation which governs UK politics, but the scourge of tactical voting and targeted politics. For the millions who voted for unsuccessful MPs, the lesson they will draw from this election is that voting does not matter unless you know your candidate will win.
The system creates apathy
The problem with the electoral system is not a historic mistake but a system deliberately designed to make political change near-impossible within its parameters. Think about it. Why is voting made so hard that many people who want to vote, fail to do so? Why do you have to register to vote when it is automatic in most European countries? Why are elections never on Sundays or bank holidays like in most European countries? Why can't expatriates vote in their embassies?
Political commentators in the media tend to perplex themselves with the question of political disengagement and apathy, although they rarely question the system itself. Many vacuous hashtag-ridden campaigns have come and gone yet participation remains well below pre-97 levels. Giving votes to 16-year olds, moving to online registration or running empty pleas to vote "because it makes a difference" seem incapable of changing systemic disenfranchisement.
If you are not convinced by the lack of choice among the mainstream, yet the system penalises you for voting for unsuccessful candidates, what difference are you really making? If Steve Hilton, the former chief advisor of David Cameron, tells us that election results are irrelevant because the "insular ruling class" of the UK still run British politics from the elite schools and universities, why should people vote?
Austerity is the symptom of an un-democratic system
It is not a coincidence that the denunciations of the blossoming anti-austerity movement try to uphold the election results as legitimate. For the major political parties and their supporters, who all support an austerity agenda of varying degrees and none of whom support electoral reform, the current rise in protest terrifies them. Their vision of a "democratic" society upholds the current status quo as the model society, where the extent of political engagement of its citizens is reduced to (tactically) casting a ballot every five years.
Nor is it a coincidence that David Cameron has gone after the right to strike, claiming that trade-unions need 40% support of all affected workers to go on strike. The ideas of trade-unionism and strike-action go against the core values of austerity and the current un-democratic model. If we are told to wait for five years until the next election, why should we be allowed to exercise our human right to strike?
Working people have borne the brunt of austerity since the Tories took power in 2010 that is precisely why David Cameron wants to curb the right to strike, despite the painful irony of demanding a 40% support for strike ballots when the Tory Party received nearly half that mandate in the general election.
The light at the end of the tunnel
This dystopian future of political disengagement and austerity has, however, sown the seeds of democratic passion and rebellion, by a citizenry striving to resist austerity and break the shackles of myopic selfishness. Democracy should be seen as a process and culture, not as a set of archaic institutions and rules. Democracy is people being actively interested in each other's lives, standing up for each other and looking out for each other. Democracy is everything austerity is not - it is solidarity, it is sharing and it is the responsibility we all have for creating a safe and happy future.
Upcoming protests in Central London (alongside the countless demonstrations from Truro in Cornwall to Glasgow in Scotland) on May 27th, June 20th and July 8th are nascent battle-cries for real political change in the UK. They are the focal points for people to transform their despair and agony at the prospects of crippling austerity, into hope of a future worth fighting for. Their success depends on the participation and engagement of empowered ordinary people and their capacity to build a movement capable of ending austerity and the first-past-the-post system.
A system built to suppress democratic dissent and plurality will not bring about electoral reform or a genuinely democratic society. Neither will clever hashtags or eloquent Facebook statuses. Tactically voting for the lesser-of-four-evils only perpetuates a system which measures democracy in the ballot-box.
A democratic change will come on the streets, in your workplace and in your neighbourhood by voicing your dissent and fighting every inch of austerity as it ravages communities and plunges people into hunger and poverty. Hope is the only true champion against despair, and hope is wherever folks are standing up for a better tomorrow.