I will always vote – until the day I’m forced to

Why compulsory voting would be a step in the wrong direction

Since I was eligible to do so, I’ve voted in every ballot that has been available to me. Local elections, general elections and referendums, I haven’t missed one. No matter whether it’s an exciting, tense, close vote, a foregone conclusion or some bog-standard local election that nobody even knows is happening, I’ve trudged down to the polling station and marked my X (or scribbled something rather less tasteful).

It is a freedom that I am grateful for. Many people have fought for, protested for and been punished for this freedom in the past. But the crucial point is that this happened for the freedom to vote.

I’ve never been a fan of the growing shame culture around not voting. By all means encourage and cajole if that’s what you feel is right, and certainly shake people out of laziness or apathy. But if people want to exercise their equal right to not vote, then they should be allowed to do so. This is, for now (and less and less so), a free country. The state should be extremely limited in telling us what we must do. There is a world of difference between legislating what we can’t do and dictating to us what we must do.

My vote has had varying weights – in local and general elections, it makes barely any difference. I have always lived in some of the safest Labour council and constituency seats in the country, but I don’t bemoan this fact. In referendums, where all count equally, my votes against AV or for Leave have had more weight. But in all instances, I’ve offered my view willingly through the ballot box.

Turnout in this country can vary wildly between the different polls. And this is where problems start to emerge; problems to which politicians start to seek solutions that would begin to erode our freedoms.

Any talk of compulsory voting should chill us, and, in my view, must be resisted whenever is is even whispered. Compulsory voting is not designed to help us, the voters. It is purely designed to help politicians. This is why I am always minded to warn those who are heavily invested in one side and who think compulsory voting would benefit their side that this would not be a panacea.

It always seems to be assumed in this debate that everyone cares, everyone is engaged and every knows enough to cast a vote. This is obviously not true. This should never bar anyone from casting a vote, but compulsory voting would force all of these people into the voting booth. Given the completely anti-democratic and anti-universal suffrage reaction to the EU referendum (take votes away form the old, the stupid, the working class, the white, etc.), I’m not sure these people can square their self-drawn circle here.

One of the issues that seems to continually crop up is the high voting engagement of older people against the comparatively low engagement of younger people. This is sometimes completely disproven in the odd vote, but as a general trend it stands up to scrutiny. It also prompts those on the more left/liberal side of the equation to become exasperated in their attempts to ‘get out the youth vote’ – i.e. their core vote. This inevitably starts to lead down the road towards musing on compulsory voting, because they figure that if they can force everyone (i.e young people) to vote, their share will increase and they will sweep to power.

Makes sense. But if that were to ever happen, they would be making us all less free, not more free. I don’t owe politicians a thing, and they should remember that.

You see, what politicians crave more than anything – more than popularity, even more than power itself – is a mandate. Popularity without a mandate is powerless. Power without a mandate is weak. If it looks like the mandate is small, their power starts to wane. And one way (not the only way, but one way) of depriving them of a popular mandate is by staying away. It’s not the way I would choose, but it is legitimate.

Compulsory voting would force the entire nation to give somebody a mandate, and we would have no grounds to delegitimise them. You would be forced to go and cast a vote. Now, I understand that people have tried various ways to get around this – what about if we still allowed spoiled ballots? What if we offered a ‘none of the above’ option? These are not terrible suggestions, but would always have some problems.

Spoiled ballots would have to be discounted in a way similar to the way they are now. They have to be acknowledged, but not counted, which seems a sensible compromise. But why not just let people stay away? I myself spoiled my ballot in the last general election, but that’s because I wanted to go and show my displeasure – that was my choice. Why should I be forced to go and do that if I don’t wish to?

A ‘none of the above’ option is the one thing that could even remotely sway me towards compulsory voting, but again, there are problems – what if this option won? What then? No MP sent to Parliament? The second on the list wins? We vote again? Again, it doesn’t seem to solve the problem that compulsory voting is intended to solve. What about in referendums – should this be an option there as well? Would they be counted? Would they be assumed to be backing the status quo?

