Is it ever OK not to vote?

Is it ever OK not to vote?

Slightly before the election of 2010 the Anarchist Federation in Scotland were asked to contribute an opinion piece on voting to the Sunday Herald. Here is the article complete with the opposing view from Willie Sullivan of Vote For a Change.

YES: Terri Marquez

Let’s make two things clear. Refusal to vote is not equivalent to political apathy, and the same goes for parliamentary elections and democratic participation. Earlier this week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that all three main parties are intending massive public spending cuts and all three are refusing to say where the axe will fall. If we aren’t told what we’re voting for, then our choice is less informed than that between Pepsi or Coca-Cola.

If voting is so important, why do politicians treat it – and us – with such contempt? If people died for democracy, how dare we settle for a twice-a-decade trip to a closed library or church hall? We can afford to indulge bankers on seven-figure salaries, but we can’t afford bus passes or sponge baths for pensioners. Who voted for that? Even if we accepted that these cuts are necessary, they are demanded from us in return for a decision we had no say in: the bail-out of a failed, toxic financial sector.

On Thursday we are being asked to return to the rigged casino to hand over our votes and leave politics to those who know best. Whoever enters Number 10, the sure winner will be the political class. Expenses fraud will be quietly wrapped up, some faces will change, but the status quo will be secure. The winner will be able to claim legitimacy for whatever programme they choose to reveal on May 7. Votes for alternative parties won’t change that – they’re a distraction from the struggle to control our own lives.

Solemn commentators tell us more votes are cast in The X Factor than in elections. It’s an apt comparison: whichever singer you vote for, Simon Cowell gets richer and there’ll be a few cosmetic changes for next year’s competition. The song remains the same.

It is time to have confidence in our own abilities and take centre stage in our lives. Scotland has a rich tradition of anti-parliamentary politics, from Clydeside rent strikes, through Guy Aldred to today’s direct action campaigns. We didn’t get rid of the poll tax by voting. We stood together in our neighbourhoods and refused to pay. We won’t stop these cuts at the ballot box either.

The past 18 months have seen inspiring struggles in which ordinary people were willing to take on seemingly impossible odds. Workers flouted anti-strike laws, parents occupied primary schools in Glasgow and Lanarkshire, and workers at Prisme Packaging occupied their factory in Dundee. The strikes of public sector workers, campaigns to save green spaces or community centres, and direct action against open-cast mines throughout Scotland all deserve ongoing solidarity and support.

With a growing number not voting, the spectacle of elections becomes less relevant and more divorced from the real politics which is taking place. Some will say that if you don’t vote you have no right to complain, but to shun the sham of parliamentary democracy in favour using our hearts, minds, energy and time to make real change in this society is no bad thing.

Terri Marquez is secretary of the Edinburgh group of the Anarchist Federation

NO: Willie Sullivan

In Scotland, there are places where if you posed the question “Why should I vote?” the only answer would rely on history. By default that means talk of birthrights, hard-won steps on the road to the universal franchise, sacrifices made by Chartists and Suffragettes, and on the fields of Peterloo. It’s a civics lesson, a crude fudge of duty and ancestor worship. It doesn’t explain why you shouldn’t vote, or do justice to those individuals whose stories continue to inspire.

You might perhaps supplement the history lesson with a plea that surprises can happen, that “Portillo moments” are possible, and certainly worth a visit to the local primary school to achieve.

Writing as an electoral reformer, voting is too often a hard sell. There are constituencies in Scotland where the winner is beyond doubt. We have two classes of voter: those lucky enough to live in marginal seats cast votes that decide governments, and those in the safe seats lacking epithets and attention at election time.

Voting isn’t perfect. It is a blunt weapon wielded by too many without effect. Yet it’s still the only means at our disposal of asserting our rights over our employees in parliament. It’s all too easy to take the relationship between government and the governed the wrong way round, and forget who’s in charge. Yet precisely what charged those early struggles is the idea that parliament is ours.

The British colonists said: “No taxation without representation.” It was a neat slogan. The political crisis that started with MPs’ expenses hasn’t produced an equivalent, yet the disconnect that fired generations before remains. There is a them-and-us culture, with different codes and different obligations. Voting is the first – in some cases the only – way we relate to our representatives.

Those of us who have supported electoral reform have highlighted a system that forces voters to ask themselves this question. But an issue which has been sidelined for generations is now centre stage, and its future depends on what voters do this week. Voters can short-circuit a system, and throw up the most perverse result our parliament has ever seen.

We have a chance on Thursday to vote for a different kind of politics. It may not mean voting for a party or a candidate you love, but individual voters in the marginals can help ensure a hung parliament, and reconnect us not just with our MPs, but with a radical tradition that’s faded from living memory. Find out how to vote tactically at

Political myth-makers and yellow journalists are having a field day. And the reason is obvious, because change, for once, actually seems possible. Political and economic crises have fed distrust of the powerful. To call it Cleggmania simplifies the story, but voters, LibDem, floating or other, are still left with a strong impression that something different might be round the corner. If they turn out and vote, that is.

Willie Sullivan is the campaign director of Vote For A Change, which campaigned for a referendum on a better voting system and is now fighting for a hung parliament as the best option for parliamentary reform

The article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 02 2010.

Posted By

May 3 2010 12:15


Attached files


May 4 2010 15:56

great piece from the AF, succinct but clear and well written. It is much better than the opposing argument, which is extremely weak!

People can see the original on the Herald website here:

Where people can also "recommend" it on Facebook

May 4 2010 16:13

voting or not voting is a tactical question, not a matter of purity or impurity

Yorkie Bar
May 4 2010 18:08
voting or not voting is a tactical question, not a matter of purity or impurity

I'm sorry? Was someone making a contrary argument?

May 4 2010 18:25

Sullivan makes the same point that we heard ad nauseum here in the U.S. during the last election.

"This time it's different."

No, it's not.

May 4 2010 18:53

"Is it Ever OK Not to Not Vote?"

One too many "not"s in that sentance!

May 4 2010 19:43

One too many "a"s in your spelling of "sentence."

May 4 2010 20:09

As Steven says it is a great piece, which looks even better as the opposing argument is particularly weak.


steve y
Jun 22 2012 18:28

It would have been better if Terri of the AF had included the alternative of inclusive, direct and community democracy as an honest and genuine democracy as complimentary and bound-up with the direct action form of democracy - against the pretence of bourgeois democracy.


May 14 2018 05:41

Even this SPGBer would find it difficult to justify not voting yes to constitution changes in the Irish Republic's abortion referendum

May 14 2018 15:06
ajjohnstone wrote:
Even this SPGBer would find it difficult to justify not voting yes to constitution changes in the Irish Republic's abortion referendum

I would have thought that the author of this piece would probably agree. This is a completely separate issue

May 14 2018 18:07

ajj has rightly pursued this particular voting issue in the forums of his own organisation here: and not just as an Irish, but rather as an international matter, of relevance to all socialists and feminists of all genders. Can we expect an unambiguous statement from the spgb in it's Socialist Standard that they support a YES vote in the Irish referendum? despite their otherwise anti-reformist politics. This might even put them in advance of some others in our milieu who otherwise generally take up a more principled anti-voting stance. Of course there are other practical actions which anarchists and socialists might engage in to support women in circumstances where legal abortions are restricted (that maybe would fit with the 'direct action' views expressed in the above Yes argument) but that is another issue. Real choices for all people in terms of how we live our lives and relationships depends on the different material circumstances that only libertarian communism can guarantee (rather than relying on changes to the law) but we must struggle to secure what we can within capitalism even if that means fighting some issues over again. Sorry if that's a bit of a detour.