Give Your Vote, a campaign to get the UK’s voters to donate their votes in the forthcoming General Election to citizens of Bangladesh, Ghana and Afghanistan, is launched today, and seems to be attracting quite some interest in the mainstream media and in the world of social networks.
Give Your Vote is an offshoot from the campaign group Egality Now. The campaigners argue that:
“We think we can do better than a world where politicians from the strongest countries decide for everyone else.
The UK makes decisions about climate change, migration, poverty and war that directly affects millions around the world. There is no democratic means for those outside the UK to have a say in how these decisions are made.
Giving your vote is an act of solidarity with those who do not have a say in the decisions that affect them.
Decisions taken across borders should not mean decisions taken without accountability.
Give your vote is a call for a fairer and more equal world.”
Now I’ve often wished that I had a say in the election of the President of the US. And the campaign prompted me to think some more about my conflicted views on the importance of voting in a liberal democracy.
I admire the simplicity of the campaign message; and I’m pleased that the ‘partner’ countries have been chosen on grounds of their emblematic connection to some of the key challenges of sustainable development (Bangladesh to climate change; Afghanistan to human security and armed conflict; Ghana to poverty) . But in this coming UK general election, Give Your Vote encourages me to view my apparently legally unfettered ability to vote as a proxy for unenfranchised stakeholders as implicitly a more valuable choice than any other that I could exercise at the ballot box of my own free will.
Perhaps this doesn’t matter? After all, as the Hansard Society’s newly published 2010 Audit of Political Engagement points out, currently 25% of the public do not trust politicians at all and 62 “admit that they know ‘not very much’ or ‘nothing at all’ about the Westminster Parliament.
And yet… and yet… is there not a risk that promoting the idea that we can and should give our votes to deserving non-voters could further erode the regard in which collectively we hold representative democracy?
The Give Your Vote option isn’t about non-engagement though. Far from it.
Giving a vote calls for a high degree of pre-election public involvement on the part of the UK proxy. A look at the detail of the process makes this clear:
“Step 1. Finding out what the UK parties’ policies are on global issues
We are currently gathering questions from people in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana that they would like to put to the UK election candidates.
We will be putting the most popular questions directly to the main political parties, while also asking our UK participants to ask them at candidate hustings events.
For the month of April, people in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana will be able to text their questions directly through local FrontlineSMS-enabled hubs.
Step 2. Sending out the manifestos to Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana and holding an election.
The questions and answers from the parties will be translated into local languages and be available online as well as broadcast on local radio and TV networks.
Global UK vote day will be held in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana five days before the UK election.
Participants in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana can vote by sending an SMS to a local number registering their preferred vote. There will also be one or two physical polling stations in each country.
Step 3 . Pairing up voters and vote-donors
We will do our best to pair people up individually. However, it’s more than likely we won’t have exactly the same number of people on both sides of this project. If necessary, we will calculate the proportions for each party, randomise who to send which result to, and fire out the emails/texts.
Step 4. Sending out the votes
On the eve of the UK election, participants in the UK will receive an SMS or email, indicating which party their partner in Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Ghana wishes them to vote for.
Step 5. Casting of the global vote
They then go to the polling booth, tick the relevant box and, if they wish, take a photo on their mobile phone to confirm the vote”.
My colleague Ian Christie recently argued in an email that “democracy is a social ritual as much as anything else – given the unlikelihood of your personal vote making any difference. If the social norms supporting this weaken, democracy has little to offer by way of benefit compared to [for example] consumerism…”
What could it mean to change the nature of the ritual in the way that Give Your Vote proposes?
For all that UK citizens complain about its health, we have a tendency to be rather complacent about the idea that we live in a democracy; however flawed. In contrast, people who know what it is to live in countries that are very far from democratic might take less for granted. For example, a close relative who grew up in Communist Poland sometimes reminds me that casting a vote in a general election is the supreme responsibility and expression of citizenship; one which must never be taken lightly. And indeed, 76% of the UK public believe that it is their ‘duty’ to vote.
When I once (I’m ashamed to write) forgot to vote in a particularly dull UK General Election, the first person I confessed to at work the following day was a dual-nationality UK/Zimbabwean citizen. With no discernable schadenfreude save for a slightly suspect glimmer in his eyes, he told me how he had once, at considerable time and some expense, temporarily given up and then reclaimed his UK citizenship to ensure that he could vote in a Zimbabwean election whose rules disenfranchised dual nationals.
But democracy is about much, much more than voting; a fact which many people fail to recognise. If the Give Your Vote campaign helps to highlight that fact by pointing to lack of fairness in global decision-making, perhaps I should stop being so precious about the idea that a few hundred or a few thousand pioneers are prepared to make a sacrifice to promote a more inclusive, more equitable, system of global democracy; a system of global democracy that is less rooted in outmoded ideas about the boundaries of the sovereign nation state and its citizens and more connected to the realities of Flawed Democracy’s impacts around the world.
Give Your Vote conclude their case for proxy voting with the argument that “with your help for the first time anywhere, ever, we will be taking democracy beyond borders”. Here, finally, they lose me; for I see clear signs of ‘democracy beyond borders’ in the countless transnational non-governmental decision-making processes that set expectations for behaviour in the public realm; the ‘global public policy networks’; the unusual partnerships and all the informal, multistakeholder setting of social or ethical norms that are a feature of our interconnected world.
Give Your Vote is certainly thought-provoking. But the breadth of its vision of a fairer and more equal world has so far (so far…) delivered up a curiously narrow palette with which to paint the future of democracy across borders.
More prosaically.. there’s a lot to think about as I start work on Paper Three in our project on the Future of Democracy in the Face of Climate Change; which aims to review some of the existing literature on ‘the future of democracy’ and ‘the future of sustainable development governance’ respectively.
You can already download Papers One on ‘climate change and democracy: why and what matters’ and Paper Two on ‘what is democracy’.
Oh – and this time, I’m fairly certain I’ll remember to vote.