If you want change, this is not the election to boycott: a response to Alex Kane


An empty Belfast City Hall council chamber. (CC image from Flickr)

In today’s Newsletter Alex Kane argues that by not voting, he’s sending a message: “the Assembly isn’t working, the Executive is dysfunctional, we have farce rather than government, the parties don’t care.” This is a really strange argument against voting in council elections—especially since this is an election about the transformation of local government. As the Northern Ireland Local Government Association says, “On Thursday 22nd May 2014 the people of Northern Ireland will go to the polls to elect this local council in the greatest shakeup of local government in more than 40 years.” If you want change, this is not the election to boycott.

The local government reforms we are about to see will create structures designed to empower communities at the municipal level. So if, like Kane, you’re “mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore” (i.e. the inertness of the Assembly), well, this is actually the election for you. Planning powers, local economic development, urban regeneration; these powers are being devolved down to the local level. Abstain in 2016 if the Assembly is the rock in your shoe, but by all means, if you want to shape your community and drive regeneration, don’t stay home in May.

Kane’s argument against voting in upcoming elections is structured on a folk argument that I’ve heard plenty of times back in America: “don’t vote, it only encourages them.” This is the idea that by not voting, you are refusing to prop up the people and institutions that you see as failing to deliver for the electorate. “Why vote for parties who either don’t want change or are too weak and dithery to deliver change?” asks Kane.

Why vote? For one, if in the elections less than 50 percent of the electorate don’t vote, which Kane is hoping for, you are surrendering political mandate to the street. In Northern Ireland, this is a dangerous place to be in; it will call into question the legitimacy of everything from council decisions to the PSNI. Forgive me for being the blow-in who set up my life here during peace-times, but from the horror stories I’ve heard from grieving friends about the past, a “voting is not the answer” argument seems frankly reckless.

Middleclass commentators, since the start of flag protests, have simultaneously lamented loyalist disenfranchisement, and derided the re-emergence of the PUP. Back in 2012, at the beginning of the flag protests, Alex Kane argued,

They need to organise. They need to construct a socio-economic platform. They need to create an agenda. They need to engage and enthuse potential voters. They need to field their own candidates with their own manifesto. They need to stop self-appointed, self-interested spokesmen from speaking for them.

There is room for a party which is prepared to engage unionist/loyalist working classes. So instead of being manipulated by mainstream unionism or whipped up by loyalist paramilitaries the new voices of the unionist/loyalist working classes need to be focussed on earning influence and respect where it matters and then winning seats at council and Assembly level.

Now that council elections are almost here, he is telling loyalists their votes don’t matter, and that it won’t make a difference whatever happens in these elections. In fact, for working-class people at the interfaces, if voter turnout is less than 50%, they are likely to experience negative changes, including a decline in community relations that could lead to greater violence and tension—something most middle-class people can avoid simply by getting in the car and going home.

I agree with Kane that if the Assembly isn’t working, there isn’t necessarily a moral case to be made for voting, though as I’ve just argued, low voter turnout could lead to a rapid decline in political stability, affecting working-class communities the worst. Jason Brennan, political philosopher at Georgetown University, argues in The Ethics of Voting, “Institutions that hinder our ability to live well, regardless of what they symbolize or the good intentions of their creators, give us little reason to support them.”

But these elections aren’t about the Assembly. They are about councils and Europe. They are also about sending a message that we want our society’s problems solved through conversations rather than on the street—something Kane also argued for at the beginning of the flag protests.

So why vote? I think David Swanson at Daily Kos has two really strong arguments that are applicable here in Northern Ireland.

Because there is a real value in not allowing things to get any worse than they have.

Because progress will not come from greater crisis but from greater space to maneuver in.

If you want to take hold of the reigns of your community, the elections in May are your chance. If you really can’t find someone to vote for, why not just stand yourself?


  • Cahir O’Doherty

    It’s always bothered me that the apparent answer to disillusionment with the political system/class is not voting. What not voting does is send a message of apathy rather than anger. If you want to express your disappointment at the political system, exercise your right to vote and spoil your ballot (where was it that they recently put in an option of none of the above?). From my own experience monitoring the last general election, spoilt ballots are much more interesting than turnout.

  • Rory Carr

    “If you want to take hold of the reigns (sic) of your community…” I would not bother but this is the third time in a month that contributors have misapplied this word. It should of course be ‘reins’ (as of a horse, which one has occasion to “take hold of “). The advent of the automobile has, it seems, played havoc with the language.

