the Disillusioned kid: Suffrage and Suffering
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Monday, April 11, 2005

Suffrage and Suffering

When questioning the value of voting as a political tactic, one of the most common arguments I come across is reference to the sacrifices of those who fought for universal suffrage. Timx, for instance, states, "I believe strongly that everyone should vote - the right was hard enough won." Tim's factual assertion is true enough, the Suffragettes and the Chartists being two of the most prominent movements involved in this struggle. Many supporters of both movements paid with their liberty and even their lives and nobody should understate the commitment or bravery of those involved. I question, however, whether it follows from this that we have a duty to vote.

Those who fought for the right to vote, rarely considered it an end in itself. Rather, they were concerned with the changes they thought would come about if suffrage were extended. The Suffragettes sought a better lot for women, while the Chartists incorporated a range of movements seeking social justice and/or a radical overhaul of the system. Insofar as their hopes have been realised (despite the many problems with modern society the plight of women and the poor is greatly improved on what it was one hundred years ago) this argument is no longer relevant and insofar as universal suffrage has failed to radically shake up the system (wealth and power is still concentrated in the hands of a few) they have, tragically, been proved wrong.

Recall also, that there were similar struggles for the right to trade union membership (witness the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were deported to Australia for having the audacity to organise against their bosses). Despite this, I have never come across anybody (even from the most rigidly workerist sections of the socialist left) who assert that consequentially we have a duty to join a union. Arguments for joining are typically framed in terms of why it is a good idea whether for yourself, your class or the interests of the "revolution".

I stress that I'm not necessarily saying that people shouldn't vote. I'm simply questioning the importance adduced to it as a form of political activity. This is important because the undue focus on electoralism diverts people and movements away from strategies which have real potential to bring about significant radical change.

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