With a general election hyped as " seismic" just around the corner, it's hard to avoid the many calls to vote.
The pamphlets; the posters; the plans to shut E4 down for a day so young people vote instead of watching the How I Met Your Mother episode they could find with literally three clicks of a mouse; the Facebook friends saying stuff like, "I implore you to make your voice heard – people died for your right to vote," as if the concept of democracy is something only they have been privy to until now. People want you to vote, and they want everyone to know that they want you to vote.
But yesterday, something unexpected happened: adverts appeared in bus shelters around London urging passers-by not to vote. Instead, the posters suggested, people should "engage with politics", "spoil their ballot" and "take to the streets".
Like the anti-police posters slipped into bus shelters late last year, the design for the posters was released online by the anarchist magazine STRIKE!, but the posters were put up by anonymous activists calling themselves the Special Patrol Group (SPG).
I tracked down a member of the SPG to find out why they think people have more power away from the ballot box.
VICE: Hi. When did you put the posters up?
SPG: Yesterday morning and early afternoon.
And no one stopped you?
You have to hide in plain sight; people just trust that you're meant to be there if you look like you're meant to be there. You just get your tools out, put your hi-vis vest on. Anyone can do it, no one says anything.
How many did you put up?
There are 20 and they're kind of dotted all around – New Cross, Euston, Chalk Farm, Westminster, Milbank, a few other places.
So why don't you think people should vote?
Obviously people can make up their own mind, [but] the role of alternative and radical media – like STRIKE!, who made the design – is to present other points of view. The [mainstream] media will never present the idea that not voting is a possibility because they're part of the system. Something like 30 percent of people don't vote, which is almost the same amount that's always elected the winning party. I think we have to stop ignoring that mass of people.
We also wanted to represent some of the classic arguments against voting: we think that voting is basically this facade that upkeeps the system. [There's] this dogma that voting is our one big chance to get involved in politics and have a choice in the running of our own lives. We're discouraged from protesting, we're discouraged from resisting, we're heavily policed at protests, we're ignored if we try to speak up, and all direct action and resistance is kind of laughed at in the mainstream.
Politicians just don't engage with it. But come election time, everyone everywhere is like, "Vote, vote, vote! Engage!" Actually, so many people are engaging in so many different ways. The voting dogma is just to disempower us rather than empower us, as if to say: "This is the only system and you have to engage in this one or you can't do anything else." We're encouraging people to think in a different way.
Do you, like this SPG member, want an alternative? Try moving to South Thanet and voting for the Al-Zebabist Nation of OOOG. But first, watch this film we made about them.
What's wrong with the current system? Why are all the candidates "idiots"?
They're just part of the system – they're all pro-austerity, they're all neoliberal, capitalist, part of the elite. Obviously there are other candidates, but it's just not possible for the good people to have any actual control in this system.
What about the Green Party? They generally seem to be viewed as alright among those who actively don't vote.
I think a lot of the Green Party policies are really good, but if you look at the way people react to their big long term plans, they're just laughed at, and I think that's because people know it's not possible for them to actually implement those ideas within the current system. They're in a system that's never going to let them change things inside. The only way to change things is outside of that system through direct action.
How would you like the system to change?
That's a tricky one. It's such a massive thing. We're not saying we have the blueprint for an entirely new system, but we're saying individually and collectively we can be empowered by using our voice in ways outside of the ballot box.
What immediate, practical things can people do to engage with politics outside of the ballot box?
So, for example, people are really upset and angry about UKIP, and obviously I'm upset and angry about UKIP – they're fucking evil. So get involved in the amazing actions that support migrants; there's a huge No Borders campaign.
Any issues that people think are affecting them, get involved. The Radical Housing Network has people all over the country. There are all sorts of things that you can do other than just joining a political party.
Okay, but what if I don't vote and the Tories – who I personally don't want to win – get in again?
Lots of people have said that to us, but did you vote for the Liberal Democrats in the last election? And what happened? If you just keep voting for the lesser of two evils, it just upkeeps the system, and you get this shit system that you don't want. If you vote for Labour because you don't like the Tories, then you're voting for their tough stance on immigration, you're voting for all their bullshit policies.
But if you don't vote, you can't complain about anything for the next five years, right?
That is the worst thing! Saying that if you don't vote you can't have a say leads to the most apathy, because it's saying voting is the only way of having a say, which is the worst thing you can possibly tell people – that's so disengaging and individualist. If all you do is turn out once every five years and put a cross in a ballot box for the lesser of two evils, or whatever, isn't that apathetic? Isn't that disengaged? Isn't that stupid? I think it's so patronising when people say not voting means you can't have a say.
So what about this kind of moralistic argument that it's your duty as a citizen to vote? That people died so you could vote.
That's my favourite one. I mean, do people actually think about what the suffragettes were fighting for? It was like one part of equality, this idea of having a vote, but the majority of suffragettes – and suffragists, to be more general – were radical movements; they were fighting to actually change things and create a new and better system. They didn't die for us to be led by elite, white, conservative men. They were revolutionaries, they weren't reformists.
We live in this society that's heteropatriarchal. It's built on colonialism, it's built on imperialism, and an election isn't going to change that. Other forms of collectivity can change those massive things: campaigns to change attitudes, things like alternative media, talking about stuff, those can change the way we think and the way we work and the way people are represented. An election is not about to [do any of that].
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