I have dithered about this on for months. What on earth does X stand for? And then suddenly, in the wake of the election (in the UK) last week – 7 May 2015 if you read this much later – I suddenly thought: x is the mark we make to indicate our choice, our vote in elections (and other situations where we have to vote on something). So, in a democracy, it’s a really important letter and symbol.
Just before the UK General Election, Britain YM met in session. For those of us who were actively engaged in the campaign, the timing wasn’t great. But in another sense, and in light of the fact that the theme of Britain YM was ‘Living out our Faith in the World’ it was well timed.
The question that this raises for me is this: what does putting you ‘x’ in a box on a ballot paper have to do with Quaker faith?
Let’s start here: Quaker Faith and Practice, in paragraph 23.01 says:
Remember your responsibility as citizens for the government of your town and country, and do not shirk the effort and time this may demand. Do not be content to accept things as they are, but keep an alert and questioning mind. Seek to discover the causes of social unrest, injustice and fear; try to discern the new growing-points in social and economic life. Work for an order of society which will allow men and women to develop their capacities and will foster their desire to serve.
This comes from Advices and Queries in the 1964 edition and is also echoed in the current edition of Advices and Queries section 34.
So, it seems that it has long been recognised that engagement in political affairs is a rightful expression of our faith. And of course, participating in elections – as a voter – is the absolute minimum requirement.
And in the Swarthmore Lecture entitled Faith, power and peace, Diana Francis made it abundantly clear that we have to start from our faith that pushes us to embrace our peace testimony even if that seems to fly in the face of the world we live in. To her, and to me, the peace testimony isn’t an optional extra, anymore than the testimony of equality. They stem from the same place: ‘the conviction that all human beings are, in Isaac Pennington’s words, ‘unique, precious, a child of God’; to put it nontheistically, all incorporate the sacred and are born to love and be loved.’ (Diana Francis, Faith, power and peace, 2015, p. 4).
And if that is the starting point then our involvement in politics – whether this is active by participating in a political party or standing for election, or passive, by simply taking a view and voting accordingly – then our politics must also stem from that conviction.
And so we come to the choices that were before us in May 2015. In many places up and down the country we were being urged to vote tactically. Not to vote for what we believed in, not to manifest our faith on the ballot paper, but to go for something that was not really what we wanted but not as bad as the alternative. Many people probably voted in that way. And we now know where that got us.
I have voted tactically myself in some elections – though not all that often. But this time round I decided that I have had it with that approach, for good.
Because voting tactically, by not voting for what I believe to be in tune with my faith, my conviction that leads me to the peace testimony and to the testimony of equality, I feel that I become morally bankrupt.
So why do so many people vote in this way? Friends urged me to do this, too.
It is really very simple: it’s because our electoral system, the First Past the Post system, the winner takes all attitude of our political system, is morally bankrupt. It suggests that answers are black and white (or blue and red in this case). It suggests that having open, broad dialogue between different positions that cover a spectrum of views is unstable and undesirable.
It’s true: such dialogue does not sit well with the sound bites and headlines so beloved of our equally morally bankrupt media. But we need to stand up and we need to demand change.
Not all Friends will agree on their politics; in this election, 19 Friends stood as candidates for 5 different parties. So party political points don’t work in this context. But the one thing we can – hopefully – agree on is that we need to reform the system so that the outcome reflects better what citizens think. This is necessary because it is fair; it is necessary because it is right; it is necessary because it supports equality – it gives a more equal weight to all the many ‘x’ all of us place on the ballot paper. But it is also necessary, because it will lead to more open discussion, greater tolerance and a more peaceful society.
Let us change the narrative of politics in this country; let us stop talking about who wins and who loses in elections that are broadly meaningless. Let us start talking about how we can make those elections more meaningful. And that means: getting involved, getting active, and doing far more than simply placing that little, innocuous ‘x’ in a box.