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Voting in the European elections ought to be about something more than ‘sending a message’, says Ben Ryan. 22/05/2019
You would be forgiven, I suspect even by the some of the most avid political nerds, for thinking that the upcoming European elections are the most pointless, waste of time democratic exercise that it is possible to imagine. In fact, the chair of the Electoral Commission in a Times op–ed described the prospect as provoking “an unprecedented level of uncertainty in a mature democracy” and in danger of undermining public confidence in political processes. When the Electoral Commission aren’t sold on the value of an election it seems rather unfair to expect voters to take it seriously!
National elections matter. People understand (for the most part) the process of picking a government and the impact that that has on the country and on them. Local elections matter, albeit that turnout is lower, because most people appreciate the role that local government plays, and because potholes and bin collections are the sort of issue that irritate people on a daily basis. By contrast, even at the height of the EU’s popularity in this country very few people have ever understood what the European parliament does or why it matters. Whole academic careers have been devoted to the “democratic deficit” in the EU and the lack of an informed, motivated electorate. European elections have never mattered to people the way that national or local ones have, and that is before we even consider the sheer weirdness of an election for representatives to a parliament we have already committed to leave. Given all this, why on earth anyone should care about the European elections seems a more than fair question. The answer that seems to be provided is that this election is all about “sending a message”. We are not, apparently, electing representatives, but simply signposting our displeasure.
Are you infuriated by the lack of progress on Brexit? Send a message; vote Brexit Party or UKIP and wake up the establishment to the fact that you’re unhappy. Hate Brexit and want Article 50 revoked? Send a message; vote Lib Dem or Change UK and show parliament that the people have changed their mind. Oppose the government and want to bring it down? Send a message; punish them in the polling booth. Think Labour has lost the plot? Send them a message too. All of which will be catnip to an industry of journalists and political gossip mongers who will try to read all these contradictory messages and deliver a narrative about what it means for the country.
This has become an entrenched view of the point of this election. It is also dangerous, destructive, and a complete failure in our public life which we should be fighting to oppose. Participating in a democracy is meant to be part of your contribution to the betterment of society. Christian pre–election briefings often focus on the call in Jeremiah to “seek the welfare of the city”, and on the Biblical calls to pray for and support political leaders. More than that, voting is an exercise in shaping society according to the values we want to see exhibited in public life, by supporting those who embody the principles we want to see, and standing firm against those who do not. The Catholic theological idea of the common good, which is to see “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily”, demands a sense of obligation towards others in our community. The purpose of voting in this sense is to help build something for the good of all, not simply to express anger in an empty gesture.
Though it is harder to see this community obligation in a European election than in a national or local one, it remains there. Lest it has escaped your notice we are still, for now, part of the European Union. Voters are about to repeat the same mistake they make in every single European election, which is to make it all about internal UK politics. While we engage in this rather pathetic exercise in parochialism the actions of this parliament will have consequences on the lives of millions of our fellow Europeans. On the environment, on security, on the future of integration and of austerity politics, the European parliament will have significant powers over a range of issues that will directly impact upon people everywhere (including us. Leaving the EU won’t stop it having an impact upon us). This election comes at a key moment for the EU, with the UK leaving, an emboldened and growing nationalist far right, ongoing security fears and persistent and damaging economic uncertainty.
Not least important, the biggest party in the European elections will have its candidate (their Spitzenkandidat in EU–ese) take the presidency of the European Commission, the key initiator of EU laws and policies. Last time that was Jean Claude Juncker, the representative of the centre right European People’s Party. This year that could change, with huge consequences for the future direction of Europe. Surreal as it sounds the UK’s MEPs could prove decisive in securing the successful candidate’s victory (at the moment the polling is close). This parliament and the European Commission will set the agenda for responding to challenges which are far greater than the petty squabbles of the UK’s main political parties.
All of which is to say that if you’re only planning to vote to “send a message” in the context of the farcical, fratricidal nonsense that is UK politics not only are you wasting your time (there are too many messages and on the evidence of the last few years no one is terribly likely to listen anyway), but you are contributing to the ongoing decline of meaningful democracy. That might sound harsh; you are, of course, entitled to vote (or not to vote) however you wish, on whatever issue you choose. However, we need to remember that we literally do get the politicians for whom we vote. Voting for a negative, to do nothing more than send a message, will, in the long run, only continue to contribute to a trend of democracy that is empty, angry and devoid of any sense of obligation to build for the common good. True Christian approaches to democracy, in the context of the common good, and mindful of the need to seek the welfare of the city demands more. It demands a recognition that there is a world outside the UK that still matters, and the obligation to the common good doesn’t cease just because you’re angry with the lamentable failures of the British political class.
Image © Vanderwolf images via Shutterstock
Ben Ryan is Head of Research at Theos. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism. He holds degrees in European politics from the LSE and in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge. Outside of Theos he is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network).
Posted 22 May 2019
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.