    As to Alex Kane’s advice to voters (unionist voters presumably, they being his constituency) not to vote in forthcoming council and European elections, I should, I suppose, be all for it but, strangely, I find that I am not and instead I am swayed by the argument of Barton Creeth. Continue then, dear voters, to vote early and often as is our hallowed tradition.

  • Nordie Northsider

    I enjoy reading Alex Kane’s articles. He can turn a phrase very nicely and most of his pieces have one or two memorable lines. But I’m left confused by his commentary on the Unionist parties. On one hand, he berates the DUP for their rigidity and control-freakery, scorns the UUP for cuddling up to them and on the other he holds out no hope for N121 or any other incarnation of moderate Unionism. When he says that Unionism needs vision and leadership we can only conclude that it’s not coming from any of the above. So what, then? Another party? And if so, what would that look like? For all his pronouncements on the strong position of post GFA unionism, his articles have an increasingly despairing ring to them.

  • David Crookes

    If the number of unionist abstainers and vote-spoilers is big enough, it will send two clear messages. First, here is what we think about yellow leaflets, flegs, and Mervyn Gibson. Secondly, we refuse to treat the AP and its European candidate as divine manifestations.

  • Comrade Stalin

    It’s a very good article Barton. I agree with you and not Alex (although I respect Alex’s perspective a great deal).

    I am a participationist (is that a word ? I guess it is now) who believes that abstention is never the answer and that everyone must try all possible options before abandoning the process. In the USA, you can usually write-in your preferred candidate, infinitely preferable to abstaining. Here, we have a very wide range of candidates to choose from.

    The problem I think we do have here is that people have very unrealistic expectations about what politics and politicians can achieve. This leads to the belief that we have no choice in candidates here (expressed on twitter a short time ago). People also seem to expect that the politician they give their vote to has to agree with the precise combination of values and principles that they hold themselves, especially if they are voters who are not obsessed by the constitutional question. Failure to tick any one of the myriad boxes rules the candidate out of consideration.

    This is, in fact, a “not an inch” mentality. Even moderate thinkers and voters who would consider themselves progressive are infused with this notion that you come up with your principles and things you want to see in government, you stick to them, and you exclude from consideration everyone who does not fit. Which pretty much means excluding everyone.

    The way I think we should be looking at the vote is to say, well, I don’t completely agree with the guy, but on balance the country would be in better shape if he was in charge than the incumbents. Straight away, that gives me four candidates to vote for in the European election (Alliance, Green, NI21, Tory), and all I need to do now is sort them in order of preference. Then I can work further down the ballot paper, probably next to SDLP and SF, then the least-worst of the unionists in order.

    Instead, people are like, “that guy voted to cut civil service pensions so I can’t vote for him, and there’s nobody else so I’ll abstain”, ultimately a pointless protest which will lead both to poorer government as well as no restoration of the pensions. A more serious matter, closer to home, is “I can’t vote for Alliance because of their failure on gay marriage in the assembly” – an understandable act borne from frustration, but one which ignores the fact that the party fully supports marriage equality and, if it were in power, would see it enacted – unlike the incumbent unionist parties who will benefit from abstaining “moderate” voters.

    This has been summed up in Iain Rodger’s very excellent graphic description.

  • Comrade Stalin


    If you are an abstainer or a vote-spoiler, you are not a unionist from the point of view of the election results. Therefore you cannot make a protest in this way.

  • “The local government reforms we are about to see will create structures designed to empower communities at the municipal level.”

    Sounds good in theory but I’ve seen local government close up in Moyle 🙁

    I’ve not looked at the decision-making process in detail but it appears to lie somewhere between the majoritarian arrangement in the local council and the dysfunctional one in Stormont.

    I’ll most likely be voting across the UUP-SDLP spectrum as before, not because of the likely competence of their candidates but because I’m opposed to the dictatorial approach of the DUP and SF and the ‘muscular’ style of some of their supporters. Those who don’t vote get the elected representatives they deserve.

    A planning officer recently referred to the role reversal of officials and elected representatives. Presumably the ‘brown envelopes’ will be ‘re-directed’ 😉

  • Comrade Stalin

    Sorry for the multiple posts.

    Barton in his article above raises the PUP and points out the contradiction that some commentators complained about the poor representation of loyalist working classes, and simultaneously derided the PUP.

