The old 1968 graffiti – ‘If voting ever changed anything they’d abolish it’ – has never been more true
For the last 300 years the world was changed by mass movements of people demonstrating and then as the franchise was extended, by voting. Not anymore. The age-old means of winning change no longer seem to be working.
2019 was the year of marches, rallies and demonstrations, with more people voting in elections than ever before. But nothing has changed. From Extinction Rebellion demonstrators disrupting London and other cities to almost the entire population of Hong Kong occupying its streets to demand democratic rights from their communist overlords in Beijing, from the mass protests in Lebanon to huge rallies in India against the nationalist anti-Muslim identity politics and Hindu supremacism of Narendra Modi, it seemed as if the world – and especially the young world – was on the move and demanding more democracy. And yet the year ended with the upholders of the status quo firmly in control.
Thousands of Russians have been arrested in anti-Putin demonstrations; Paris was disrupted by gilets jaunes protests and now by massive transport strikes; London saw two of its biggest ever demonstrations when up to one million people marched to demand a Final Say on Brexit. But the men running Russia, France and Britain are unmoved – and still firmly in charge. Major general elections were also held in India, South Africa, Spain, Poland, Australia, Israel, Denmark and Switzerland, but voters, when they could be bothered to turn out, simply voted for the status quo.
The European Parliament had an election, but the hopes of European political groups that having a so-called “Spitzenkandidat”, a lead figure from the left, the centre-right or Liberals, would animate voters flopped too. Once the elections were over, the Eurocrats and national governments took over and installed at the top of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the EU foreign service and the European Parliament politicians nominated by national government who were never on any ballot paper in the European Parliament elections. The voters of Europe were told once again that it was the nation states of Europe who decided who would run the show.
The old 1968 graffiti – “If voting ever changed anything they’d abolish it” – has never been more true.
Commentators and academic analysts pour over these figures and gravely inform us that the left is finished, that some imagined “liberal era” is over to be replaced by populist identity politics. Some argue that voting systems are to blame. But, in 2019, the world’s many voting systems were made use of and they all produced the same result.
Voters are nervous of change and unconvinced by any of the political offers that imply a new start or a challenge to conventional thinking. It is the era when change began with some powerful, convincing new ideas argued by intellectuals, converted into campaigns with demonstrations, petitions and other mobilisations, then finally were either adopted by parties or gave rise to new political movements and even new parties, that is truly over.
Pressure groups proliferate; we have more think tanks funded by wealthy donors than ever before. Yet the sum of all their energy, conferences, papers and comment pieces in the press do not add up to a convincing whole – and certainly have less and less impact on voting or on government policy.
International bodies such as the International Labour Organisation and Nato celebrated 100 and 75 years of existence in 2019, but workers have never been weaker with deunionisation (outside the protected public sector) now the norm in Britain, the US, most of Europe and elsewhere in the world. Vladamir Putin runs rings around Nato, while Donald Trump can barely conceal his contempt for it.
The hopes of world government – what Tennyson called “the parliament of men, the federation of the world” – seem even further away than when he invoked his vision 150 years ago.
2019 finishes a decade in which less progress was marked than at any time since 1945.
Democratic advance has stalled. Filling to streets and voting in the ballot box appears to change nothing. So what happens next? That is the question to which the 2020s must provide an answer.