Every time we have an election in this country, I do the same tiresome, irritating thing - urge people to go out and VOTE. Participate. Stand up, shuffle off down to the nearest primary school (or wherever the voting station happens to be), and be counted - unless you're using a postal ballot, where past evidence suggests you may already have been counted several times, or not at all (it's electoral roulette, without quite so much misplaced optimism, excitement, or slim chance of any financial gain...unless someone offers you hard cash for your ballot paper). Even if you're in the safest of safe seats for a party whose policies you despise but you have no realistic chance of removing - please, please, vote. I know, the election itself is still up to three months away, but I thought I'd give myself plenty of time to get the message out this year.
It's not that I particularly mind who you vote for (ok, honestly, I'd much rather you didn't support any flagrant bigots, or the Conservatives, or...), and it's not as if there isn't a wider choice than ever before. There are parties for almost everyone these days - from the religious "we adore our supernatural invisible friend who loves and knows what's best for everyone, but homosexuality is bad", to the xenophobic "we love our country - or how it was in a mythical 1950's that never actually existed, but foreigners (and homosexuals, come to think of it) are bad", via the ridiculous George Galloway-esque "We are all Hamas now! Even though they say both certain foreigners and homosexuals are bad, oh, and violently repress anyone who disagrees with them...but..errr...they hate America, and they're being oppressed too, so..err.." crowd.
[Perhaps one day there'll even be a post-modernist party who regard all political views as equally valid, so espouse everything (and nothing) simultaneously - yes, you're right, Tony Blair came perilously close, and Obama is sailing in the same direction - and regard elections in a reflexive manner, with the voters 'meta-reactions' towards policy decisions being interpreted through the medium of a shin-kicking contest....?]
It's undeniable that, under the UK's shamefully unrepresentative current system, in most parliamentary seats only a couple of parties stand a genuine chance of winning, so a vote for a 'minority' party might seem to be a waste of time - although that's not necessarily the whole story, since even if voter support is not translated directly into seats, it can mean increased media coverage, membership, financial support,etc,etc which would benefit your cause of choice (lost or otherwise) in the future. Plus a vote for the "Rainbow Unity Old Folks' Legalise Guinea-Pig Eating, Ban Nude Cricket Coalition" is at least standing up for something you believe in, so you can feel good about yourself in a slightly smug way.
Usually by this point, too many people I know will have trotted out the old (and demonstrably false)"don't vote - it only encourages them", or "it doesn't matter who you vote for, all politicians are the same" clichés, or variations on those themes. These arguments are, I'm afraid to have to say, a load of bollocks.
Not realising that there are significant differences between the (three or four, depending on where you live) major parties in the UK, is simply an admission of personal ignorance. If, for instance, you haven't spotted yet that David Cameron and chums are, underneath the overly-smoothed exterior, really only a twinset-and-pearls away from Thatcherism (and all that that entails), then you haven't been paying any attention. There's an election campaign heading our way rapidly, and a host of easily-accessible sources of reasonably reliable information (not Wikimpedimentia, please) available. Who knows, there's the remote possibility that a substantive argument might even be put forward in one of the televised debates...but don't get your hopes up, it's pretty unlikely. So not acknowledging/understanding the variations between the species is not a reasonable position. The variations might not be as great as you personally would prefer, but that's not the same thing, and as previously mentioned, there are lots of other choices on the electoral menu.
Deciding not to vote at all isn't an especially clever choice either. All that "not voting" achieves is to make it easier for politicians to ignore you, and for bigots like Nick Griffin to gain power. In the European Parliament elections, the BNP didn't increase its vote, but a large number of (predominantly) Labour voters went off in a huff, and by not bothering to vote at all, allowed the bigots to take the victory. If these disaffected-but-lazy Labourites had gone out and registered a 'protest vote' for *any* other party, the BNP wouldn't have had a sufficient share of the votes cast to be elected. Some achievement. Hope the "non voters" in the north of England are properly proud of themselves.
After centuries of struggle for representation, where people suffered enormously for the right to vote, I find it depressing that so many people today simply don't bother, even though there are so many options to vote positively for, and voting is so easy to do. We no longer have the spectacle of women chained to railings, desperately fighting against legal prejudice, suffering forcible feeding in prisons - merely for the right to have their say. Here in Dunfermline, admittedly, at certain hours of the weekend, you can witness women leaning on railings, struggling not to vomit while shouting incoherently into the mobile phones that they're too drunk to operate...but that's another issue - possibly they're just canvassing on behalf of the "Too stoshious tae stand fer onyhing..'cept maybe that Brad Pitt, ye ken? He's gorgeous!" party? Who knows...
What "not voting" also fails to do at all is "send them a message", which is something else folk have used to justify their idleness/apathy. (Rain affecting turnout is, frankly, pathetic).
So here's an idea. A little challenge to the apathetic...
If you don't think voting does any good, if you don't like any of the myriad political views on offer - start your own campaign.
Launch a group with a simple aim - to encourage people to make a minimal effort on election day, head over to their local polling stations, and write NO in nice, clear capital letters on the ballot paper.
It would be extremely easy (and cost nothing) to organise this on a massive scale, thanks to the internet - set-up the Facebook Group, Bebo, MySpace, etc. Twitter away merrily. Blog your progress. Co-ordinate your efforts and send press releases via email. The media are always hungry for stories - remember what happened with the Simon Cowell/Rage Against The Machine business at Christmas? Well, that could be you saying NO on the BBC Breakfast sofa this time...what more incentive do you need?
If you gathered enough support, if the number of NO papers was in, say, only in the tens of thousands, then you might just get the politicians' attention. Plenty of them are sitting on small enough majorities to be nervous, and an orchestrated campaign like that could make all the difference...
I did mention you could achieve all that for free, didn't I? Good. Just checking.
So please, in this next election, whoever, whatever you support, exercise the right your great-great-great-great grandparents most likely were denied...and vote. It's a hard-won privilege, which too many of us forget all too easily.