    Firstly, it is simply a matter of fact that loyalist working class neighbourhoods are systematically ignored by unionist politicians. Talking to a Newtownabbey Alliance councillor last night I was told that the party consistently receives requests for assistance from loyalist estates in the area. Little things, like organizing bin collection times, dealing with street sweeping and so on. I have heard the same story from parts of Belfast, including East Belfast and Sandy Row. Alliance councillors do all the boring stuff in between election; unionist councillors show up at election time waving flags and promising to defend the heritage.

    This is an atrocious situation and it needs to be fixed.

    BUT .. I think it is a mistake to believe that the PUP represent the leadership-in-waiting for working class Protestants. There are certainly notable new PUP activists who are very good and I’ve no doubt they would substantially improve representation over and above the incumbent unionists. But the messy compromise with the UVF and everything that organization stands for is what makes the PUP an unrealistic choice. It may be a party for progressives and social justice advocacy, but it is also a party for fleggers and bigots, such as the would-be councillor up in Carrickfergus who merrily shared pictures of his illegal flag-erecting activities on Facebook.

    Furthermore, no democrat who wants to see the country being run better should have anything to do with the “protest” at Twaddell Avenue. Responsible politicians should be sitting down with their constituents and explaining the reality to them, not trying to sell them rainbows. Yet, the PUP and the UVF are centre-stage in organizing and encouraging this protest. Fundamentally, the protest is about trying to sell the lie that by protesting, and voting, “Protestants” can overturn the necessary compromises with nationalists that have been made recently and return things to the way they were. This is the pitch of snake-oil salesmen and it is sad to see that some of the promising new PUP activists are in the middle of it – no doubt told that they were required to attend.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, CS (1:09 pm). Yes, exactly. By abstaining or spoiling his individual vote, a unionist effectively reduces the overall size of the small-u unionist vote. If enough voters do that, even boneheads in the parties which have been punished will have to take note, and admit that the DUP/UUP/flegs/OO/Mervyn Gibson/snub-the-Pope mixture is a failed political entity.

  • I actually think Alex Kane is right.
    A 25 to 30% turnout at the Council elections and indeed Europe would send a powerful message for 2015 and certainly 2016.
    Yes of course we would still have people in a council Chamber but the turnout would certainly point to them losing some “legitimacy”.
    Of course Alex is an individual.
    The most powerful kind of boycott would be one in which SDLP and UUP led…with or without Alliance.
    But its hard to see how an Assembly elected in 2016 with a 25% mandate could survive.

    If you want a five party coalition OUT…dont vote.
    It really is that simple.
    The question arises how much people actually want “change”. People chatter about how bad it all is…but nobody actually does anything.

    So Alrx Kane is right.
    Speaking for myself, I am not a big fan of the Conflict Resolution, Platform for Change seminars and workshops that talk about “change” like it is a good thing.
    I am far too old to embrace Change.
    To Hell with the Future and Long Live the Past.
    I dont want change…so I will be voting.

  • “I am a participationist (is that a word ? I guess it is now)”

    Here is a definition by Richard Katz:

    Under the participationist view, democracy is considered as a means by which a great mass of the people are regularly, actively, and intimately involved in the making and implementation of public policies.

    This sounds a bit like the model we used in JCSS in Coleraine in the 1980s whereas I suspect the public will be excluded from as much decision-making as possible in the local councils.

  • Great conversation in here. Just wanted to quickly thank Rory for the reins v reigns point.

  • Charles_Gould

    I also think this is a good election to boycott. The elections are not to powerful posts. A time to protest.

  • If you want to protest, much better to go and spoil your ballot.
    Otherwise someone else might steal your vote. I discovered that when I first voted; my brother was next to me on the register and his name was crossed out as having voted. That was impossible as he was living 5000 miles away and there was no provision for postal voting back then.

  • Besides, it shows that you do care and weren’t just apathetic.

  • Much more difficult to steal a vote now.
    But I take the point about spoiling a vote.
    The number of people turning out is only half the story…let is say 60% in competitive areas but up to 70% plus might be generally interested and specific circumstances keep them away from a polling station on election day.

    But…yes…a 55% turnout with a very high percentage of spoiled votes WOULD be the story of the Election.
    Who is brave enough to do it.
    Or organise it?

  • cynic2

    I intend to write “All useless” across my ballot this time. First time I have ever done it

    As for this not being the right election to do it on – that assumes that there is any hope of changing local government. There isn’t. It will remain self centred, wasteful and sectarian as ever. To hell with them all

    And if enough of us do it they will get the message – well the 30% able to think beyond the next expenses cheque and junket invite will

  • cynic2

    BTW has anyone seen the Anna Lo posters – the bright yellow ones with the stencil of her face on them?

