If you didn’t vote you can still complain

The day after National’s resounding electoral victory, social media was awash with people blaming nonvoters for National’s victory. News feeds expressing sentiments like, “What’s wrong with you people?” came quick and fast.

Martyn Bradbury from the Daily Blog epitomizes this,

“I was wrong, horribly, horribly, horribly wrong. I honestly believed that the resources, the media attention, the vile toxic politics exposed by Dirty Politics and the mass surveillance lies would have seen NZers turn against Key.  I thought 250 000 children in poverty, the lack of economic strategy beyond rebuilding from an earthquake and crony capitalism would sink Key.

It didn’t, people rallied around him and gave John Key his largest victory ever. I am speechless. I thought New Zealanders would react angrily at seeing the real Key, they didn’t.”

As if people voting needed Bradbury’s tick of approval!

It’s the political system that needs to be questioned, not the one million nonvoters. Blaming “New Zealanders” for National winning is an implicit anti-working class and elitist argument. The nonvoters in 2011, according to Statistics NZ, were more likely to be young, poor, or recent migrants. If political parties failed to engage ordinary people sufficiently to win their vote then it is those parties that are to blame.

There’s a reason why people feel disengaged from politics. People sense like that their vote won’t count to change anything.

New Zealand is not an anomaly when it comes to declining voter numbers. Around the advanced capitalist world there has been a long-term decline in voter turnout. There’s also been a decrease in the numbers who belong to political parties, National or Labour.

A decline in trade union membership is also significant. Unions have traditionally been the organs to fight back against the bosses’ agenda, show solidarity and mobilise for movements of the oppressed and social change. But now, unions in general are in a far weaker position than ever before. The historically low strike rates in this country despite worsening work conditions and pay are symptomatic of this. Moreover, within the unions the rank and file are not nearly as active as they used to be.

With all this, is it any wonder that people feel detached from elections and parliamentary democracy?

Author of Dirty Politics Nicky Hager commented that, “Negative politics often results large groups of people turning off politics and falling voter turnout. This was one of the results in Saturday’s election. Right-wing parties bet that the people turned off voting are are more likely to support their opponents.”

But there’s more to it than this. Crucial to John Key’s success has also been the ‘anti-politics’ of his Mr. Nice Guy image that National have promoted. Instead of the opposition campaigning hard against National’s anti-worker platform, the Labour and Greens have promoted slogans equally inane. What do campaign slogans like “Vote Positive” or “Love New Zealand” mean? Even the union-sponsored Get Out and Vote avoided politics. The differences between the two major parties – based on their inane main slogans – are hard to make out.

None of these slogans suggest that there is social crisis in New Zealand or that a genuine alternative future is desirable. There is no real contestation of ideas, no real presentation of an alternative.

In the weeks leading up to the vote the Electoral Commission spent large amounts of money on an advertising campaign encouraging people to vote. Your vote counts as much as anyone else’s, the message ran; you are the most powerful person in the country. All non-prisoner citizens have a vote, to be sure; but does that make each of us as powerful as the next person?

In one sense, the one million nonvoters recognized something essential about the system. Their vote was not as important as the tools held by the rich and powerful. The vote of an unemployed mother on the DPB wields no power compared to the wheeling and dealing in the boardrooms by politicians and business people. Peter Jackson meeting up with John Key to change the work laws is a case in point. The voices, money and capital of the rich and powerful matter far more than the votes of the rest of us. Whoever is in government, they are in power.

This is an absolute outrage. Thinking about why it is the case – and how we change this state of affairs – isn’t helped by blaming ordinary people for National’s win.

The one million nonvoters have every right to complain.