Election Thoughts [1] | The Fallacy of ‘Choice’


One of the most-commonly words used in this election season is ‘choice.’ The whole of the democratic system relies on people having a genuine choice for who they vote for, but beyond that, the various parties – and the Conservative party in particular – are keen to promote a ‘choice’ agenda in their manifestos too – see for example a Tory piece on education: ‘the more choice parents have, the better.

I think we need to be very careful here. For every parent to have a ‘choice’ about which school they could send their child to would have to mean surplus capacity (ie wasted capacity), and this would cost enormous amounts of money. Choice about which hospital you are treated in results in the same thing – a requirement for surplus capacity.

Our democracy is built on us having a ‘free’ choice, and yet that choice is actually quite restricted in a number of ways. Firstly, one needs to be able to stump up a £500 deposit in order to stand as a candidate. This is refunded if you get more than a certain number of votes. Clearly this is a moderate bar to standing for election, but more seriously is the pressure put on people not to ‘waste their votes’ by voting for someone other than a candidate from the three main parties. Indeed, in some constituencies, our free choice is boiled down to two parties – because voting for the third main party would split the vote and hand power to one of the two larger ones.

Democracy, what is meant to be our free choice for who represents us, is thus reduced to something a long way from a free choice. In the US, the situation is even worse: there are just two parties to ‘choose’ from.

But despite this narrow version of democracy, we fight tooth and nail to export it to all corners of the earth. While voter turn-outs in our own countries dwindle, we send troops out to ensure that other peoples use this system to organise their affairs too.

One good friend has already declared that he intends to not vote at all this election – and already a groundswell of ‘Don’tVote‘ tweeters are gathering support. I’m not convinced that this will result in a better system – but I am highly skeptical of the claims made for our democracy and the fetishisation of ‘choice’ that we are seeing. ‘Choice’ is being sold as a huge carrot to the electorate because it gives the impression of having some real power. But I think this is actually a fallacy.

To address this, it’s to some thoughts about choice from Zizek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce that I want to turn in the next post.


5 responses to “Election Thoughts [1] | The Fallacy of ‘Choice’”

  1. “Firstly, one needs to be able to stump up a £500 deposit in order to stand as a candidate…. but more seriously is the pressure put on people not to ‘waste their votes’ by voting for someone other than a candidate from the three main parties.”

    £500 is hardly a massive amount. If you were serious about standing as a candidate and had any amount of support this would not be a difficult sum to raise?

    Some interesting thoughts there though.

  2. interesting post Kester – I always wonder about the not voting option as a viable option. As a woman I have always believed very strongly that I always need to mark my ballot paper – it is only 80(ish) years ago that women were prepared to die for me to be able to vote and some how I need to honour that. so I ALWAYS vote even though I don’t like any of the main parties (or minor ones much!) and yet I would struggle to rationalise not voting. maybe there should be “I want to exercise my right to vote but don’t want any of you lot running the country” option on the ballot paper? or maybe spoiling your ballot paper? Is the don’t vote line not an excuse for further apathy?

  3. @Gav It’s a massive amount for some people. Why should we exclude them from the process? Interesting that in some countries, anyone standing as a candidate can claim a modest sum to spend on their campaign expenses.

    @Gayle I believe the correct option if you aren’t prepared to support any of the candidates is to turn up, but spoil your ballot paper. There are many reasons why someone might not turn up to vote, but society is generally inclined to regard that course as apathy. If you spoil your ballot paper, you are clearly not apathetic, but have some issue with either the available candidates or the process (or perhaps both). It would be nice if they gave you a way to indicate which of those is preventing you from casting a vote.

  4. I’d agree John – it could be seen as a prohibitively large amount – but my point was that the financial barriers are perhaps minor compared to the psychological barriers of standing.

    I’d also agree that spoiling is better than simply not turning up. This is what I end up saying twenty times a week to kids who turn up without a note saying ‘I’ve tried the homework, but just couldn’t do it. My reply is always the same: without a note, there is no way I can differentiate those who made the effort but couldn’t do it from those who just couldn’t be arsed. ‘Don’t Vote’ can actually end up looking no different to apathy, and that’s precisely what we don’t want those in power to think we are feeling.

  5. Some very interesting and thought-provoking ideas here, thanks. I’ve often toyed with spoiling my ballot, but so far I have instead voted for who I wanted to win (and not tactically). Noone I have voted for yet has won, but I’m not sure that has to be the point always…