What about in a general election where there are constituencies with only one serious candidate? The entire population of that area would be practically forced to give a mandate to that person, with no choice not to. Spoiled ballots wouldn’t count, and ‘none of the above’ would produce the same issues highlighted above. Traditionally, the Commons Speaker stands unopposed by the major parties- what if I don’t like him? I either have to vote for Greens or UKIP? I don’t think so.

When Jo Cox was murdered, the Labour candidate stood unopposed by any major party. This was, of course, a totally unique situation, rightly engineered out of compassion and respect, but that respect would have been soured by, essentially, a forced vote for the replacement or going for a far-right alternative. As somebody who votes for the candidate above the party or the party leader, that would have caused me a major issue.

Forcing people to go to the ballot box would also be a violation of freedom of speech – the state would be making me send a message that I may not wish to send. This cannot be tolerable in a free society, surely? I should be able to choose what I say and when and where I say it, unless restricted by law (and these instances should be extremely minimal, if at all) – I should not be compelled to do or say anything I don’t wish to do or say, and certainly not by the state. It is authoritarian and a breach of the relationship between state and citizen.

If it ever came to it in this country, which seems unlikely, I would campaign vigorously against it. I’m all for encouraging people to vote, but active non-participation is a choice that many people make, and this shouldn’t be curtailed.

As I say – I have always voted. But as soon as someone tells me that I have to, I won’t.

A comedian has been convicted for a joke. This should be a wake up call for us all

We have just set a very dangerous precedent…this must be resisted

WARNING – this post will contain videos and links with some choice language and adult themes.

For those of you who have not yet heard this story, let me start with a quick summary. A Scottish chap called Mark Meechan, a so called ‘video comedian’ has been charged under the Communications Act with a hate crime. This hate crime was “grossly offensive”, “anti-semitic and racist in nature” and was “aggravated by religious prejudice”.

So that was the charge. That such charges can even exist in this country is something I may come back to, but for now let’s stick to what actually happened. Mr Meechan posted a video to YouTube in April 2016 of himself and his girlfriend’s pug dog. The thrust of the video is that he is teaching the dog a trick, which is to perform a ‘nazi salute’ (it raises a paw). The commands for this trick are the phrases ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘sieg heil’. The joke being that such a cute dog is doing the worst thing imaginable. You can watch the full video below, if you so choose.

For this alleged ‘crime’, Mr Meechan could face prison time. It’s unlikely, but possible. Either way, he will be punished for this by the British Justice System. I’m struggling to quite put into words just how chilling, horrifying, moronic and authoritarian this is.

Right, well let’s start with the blindingly obvious – it was a joke. A joke. A joke that you are allowed to find funny, a joke that are allowed to find unfunny. A joke that you are allowed to be offended by. A joke that you can choose to share, a joke that you are free to ignore. A joke.

Are we saying jail, a place where the worst people in the country are sent (given that we don’t have the death penalty), should be there to deter jokes? We want jail to be a place that people would look at, and then think twice before making a joke?

Here are some more jokes:

“They say there’s safety in numbers. Yeah? Well tell that to six million Jews”. That was Jimmy Carr.

“Palestine is like a cake being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew”. Frankie Boyle.

Louis CK opened a special by saying he would do all of the announcements so that they can just start the show already. “Turn off your cellphones…or at least leave the flash off…don’t yell out…don’t text or Twitter during the show…what else…oh yeh no Jews, I think they said that earlier…”

So these guys should be jailed for these jokes? Or are these ok?

As expected, most of my comedian friends have shown concern about this, but weirdly there has been some pushback even in this community. There has certainly been very little outcry in the wider media, and this is such a concerning thing. A couple of things have been raised which I will attempt to address now.

The first being something to the effect of “why are you defending this guy, it wasn’t even funny”. Well that doesn’t matter. Because whether you think it’s funny or not shouldn’t be the basis on which another person’s freedom is decided. And if we don’t stand up even when we disagree, it will come back to bite us later down the line. “Is he really someone you want to defend?” I don’t care who he is. I’m not defending the person, I’m defending the principle. You’re the one turning him into a martyr, not me.

