Faced With Two Pro-Genocide Parties, Voters Are Tapping Out

‘We’re going to “lesser of two evils” our way into an apocalypse.’

by Rivkah Brown

3 June 2024

A billboard that says 'vote genocide' with a Labour rose besides it
Subvertising in London drawing attention to Labour’s support for Israel’s assault on Gaza, May 2024. Photo: Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives

“But what about the women who fought for your right to vote?” Aoibhinn Nic Aindreasa’s friends asked when she told them she was going to spoil her ballot. “Just vote for the most leftwing candidate,” her parents said. Until recently, she’d have agreed with them.

The 31-year-old voted Labour in 2015, 2017 and 2019, though not always with much joy. While a “fervent Corbyn supporter”, she held her nose to vote for Ed Miliband. This time feels different.

“We’re going to ‘lesser of two evils’ our way into an apocalypse,” she told Novara Media. “What’s the answer, then? We just keep on doing this forever, nothing changes? We just keep engaging in this farce of a system? To me, that’s not a solution.”

Nic Aindreasa is one of a growing number of people who’ve lost faith in parliamentary politics. She was once active in her local Labour party in Liverpool, but is one of the roughly 150,000 who have left the party since the last general election, 23,000 of them over the party’s stance on Gaza and its screeching U-turns on the climate crisis. Many now see the parties on offer as forcing an impossible choice. These people want to vote, but to express their disgust – so are spoiling their ballots.

In a sense, this is nothing new. Voter turnout collapsed over the second half of the 20th century, as the two main parties’ political programmes converged and scandals such as the Profumo and Poulson affairs eroded voters’ trust in politics. In 1950, 84% of those eligible voted; by 2001, only 59% did. Turnout has picked up slightly since then, peaking at 69% in 2017, the first election Jeremy Corbyn contested.

Yet while non-voting has become routine among the British electorate, vote-spoiling hasn’t: only 261,133 votes were rejected in the 2019 general election, representing just 0.5% of voters. This figure includes ballots invalid for all sorts of reasons, from missing birth dates on postal votes to voting for more than one candidate. The Electoral Commission doesn’t distinguish between deliberately and accidentally spoiled ballots. By contrast, four million French voters (11.5%) spoiled their ballots in the second round of the 2017 presidential election; another quarter of voters abstained. So popular is the practice of vote-spoiling in France that half of the 2022 presidential candidates supported the idea of officially weighting blank votes – meaning that if they were in the majority, the election would be invalidated.

Because of the difficulty of making their voices heard through vote-spoiling, British voters who wish to communicate their dissent at the ballot box have tended to protest vote – which in the UK means voting for alternatives to the two main parties, sometimes knowing they won’t win.

In March, journalist Owen Jones launched We Deserve Better to “send Labour a message” by voting for their competitors in certain seats, including Thangam Debonnaire’s and Wes Streeting’s. Campaigns such as that of Andrew Feinstein, the independent candidate and former African National Congress MP standing against Keir Starmer in Holborn and St Pancras, are designed to make a point more than to win power.

Yet if in the UK vote-spoiling has historically been seen as the preserve of an infinitesimal fringe, increasing numbers of people, many of them drawn from the generation Corbyn politicised, are beginning to view vote-spoiling as a valid way to voice their discontent with politicians.

Nic Aindreasa’s constituency, Liverpool Wavertree, has been a Labour stronghold since 1997 (not counting Luciana Berger’s flip-flopping from Labour to Change UK, the Lib Dems and now Labour again): Paula Barker won the seat by over 27,000 votes in 2019. It’s therefore one of the safest places to protest vote – though Nic Aindreasa is unsure about the leftwing Labour alternatives.

Ann San – a local community activist and one of the organisers of Liverpool’s regular pro-Palestine marches – is standing in Liverpool Watertree as an independent, and would be an obvious choice for someone like Nic Aindreasa. However, she says she’s disturbed by San’s support for George Galloway, whose views on LGBTQ+ people and abortion she describes as “disgusting” (in a recent interview with Novara Media contributing editor Aaron Bastani, Galloway said he wouldn’t want his children to be taught about gay relationships or non-normative gender identities; he is one of several anti-abortion MPs, among them Tory MPs Lee Anderson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ian Duncan Smith, to have tabled an amendment to the criminal justice bill reversing telemedicine for people seeking abortions, reimposing mandatory in-person consultations).

As for the Greens, “I don’t want to vote for someone who can’t engage the working-class people of Liverpool.” This leaves Nic Aindreasa with no choice but to spoil her ballot.

Iman Chala, 20, was born in County Cork and now lives in Lewisham, southeast London. This is the first general election in which they’re old enough to vote – and they won’t be voting for anyone.

“My whole life, my parents have always voted Labour,” they told Novara Media. Despite being too young to vote at the last election, Chala was a paid-up Labour member (anyone over 14 can be) and “really annoying about it online”. They dreamed of becoming a Labour MP one day; Zarah Sultana was their inspiration.

Gaza tipped Chala’s decision to spoil their ballot: “You can’t vote for a party that endorses genocide.” They recognise they’re able to protest vote in part because their MP Vicky Foxcroft has a majority of 33,000 – though they say that witnessing the party’s treatment of Faiza Shaheen, their calculation has changed.

“As it stands [I] will never vote labour, no matter where I am in the country, anymore. The Labour party has it out for outspoken women of colour and have started shouting from the rooftops that they are institutionally racist.

They added: “Why should I tactically vote labour when they can’t be bothered to be tactical about getting Tories like IDS out?”

Chala says they resent the perception of vote-spoiling as “childish … crusty behaviour”: “When I said to people that I’m going to spoil my ballot, it’s kind of met with ‘Ooh, look at you, little rebel, that’s funny’, when I think it should be considered as a legitimate means of getting your point across.”

For Ros, 34, a constituent of Labour’s Matthew Pennycook in Greenwich and Woolwich, south London (majority: 18,000), spoiling her vote isn’t just a statement – it’s retaliation. “I feel that the Labour party, as well as the Tories, have treated us, the voting public, with contempt,” said Ros, who asked that we only use her first name. “And I guess this is my way of showing my contempt for them as well.”

Like Chala, Ros was brought up by lifelong Labour voters. Her Dad stood as a Labour councillor when she was growing up. She inherited her parents’ politics, voting Labour at every election. But she has “no faith in the current leadership” – largely due to its complicity in the Gaza genocide, though also its weak stance on climate breakdown. “We need really radical change,” said Ros, and neither party is offering it.

This is a sentiment echoed by Nic Aindreasa: brought up in Catholic west Belfast during the Troubles, she grew up with stories of friends and family members “taking quite radical action”. “I was educated in my history,” she said, adding in a message: “We’ve seen the limitations of electoral politics in the North of Ireland, through the collapse of the Stormont government time and time again.

“Working-class Nationalist communities have always had to organise in order to get things done, whether during Direct Rule or post Good Friday Agreement … it’s shown me that despite the utter hopelessness of our current electoral politics, there is power in community.”

Chala sounds more hopeless. “[In 2019] I felt so … energised and passionate and like there was an actual alternative,” they told Novara Media. “This time, it’s just depressing as hell. We’ve got a chance to get the Tories out, and I’ve never felt so apathetic about it.”

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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