In defense of wasting votes

My very first job, in between high school and university, was with an organization that registered young people to vote. My whole life, I have voted in elections, I have worked hard to get candidates I liked elected, and I have made the kinds of compromises that one makes when one is serious about social change.

And I have long agreed with the idea that one must not “waste a vote” — that we should vote not only for the candidates and parties we support, but in particular for those that have a chance to make a real difference.

But this year, in the elections for Israel’s 21st Knesset, I intend to waste my vote — and I encourage you to do the same.

And I say that fully aware that in the next few weeks the battle against “wasting votes” will intensify, as the danger grows that some parties which we have known and voted for decades are on the cusp of disappearing. I am speaking in particular about Labor and Meretz.

No one really believes that Labor is somehow going to win this election and that its leader, Avi Gabbay, will be Israel’s next prime minister. When asked last month if he expected to replace Netanyahu as the country’s prime minister, Gabbay told journalists: “I indeed believe so.” If he truly believes that, he is delusional.

Public opinion polls, which are admittedly often wrong, particularly in Israel, have consistently shown Labor heading toward its worst electoral performance ever. And Meretz faces the threat of not passing the 3.25 percent electoral threshold — and being excluded entirely from the Knesset for the first time since the party was founded more than a quarter of a century ago.

As neither party realistically expects to form the government on the morning after April 9th, what they are fighting for is a seat here or a seat there. And the question people who see themselves as being on the Left have to ask is: does it matter if Labor wins eight seats or nine, or if Meretz wins four seats or five?

The Israeli left parties – Labor, Meretz, and to a degree the Communist Party – have lost the support of those who could be relied upon to loyally vote for them. Even in the last elections in 2015, Labor and Meretz together received over 950,000 votes, and 29 seats in the Knesset. This time around, they will be lucky to get half of that.

The leaderships of both those parties have taken them from political dominance to oblivion in just two decades. Anyone who believes in the values those parties once stood for – in particular, the need to put an end to the conflict with the Palestinians and with it, the occupation – needs to rethink what we do from here. The old electoral model is not working. The old parties are quite clearly not up to the job.

What is needed, I think, is the creation of a bottom-up, grassroots new Left in Israel. Such things do not happen overnight, but they do happen.

For example, by the early 1960s, many young people grew increasingly estranged from both major political parties in the United States. The old liberal wing of the Democratic Party was mocked by folk singer Phil Ochs in his painfully honest song, “Love Me I’m a Liberal”. Young people began to lose interest in elections – but were mobilized in their millions to support first the civil rights movement, and then the anti-Vietnam war movement. The women’s liberation movement, the movement for gay rights, and the environmentalists all grew outside the framework of electoral politics. Eventually, those people came back to the Democratic Party, but first the system needed a good shake up.

Many of those who are deserting Labor and Meretz in droves this year are genuinely wasting their votes. They are doing so by backing centrist candidates like Lapid, Ya’alon and Gantz whose policies may be unclear, but of one thing we can be certain: they would be happy to serve as ministers in a Netanyahu-led government. A vote for them is a vote for more of the same. It is a genuinely wasted vote.

But a vote for a smaller party, one which might have no chance at all of crossing the electoral threshold is not necessarily a wasted vote. It could be a vote for new ideas in Israeli politics. It could be a vote for building such a new Left from scratch, from the ground up.

For example, a small party that put class before ethnicity, that focussed on workers’ rights not only as an election slogan but in its day to day work between elections, that built unity between Israelis and Palestinians rather than looking for ways to separate them, that understood the global nature of the challenges facing Israel today – especially climate change, and that was consistently supportive of democracy throughout our region – such a party, if it existed, would be worthy of my support and my vote. And maybe yours too.

Let us be completely honest about this: the old Israeli Left is disappearing before our eyes, and a New Left is not yet born. The only chance for such a Left to come into being is to reject the tired slogan of “wasting votes” and instead to vote for a party that tells it like it is. In an age of lies, support for such a party is not a “wasted vote” at all.

It is actually our only hope.

About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. His most recent book is The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 (Zed Books, 2017). He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.
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