Robin Ashenden

The case for not voting at this election

Credit: Getty images

Anyone over the age of 40 can scarcely help comparing this election, or the state of our two main parties, with those of the past. Though in 2024 it seems a choice between dumb and dumber (or grey and greyer), this wasn’t always the case. 

The government of Blair, Brown, Prescott and Cook seem like a supergroup compared to the current front bench

The first election I could vote in was in 1992, and back then there was a clear difference. Yes, Labour, under Neil Kinnock, had kicked out many of the hard left and moved to the centre-ground, but it was more a question of style. The Tories wore velvet-collared covert coats and Turnbull and Asser ties, got caught in massage parlours, and closed hospitals. They often had, after 13 years in government, a grotesque air of droit de seigneur about them (think David Mellor or Michael Portillo at his worst). 

Labour sported ill-fitting light grey suits, looked as if they stank of Embassy cigarettes and Draught Bass, banged on a lot about ‘caring’ (often in Celtic accents) and were supported by people like Stephen Fry and that nice Prunella Scales and Tim West. They seemed almost the political wing of Art and Literature, and crucially, they’d been so long out of power that people my age (I was 22) hadn’t clocked that money was finite, a politician was a politician and that all parties, once in power, were usually a flop to their supporters.

I was then an Eng. Lit. student, grinding my way through the major works of post-war left-wing drama. In his play Chicken Soup with Barley, Arnold Wesker had written shamelessly that ‘Socialism isn’t talking all the time, it’s living, it’s singing, it’s dancing, it’s being interested in what goes on around you, it’s being concerned about people and the world,’ and as he was older than me and world-famous, I believed him. It took a two-year spell in the former Soviet Union, where people spat out the word ‘idealist’ as if referring to the nastier aspects of an upset stomach, to make me wonder whether Wesker, when he wrote those lines, hadn’t been overdoing the pálinka at the Gay Hussar.  

Even so, Labour party history fascinated me and continued to into my thirties. It seemed to me back then all the interesting characters had been in the party. Michael Foot, a snowy-haired visionary, took time off party politics to go and write his books on Byron and Swift. Denis Healey, chancellor of my childhood, had his famous ‘hinterland’ of music and poetry, a mythical entity you imagined him going out to water and fertilise each morning with a sprinkle of Delius and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Tony Crosland was an erudite womaniser so silkily mandarin – despite his promise to ‘destroy every fucking grammar school’ in the country – that he seemed more like a theatre critic than a dreary minister. 

Their contemporaries on the right – characters like Willie Whitelaw and Lord Hailsham – didn’t stand a chance in the glamour stakes. It was only a long friendship with the late historian and novelist Peter Vansittart – a commendably balanced man who evaluated politicians on their personal strengths and weaknesses rather than party-affiliation – which opened me up to the idea that Macmillan could be as interesting as Gaitskell, the travails of Eden as compelling as Nye Bevan’s, and that really, beyond the fact the parties had separate policies, they all belonged to the same world and were different manifestations of the same syndrome.

Being a floating voter, I realised, wasn’t a cop-out but could be a sign of maturity and thoughtfulness – a decent person might just as easily have voted for Heath in 1970 as Harold Wilson in 1964. By then, I was growing jaded too with people who put their best foot forward, who indulged in bouts of competitive virtue-signalling or seemed to court popularity, promising more than they were able to deliver. I became more and more aware, over the years, of the discrepancy between how people wished to be seen and how they actually were. Was I becoming clearer-eyed or just a cynic? Had I moved to the right? It seemed all the time I’d remained a classical liberal, with the terrain shifting radically around me. 

The changes have left many in 2024 feeling politically homeless – or at least, uninspired to get down to the polling station. A case in point is one of my oldest friends – a lifelong Labour supporter (and once candidate for a Labour council) who runs an altruistic business. Recently she found out Labour’s proposed changes to employment law, making it infinitely harder to get rid of slack employees or to put them on the zero-hours contracts on which her company, run on a virtual shoestring, depends. She’s also a long-term believer in the rehabilitation of criminals, and appalled by Labour’s promise to build 14,000 new prison places. The Tories, under blowaway Sunak, seem barely worth considering, voting Reform is unthinkable to her and, having Googled her local Lib-Dem candidate and found zero information, she says they’re out too.  

And what of the Labour party she no longer feels able to vote for? My friend was a staunch Blairite and, looking back, even the government of Blair, Brown, Prescott and Cook seem like a supergroup compared to the current front bench – most of them faintly like characters from The Office (and secondary characters at that), with weird weekend-interests and authoritarian tendencies – almost none of whom you can imagine talking to at a party without wanting to cast desperate save-me glances over their shoulders. If you think Britain’s unhappy and ill-at-ease now, wait until you’ve had five years of this lot. 

If you think Britain’s unhappy and ill-at-ease now, wait until you’ve had five years of this lot

As for the Conservatives, I warned in 2022 they’d bitterly regret sidelining Kemi Badenoch (their surest vote-winner) for Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, and it wasn’t exactly difficult to make this prediction even then. Sunak, a flyweight without an effective jab or uppercut to his name, is the closest we’ve come in my lifetime (excluding Truss) to feeling like we don’t have a Prime Minister at all. The Tories’ wittering 11th hour promises on immigration, housing and trans-issues (gosh, what took you so long?) are the desperate last-ditch pleadings of a rejected husband just as the Decree Absolute comes through. Meanwhile, Farage’s treefrog-face increasingly seems to exhibit the malicious glee of the trickster, one delighted in causing sheer havoc for its own sake. The Lib Dems? I had to Google their leader last night to find out what he looked like. This never happened with Paddy Ashdown or Charles Kennedy. 

I find them all not only ghastly, but dull. Dull in the way photocopying or Rawl plugs or daytime TV or Primark underwear is dull. There seem so many choices, the Conservative party has had so many leaders, you feel like you’re in a restaurant with one of those suspiciously vast ‘international’ menus, wondering why Spaghetti Carbonara is being offered cheek by jowl with sushi or nachos or Bouillabaisse, but knowing they’re all going to be crap.

For once I’m following C.H. Spurgeon’s maxim: ‘Of two evils, choose neither.’ People died for my right, not my obligation, to vote, and I intend to sit tight on 4 July. The single, solitary box I’ll tick this year is the £100 I’ve already bet on a hung parliament, at odds of 7-1, which would pay for new kitchen cupboards. That’s the only kind of cabinet I care about right now and, barring the odd typo in the furniture catalogue, I should at least get what they’ve promised me. 

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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