    Is it just me but God, dont they look creepy – like the cover for a very bad bootleg Kung Fu DVD from in the 1980s. Who on earth signed those off?

    And I seem to recall Alliance tearing lumps out of Michael Copeland over an almost identical comment a few weeks back

  • Greenflag

    Nevin ,

    ‘Those who don’t vote get the elected representatives they deserve.’

    Indeed .

    cynic2 ,

    ‘I intend to write “All useless” across my ballot this time. First time I have ever done it”

    It would no doubt be a ‘learning ‘ experience if voting was compulsory by all citizens barring those with medical condition exemptions and such votes as “All Useless ” etc were tabulated and published . I’m trying to imagine the outcome for policy if the ALL USELESS vote got a higher percentage than say any of the major parties ?

    Cartoonist Ian Knox a great man for the truth would have a field day if not a couple of weeks of opportunity for his tooning 🙂

  • David Crookes

    Suppose a lifelong unionist wants to say that the DUP, UUP, and TUV are all useless. Why should he involve in his condemnation two or three parties for which he would never vote in any circumstance?

    When such a voter writes a general ALL USELESS on his ballot-paper, he blurs his condemnation to the point of inutility. If you are such a voter, take your time. Write NO FLEGS, NO ILLEGAL MARCHES, NO MERVYN GIBSON, AND NO INPUT FROM THE ORANGE ORDER, EVER.

  • pacman

    In today’s younger generation text-speak world, couldn’t “All useless” be misconstrued as shorthand for “Alliance useless”?

  • Newman

    Voting like paying your rates is a civic obligation in good times and bad..this nonsense about messages being sent by not voting is dangerously misleading. Spoil your vote if you must but recognise the importance of participating in where we live and have our being. Alex Kane is pandering to an illusion that it does not matter.

  • Charles_Gould

    The alliance posters for Anna lo couldn’t emphasise the colour yellow more. But don’t use the word yellow about lo or you get branded racist, if you are not alliance.

  • I dont think I have ever missed an opportunity to vote since June 1970.
    The only time I spoiled my vote was in 1981…Fermanagh South Tyrone.
    Much as I enjoy voting …its nonsense to think its an obligation. Its a RIGHT.
    I have a Right to vote and a Right not to vote.
    Ten or Fifteen names on a ballot paper, I owe them nothing.
    All I am looking for is someone to represent my views.
    If none of them do, then I am not walking nearly 200 metres to a polling station because any of them think I am obliged to,do so.

  • “The alliance posters for Anna lo couldn’t emphasise the colour yellow more. But don’t use the word yellow about lo or you get branded racist, if you are not alliance.”


    I’m guessing that the yellow used is the canary yellow that is the party color.

  • Charles_Gould

    Yes that’s right. They have not used a photo of lo.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    With a very nice, romantic brush sketch of Anna! Almost worth driving round outer east Belfast for.

  • Newman

    FJH Rights cannot be seen in isolation. They surely must give rise to duties and it is the failure to grasp the importance of both in this post modern “utopia” we have construed that causes such a distorted view of society.Like me however I note you never miss a vote even though,as at present I find few for whom I can muster much enthusiasm

  • “The local government reforms we are about to see will create structures designed to empower communities at the municipal level.”

    The extra powers are so limited that they amount to little change. Hence, in the search for new Chief Execs, many rose from second management tier because the challenge is not that great.

    Lets just take planning, and perhaps add that to economic development. So the new greater Lisburn will be able to grant consent to the John Lewis distribution centre? No.

    We are getting a reduction in the numbers of Councils, but still to many to generate significant savings through cost/scale benefits.

    If the Councils were truly to gain that many powers then it would require a significant reduction in Stormont depts. That may happen 2016, but only to embed DUP/SF control and not to in any way pursue good government.

    Every sympathy with Alex Kane, and expect to vote negatively rather than positively, personally rather than expecting any great change. Looking at the choice available on Parties, six of one half a dozen of the other. First vote on the ballot paper will be for the person (individual) who will most upset all the troughers on the Hill.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you thedissenter, the only really significant change I foresee will be a dramatic rise in the rates bill to meet the new economy of scale………

  • Basically, a vote that is cast is always worth more than a vote which is not cast. Nobody will care if the turnout is 25% or less, and it will not deter elected representatives from claiming a mandate. Bob McCartney got the votes of one elector in seven, 14.3% when he won in North Down in 1995, but he broadcast it as a triumph and most commentators bought that. Labour won the 2012 Manchester Central by-election with 69% of an 18% turnout, so Lucy Powell MP sits on the green benches thanks to one in eight of the electorate supporting her. Does it diminish her credibility in parliament?

