It is a frustrating time in global politics. In the United Kingdom we have politicians failing to negotiate our way out of the European Union. When we look to the US the picture is just as bleak, with Alabama having recently signed the strictest abortion ban in the US into law. What only increases exasperation, however, is that when votes on these very real issues arise politicians are choosing to abstain. Instead of representing constituents, elected officials are increasingly removing themselves from the decision making-process and succumbing to the games of party politics.
It has often been asked how we can solve the democratic crisis in this country when so many choose not to vote on election day. But what happens when those we have elected to speak for us make this same choice? It is time to address the regulations on politicians abstaining from a vote.
When elected representatives chose to abstain, they effectively refuse to vote ‘for’ or ‘against’ the motion in question. Historically, the option was introduced as a helpful tool for those in office. It was to be used for diplomatic purposes if a politician decided they wanted their stance to be anonymous. Occasionally, there was also honour involved: abstaining indicated there was more to the issue than a simple yes or no.
In contemporary politics abstaining has evolved past this. Instead, it has become a strategic weapon used to battle the internal party politics of domestic systems.
Reuters recently calculated that Brexit negotiations have amounted to a £500 million weekly spend by the government. Negotiations that have been elongated time and time again as Westminster fails to reach an agreement. In March, Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, unexpectedly decided to allow MPs a vote on a second referendum. Jeremy Corbyn had come out from the shadows to support a second vote in the weeks prior to this; it was therefore assumed he would vote in favour. Yet on the day of the vote, Corbyn was absent. He chose to abstain, along with 201 other Labour MPs who the Labour Leader had encouraged to do the same.
Despite his efforts, Corbyn did encounter some rebellion. MP for Barnsley, Stephanie Peacock, quit as whip over this vote as she felt a duty to “honour the decision of her constituents in 2016” and rule out a second vote on Brexit. Nonetheless, 201 Labour MPs, along with 22 MPs from other parties, chose not to vote. Effectively, making the conscious decision to waste more tax-payer money by delaying progress. For them, sending a political message to Theresa May and far-right Conservatives was worth far more than acting as a representative to their constituents.
If we look across the Atlantic to the US, the supposed shining beacon of democracy, we meet the same problem. In Alabama, 25 male state senators have voted to pass the strictest abortion law abortion law in the US, which deems abortion illegal including in cases of incest and rape. It effectively has the power to put a doctor who performs an abortion in prison longer than a woman’s rapist. Once you manage to get your head around that, there is an issue that has escaped immediate headlines that only causes further frustration.
There are four women serving in the state senate in Alabama, all of whom are Democrats. Yet, two of these women decided not to use their voice during the vote: Senator Dunn was not present and Senator Sanders-Fortier chose to abstain.
Yes, the numbers would still be against the Democrats even if these two women decided to vote. But this is not the point. There are roughly 2.5 million women living in Alabama, with only four women representing them in the state senate. What message does it send to these women when two of their representatives decide not to stand up for them? Not only has their state voted to control the most personal and emotional decision a woman can make, but women have been made to feel alone in their plight.
In a heated exchange, the Minority Leader of the Senate, Bobby Singleton, exclaimed how “the state of Alabama ought to be ashamed of itself”. Perhaps he is correct. But not everyone in the state is equally responsible.
We need to readdress how abstaining should be used in political votes across democracies. While removing the option entirely would be overly cautious, there must be some votes deemed too vital to abstain from. Voting as an elected official should not be seen as a voluntary act, only exercised on an ad hoc basis. Whether the stance you take is the one vote that forms a majority, or if it makes little difference to the overall count, you are speaking for the people. It is imperative that this is respected.