iu-16Simon Burall, the Director of the think tank Involve, published a blog piece today entitled ‘Your vote isn’t important’.

After I’d spluttered my outrage on twitter, Simon (a) confessed he may have overdone in the title in order to attract attention; (b) tweeted a bunch of caveats; and (c) invited me to respond. So here goes.

In the UK, about 45 million people are registered to vote. Assuming a turnout of something like 65% – it’s been higher and lower in recent years – your personal vote is one of 27 million in total. Pretty minuscule. But the UK electoral system is constituency-based, so one actually has to wonder whether you live in a safe or a marginal seat. A great many people think they live in safe seats, which means their vote is irrelevant given that they know pretty much how the majority of their neighbours are going to vote. But even then, their vote is just one of a few tens of thousands. Not great odds.

Not only that, but political parties are said to control a great deal less than we assume; and the differences between parties are minor. So even if we did have a decisive vote – even if our vote for our MP was the one that tipped the balance – it wouldn’t change much.

That’s pretty much what Simon assumes, although the bulk of his piece is about direct, deliberative involvement of citizens in governance.

Simon, I think you’re wrong. You’re wrong about the importance of voting, and you’re wrong to think of deliberative democracy as an alternative to elections. Elections and citizen deliberation — and much more, by the way — are both essential elements of a vital, creative, and critical democracy.

First, the importance of voting:

  1. Each individual vote is irrelevant but collectively they make a huge difference. My favourite way of explaining this basic point is via an old article on the satirical news site, The Onion, with the immortal headline, ‘”How bad for the environment can throwing away one plastic bottle be?” 30 million people wonder.’ Simon, you’re basically asking us to think like the bottle throwers. And yes, I know there are ‘collective action problems’, but I also know that the most effective solution to collective action problems is to communicate the nature of the problem to the individuals so they see from a joint perspective.
  2. The degree to which UK seats are safe is wildly overstated, and has been for some time, as this piece by Fabian Richter shows. I disagree with his claims about electoral reform, but his numbers show that 85% of UK voters live in constituencies that can shift to another party with relatively little pressure.
  3. Governments have more power than they claim, as Colin Hay has argued for some time – here, for example, in a paper with my old colleague Matthew Watson. The powerlessness of governments is a discourse they spout to shift blame for failure. If that were not true, then everywhere would look the same as everywhere else, which is patently not the case. You’re not seriously telling me that things are the same now under Cameron’s Conservatives as they would have been under Brown’s Labour, are you? If so, please have that conversation with those who are now reliant on food banks.

And now about deliberative democracy. You misrepresent Dryzek in a small but important way. You present him as giving a list of things that make a system democratic, but actually he’s talking about a set of continuums which real systems more or less meet. Democratisation for Dryzek is a journey not a “cross the line and you’re there” destination. Read his 1996 book Democracy in Capitalist Times. And it’s also not the case that he thinks that elections are no use – that’s part of the point of the “empowered space” discussion, which explicitly includes parliaments.

There is such a thing as a deliberative system which dispenses with elections. It’s called authoritarian deliberation, and is practised in China, among other places. Check out this article by my friends and colleagues He Baogang and Mark Warren. It might be a step in the road to democracy, but democracy it ain’t.

Why not? Because there are no effective elections to give scrutiny and discontent a sharp edge.

Elections are not perfect. But they are still important. By all means encourage people into direct engagement. I love what you do at Involve and want more of it. But please don’t do so at the expense of a critical element of democratic systems.

Get out and vote, Simon. And drag as many people with you as you can.