I used to watch Frankie Boyle a lot, until I got bored. I was offended by loads of things he said (who wasn’t?), but when I decided I didn’t want to watch him anymore, I didn’t demand that he be jailed or ostracised, I just stopped watching him. I watched Jimmy Carr’s last special, thought it was ok. Not particularly my cup of tea, but I appreciate the structure and the skill. I love Louis CK, Bill Burr and Chris Rock. I’m watching Ricky Gervais’ new special ‘Humanity’ as I write this. First ten minutes have been pretty good. But whether I find it funny, whether I find it offensive doesn’t matter, because if any of them were threatened with jail for anything I’ve heard them say, I would defend them.

Secondly, “well he’s been defended by and pictured with Tommy Robinson”. So what? Is that a crime now as well is it? “Well it doesn’t help his case”. Again, so what? I would caution you to be very, VERY careful using this type of argument. Anyone who is a Corbyn supporter for a start can knock this one on the head, standing as you will be in a tiny, fragile glass house. I can assure you, this won’t end well. Put. The gun. Down.

Ken Livingstone (we’re talking about Nazis, might as well bring him into it) was once asked in an interview why he spent so much time defending Muslims, given that the ideology of most followers of Islam are opposed to his own brand of politics. He answered that they were currently facing oppression, and much as he had defended the Irish in the past and Palestinians now, he wants to provide a voice for the voiceless. It’s a similar thing here. It is you, the person who would jail this man for a joke that forces people like me to defend him even though I don’t even find his joke funny. I would never teach a dog to do that, I think it’s awful and immature. I think the Charlie Hebdo cartoons weren’t funny. But for goodness’ sake, I don’t want them jailed or killed for their bad jokes.

I have never had the inclination or a reason to draw the Prophet Muhammed. Why would I? But as soon as someone says I can’t, or threatens me with punishment by law or mob violence if I do, the urge gets stronger. Notice how in all of these reports of the Nazi dog, the original video is shown. Apparently it’s ‘grossly offensive’ according to a judgement passed down in a court of law, but it is embedded on every article. The full thing. Was that true with Charlie Hebdo, or did you have to ‘deep Google’ it? Nobody had the courage to show them, but this is apparently ok.

People don’t seem to realise that legislation or precedents like this can be used against them. They seem to live in this world where only their enemies and people they don’t like are the only ones who will be punished by it. But once these things are law, once the precedent is set, that will be it. Some of the things I hear said about Margaret Thatcher or the Queen or Theresa May…well if this guy is going to jail, so are most of my friends. Or at least they ought to be if we had any kind of consistency.

This passage in a CNN piece explains it very well:

“You might say “so what?” You might think that “offensive” speech is of low value, so who wanted it anyway? However, if you don’t believe in protecting “offensive” speech, you don’t believe in protecting speech at all. What you deem “offensive” could be “humorous” to someone else. And what you find valuable, can very easily wind up on someone else’s “offensive” list.”

 

Given how social media outlets are prone to bias against Conservatives and favour Liberals, we already have a small window into how this could pan out.

Let’s just pause for a second – do you think, based on what you’ve seen or read, that Mr Meechan is a racist? An anti-semite? A genuine hater of the Jewish people? If you do, then you might as well stop reading if you haven’t already. Nothing I say here will convince you. If you don’t – then what on earth are we even talking about here? Anti-semites exist, undoubtedly (many in the party most of my friends seem to support). Some are awful, horrible, virulent anti-semites. What happens to them? Should they face the same punishment as a guy making a joke about it? Or do they now look a lot less harmful when equated to some tattooed ‘shitposter’?

I said it earlier, but it’s difficult to put into words just how frightening this is. That a judge can declare context irrelevant, and a prosecution can persuade enough that a person making a joke is being serious and should be taken seriously makes me question what year I’m living in. I hate it whenever anyone posts a thing simply alongside the phrase ‘it’s 2018’, as though that’s supposed to somehow prove something. But come on, the year 1984 has to be the one that comes to mind more than any other. Jonathan Pie says it the best:

We are so complacent. I am so complacent. We forget that rights have to be constantly fought for, not just won and then left alone. Authority will ALWAYS look for ways to erode our freedoms, and it is up to us to be vigilant in protecting them.

If we aren’t, we won’t have anyone else to blame when they come to our doors demanding our papers. We have been warned.