    It is true, as a number of commentators have said, that spoiled ballot papers do make an impression on the activists who see them at the count. It’s a fairly small audience, but one that is easy to reach. Certainly it’s a more effective way of conveying a message than simply abstaining, but that is not saying much.

    Sure, politicians ought to be worried by low turnout. But in practice they are more worried by people voting for other parties than they are by people who don’t vote at all. If you just sit back and ignore them, there is no cost to them whatsoever in returning the favour.

    As long as everyone behaves as if every election is about the border (whereas in fact it can only be changed by a referendum rather than an election), many voters will respond to what they are told voting is all about. On the other hand, if there was a non-partisan body demanding better outputs from politicians, in the form of clear and deliverable policy commitments before the elections, and objectively assessed performance afterwards according to their own commitments, that could make a big difference.

  • Greenflag

    Nicholas Whyte ;

    ‘If you just sit back and ignore them, there is no cost to them whatsoever in returning the favour.’

    Absolutely – it also gives them ‘fewer ‘ constituents to find favours for post election .

    ‘As long as everyone behaves as if every election is about the border (whereas in fact it can only be changed by a referendum rather than an election),’

    Can’t be said loud nor often enough in these last days before this election . Rubbish collection is neither orange nor green -it’s just rubbish collection.

    As the AP is the only party thats ‘agnostic’ on the border they should be perfectly placed to attract the votes of those who would like to see an election the place without the ‘border ‘ overhang or being used as a Potemkin village behind which the main parties front their ‘offerings ‘ .

    Now is as good a time to vote AP even if it’s only to lend it to them for the local /European elections ..Either AP or the Greens for numbers 1 & 2 and then stop could be a most effective strategy to shock the ‘incumbency ‘

  • The only reason anybody remembers Manchester Central is the low turn out. Probably one of the lowest in modern British politics. Indeed everyone remembers it better than they remember Lucy Powell MP….just another political insider getting just about the safest Labour seat in England on the day when a “real politician” resigned.

    People who have a stake in a corrupt system…the politicians …will always claim a mandate on the flimsiest reasons.
    For those on Slugger who on a daily basis lament the lack of change in Norn Iron pollitics then an organised boycott seems a better idea than yet another Platform for Change meeting.

    Lending a vote is the worst thing a voter (usually committed to another party) can do.
    I rejected the blandishments of anti H Block campaigners to lend a vote to Bobby Sands in 1981.
    The UUP is in the mess it is now because in part of pro union pacts.
    Where is the Alliance Party in West Belfast? Did voting for Joe Hendron really help them?
    Likewise East Belfast and Ms Long.
    “Lend us your vote, you are close to us and we can beat your worst enemy”.
    Yes of course they will express some gratitude to “I recognise that many people voted for me who would not normally vote for my party and I make this promise…..” But its hypocrisy that wont longer than the time it takes to make the short journey from the stage to the front door at the Election Count.
    And at the PartyConference the new MP will get a standing ovation when he or she claims the victory for the values of the Party.
    A mandate to rival any Bob McCartney got.

  • Comrade Stalin

    You are right FJH, lending votes is wrong, you’ll get ignored after the election. This is also true in the assembly chamber. If there are promises, get them in writing.

    On the other hand, voting for another candidate on the basis that they are better placed to deliver on the things that are important to you – or on the basis that their presence might light a fire under those who you think ought to do so – is clearly a good decision.

  • Greenflag

    Lending votes is neither right nor wrong . It’s a means to an end . If the end is to remove naked sectarianism from Local Government in NI then AP are the best placed to deliver on that objective at this time . They are the only party capable of lighting any fires under the four major parties .

  • IJP

    Great article.

    The inherent hypocrisy and very real danger of Alex’s position needs pointed out.

    Politics is imperfect everywhere. But it’s a helluva lot better than what we had 20 years ago.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Put up or shut up.

    Why doesn’t Alex stand himself?

    Even if I lived in an area with an all republican list I would probably vote. For all its faults and flaws democracy is still the only real method of governing, I’m disgusted at Alex’s decision.