In the May 2015 issue of ELLE, Victoria Coren Mitchell dedicated her column to the issue of voting. During the most hotly contested General Election in decades, her words are all the more significant. Read the unmissable feature in full.
I have three friends who will not be voting in the General Election. One of them is an Occupy type, a political radical, a Russell Brand fan, who thinks voting is not the way to create change. One is a gambler who’s always on the golf course or in the casino, never watches the news and has opted out of the normal world. The third will be abroad on election day and didn’t bother registering for a postal vote. They are all men.
So easy for men, isn’t it? They’ve been able to vote for hundreds of years. (Not all men; for a lot of those years, there were qualifying rules about property ownership. But until 1918 it was no women at all. Voting was an entirely male thing.)
Isn’t that weird? Female suffrage is not even a hundred years old! Less than a century ago, women just like us – with opinions, boyfriends, bad hair days; women who read books and listened to music; women who talked and argued and ate and drank; living, breathing, adult people – had no say in their own political fates.
Men are free to shrug off voting in the same way that beautiful people can cut their own hair with nail scissors and fall asleep with make-up on, or rich people can smash up new cars for fun, or couples who conceive at the drop of a hat can moan about their kids not being smart enough: it’s easy to be dismissive of something that came to you easily.
But if you had to fight, you can’t and mustn’t take the prize for granted. Women should never, ever fail to use their votes.
Plenty of people will say that politicians are all the same, so there is no meaningful choice and you might as well not bother. But even if they are all the same, it’s still logical to vote.
One of the things that makes them all the same is: they all want power. This doesn’t have to be bad in itself – I’ve met some deeply well-meaning, bright, kind MPs who want power for decent reasons – but they all want it. To get power, under current rules, they need votes. And to get votes, they will attempt to address what is relevant to large numbers of voters.
If women don’t bother voting, then Westminster won’t bother thinking about what women want. It won’t need to! Non-voting women aren’t affecting the fates of politicians! But if women vote in large numbers then Westminster will try to please them, even if only for cynical reasons.
Just look at the Scottish independence vote. It was a truly exciting time, because nearly the entire country took part. It felt properly democratic, as though people really cared about controlling their own destinies.
The Scottish genius writer-director-performer Armando Iannucci wrote later: ‘The 45% who voted yes to independence in Scotland, because it was so large and because it was underwritten by the force of an 84.5% turnout, is driving the agenda in Scottish politics as powerfully as if it had been on the winning side.’
In other words, those who voted for an independent Scotland, even though they didn’t win outright, are still getting a better deal from Westminster just because they turned up and made their voices heard. Politicians are vying to get their votes in the future, to make them happier, as an act of self-preservation.
Now imagine the same thing, but women. A massive female turnout would motivate politicians to put women’s issues on the agenda. They’d want to win all those empowering votes for themselves next time. Even if only for selfish reasons, they would have to please and satisfy those voters, and address what they (we) want done.
It might be tax-deductible childcare, tougher and more sophisticated rape laws, stronger pressure on misogynistic regimes around the world, VAT-free Tampax, greater equality in the workplace, more help fleeing from domestic violence – take your pick, from all the issues that loom large for women but possibly not for Parliament because there are so few women employed there. But these things will be addressed by politicians – if they can see that their own lives, careers, fates and incomes might be dependent on an overwhelming female vote.
Myself, I’ve never voted very cleverly. I don’t pore over all the manifestos or grill the local representatives when they come round. In my life, so far, I’ve treated the political parties like football teams: picked my favourite early on and stuck with it through thick and thin. So far.
It might always change. And I’ve never missed an election, never failed to show up. So every party has to care about what I care about, at least occasionally, because my vote matters. If you don’t use your vote, then it doesn’t. And, to the people in power, neither do you.