In response to the recent bishops’ letter offering guidance on voting in this year’s general election and calling for engagement with the political process, we asked two Catholic Voices speakers active in the Conservative and Labour parties to interpret the letter in the light of their parties’ platforms. Peter Smith made the case for voting Conservative, while Mary Clarkson urged voting for Labour. Now another CV speaker, JOE RONAN, explains why he is considering voting for “none of the above” on May 7th — and how this can be squared with the bishops’ call for Catholics to vote and engage with the electoral process. (To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org).
In their letter the Bishops of England and Wales remind us that we have a responsibility to be involved in the democratic process, and that we have a duty to exercise the privilege to vote. I first voted in the General Election of 1979 and have voted in every parliamentary, local government or European election since. But in the coming general election I am finding it very difficult to work out where best to place my vote, and for the first time in my life, I am wondering whether to vote at all.
I wouldn’t be on my own. In 1950 there was an 83.6 per cent turnout with 28.7m votes cast. The election in 2010 saw a slightly higher number of votes cast (29.7m) but given an electorate that was over 7m larger, the turnout was 65.1 per cent. If the same proportion of votes has been cast as in 1950 nearly 8.5m more people would have voted.
This is a new trend. Until the 2001 election the turnout was, with the exception of 1918, always in the seventies, sometimes higher. But in 2001 it dropped to just under 60 per cent and has remained more or less there.
Why, in an era when marketing is such an art, when politicians have experts on demographics advising on how to appeal to specific categories of voter, when communication tools are so widespread and individually targeted, do large numbers of people feel that ‘none of the above’ is the best option?
As a Catholic, I am asked to consider how “in the light of the Gospel, can my vote best serve the common good”. Mary Clarkson and Peter Smith have given detailed and persuasive reasons why one party or another might claim my vote. But as far as I can see the general direction of policy in this country is the same whichever party is in power. I see no strategic difference between the established parties despite the faux fighting over details.
Policies that undermine marriage
Take marriage and family life, one of the areas the bishops would like us to focus on, and which they link to the question of housing and poverty.
Critical to the ability to bring up a family is the cost of secure accommodation. I was able to buy my first house in the south east of England at the age of 24, on a very average graduate salary. I was married at 26 and in the following years we were blessed with four children and able to finance the household with one salary at times, and to move house with relative ease to follow work and allow for growing children. It is all but inconceivable that a new graduate couple could follow our example now. Apart from having to pay twice for the cost of their education, they would struggle to afford accommodation for themselves with two salaries, never mind allow for children. Again, none of the main parties have expressed any strategic intent to reverse this bubble. In fact all policies seem aimed at maintaining or increasing property prices. The result is that a family life, as I knew it, has become less and less possible for a large number of young people.
The reality is that over the last 20 years politicians of all governing parties have systematically removed all support for marriage and family life. The tax allowance shared between man and wife was a great help to our family in bringing up our children, but it was seen as ‘divisive’ and discriminating against people who weren’t married. The recent introduction of a ‘couples’ allowance comes only after the concept of marriage has been redefined more or less out of existence. None of the major parties has policies directed specifically at supporting marriage and family life with children, only tactical policies that throw crumbs to special interest groups, or as bribes to unwary voters. The policy preference is to have both ‘partners’ working, and whilst children are not encouraged, if they arrive then it is better that the state looks after them.
Energy & education
Energy policy is another area where all governing parties in recent years have systematically increased the burden on the weak and vulnerable whilst allowing vested interests to benefit from secure and nearly risk free profits of enormous magnitude, fed by subsidies which are paid for by increasing utility bills of those that can least afford it. Over 25,000 people in this country will have died during this past winter from cold. Despite this, the country faces energy shortages for which the policy response is to plan for rationing power using smart-meters, both by price and by availability.
In education, the state is taking more to itself in the way that children are brought up. Parents are increasingly prevented from taking decisions that affect the moral upbringing of their children, and the increasing pressure on Catholic schools to reflect the morals of the state rather than the Church is starting to find it’s way into ever more restrictive statutes.
This goes against the Catholic value of subsidiarity. So does the centralization of the European Union. Over 70 per cent of legislation that goes through Parliament originates in Brussels, and is implemented with little regard for local tradition or need.
Given the criteria the Bishops have laid out in their letter, I can’t point to any one party that I believe has at its heart a strategy that could claim my vote.
What about individual candidates? The message from the bishops is clear that I should look at candidates’ views, irrespective of their parties.
Without a doubt, there are impressive candidates around the country that I could vote for, often in different parties to the one I would consider my natural home. But in my constituency I have a sitting MP who has consistently voted against positions that we would consider central to Catholic teaching, and the other candidates, where they have expressed a view, would clearly do the same.
Some might say: then stand yourself! A good response, but practically very difficult. In days gone by your local constituency association would know the members and would choose its own candidate. Now the local party is more likely to receive a list of who it may choose, a set of those well connected with the central party, and often on the political career path.
The levers of power are moved by narrower and narrower groups ever further away from the lives of ordinary people.
An alternative way to engage
How, then, can my vote serve the common good?
Firstly, as a Catholic, I should take a full part in the general election process. Even if I decide not to exercise it, my potential vote has a value to candidates. I should take pains to establish what my local candidates think. I should also take every opportunity to let them know what I think, whether by individual meeting, or attending their meetings and hustings. My duty is to research those issues that are important to me, and understand as well as possible where the candidates stand, and to feed my views back to them. That takes time and effort, and can be frustrating when a politician is keener to tell you what he thinks rather than listen to you.
Secondly, I should be encouraging others to be active. Whether in the parish or diocese, or amongst colleagues at work, or with friends at the pub, we should all be debating the issues and making our points of view heard. It is very surprising how a few focused voices can cause big ripples.
I should also be praying. Praying myself, and with my parish. Praying for wisdom and guidance for ourselves in making our decision, and for those who are elected – that they may keep in mind the needs of the country as they take up their task in the new parliament.
If I have done all that, and yet on election day cannot see how a vote for any of the candidates could lead to policies in line with my understanding of my faith, then I believe I am justified in not voting, and joining the 10m people for whom ‘the same old faces’ just do not deserve our support.
But then, I have a further responsibility: to be a voice in the land that says “this needs to change”; to describe the needs, to outline the strategy, and to be an active part in making it happen; and help make sure that next time, or the time after that, we will be heard.
[Joe Ronan lives in Hexham]