In this month’s Radical Object, Andrew Whitehead ponders the politics of a 1955 anarchist pamphlet which encouraged those going to the polls to ‘Vote for Joe Soap’. With its reflections on the politics of vote refusal, the disillusionment of the electorate, and the absence of trust in politicians, ‘Vote for Joe Soap’ makes a fitting start to History Workshop Online’s series of posts that will reflect on issues of relevance to the 7 May election in the UK.
Russell Brand’s plea for an active decision not to vote –
I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. New Statesman, 24 October 2013
– stirred up quite a row. It even drew the censure of the BBC’s normally above-the-fray Nick Robinson. But there is a long tradition of campaigning against voting – not against having the vote, but against exercising it.
In November 1885, the Socialist League issued a halfpenny pamphlet entitled ‘For whom shall we vote?’, written by William Morris in the name of the League’s council and addressed ‘to the working-men electors of Great Britain’ who had been enfranchised by the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts. Its conclusion, one which Russell Brand would surely endorse, was that considering ‘the miserable pettiness of Parliamentary party life, and the mean lies and hollow pledges of an election contest … then surely you will agree with us that it is your business NOT TO VOTE, but to prepare yourselves to bring about the SOCIAL REVOLUTION, and to accept its happy consequences.’
Seventy years later, William Morris’s political heirs in the London Anarchist Group issued a similar appeal in a rather different style – with a handbill aimed at the 1955 general election campaign. (The handbill is undated, but the 1955 election was the only one to take place during the brief life of the Malatesta Club, mentioned in the text). It was entitled: ‘Vote for Joe Soap’.
Joe Soap was originally rhyming slang (for ‘dope’) but also took on a wider meaning as the foot soldiers of life, whether in uniform or on the factory floor. The name features in a First World War-era barrack room ditty: Forward Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear, With our old commander, safely in the rear.
The leaflet, a single sheet of A4 on coarse paper folded to make four pages, offers a potted biography of its candidate:
Was born at an early age. Went to the school of experience, worked at several jobs. When it was peace, he was for peace; when it was war he went – or it came to him. Had boiling lead dropped on him at Agincourt – arrows at Hastings – cannon-balls at Worcester – bombs in 1917 – A-bombs in 1945. (H-Bombs any day now).
Politicians have designs on him, propagandists are conditioning him, clergy are promising him pie in the sky.
If elected Joe Soap promises not to let you down. He is the only man you can trust.
It should be noted that even in this radical protest, women don’t get a look in. Several decades after women got the vote, and in spite of the women active in its own ranks, the London Anarchist Group of the 1950s seems to have been largely oblivious to gender politics.
The Joe Soap message was about the absence of trust in politicians and in all the established parties (including the Communist Party). It was also a response to one of the most urgent concerns of the moment, the Cold War and the arms race then in prospect. The leaflet argued that only governments ‘can make and use atomic and hydrogen bombs’ – and the first step of withdrawing support from governments everywhere is: ‘REFUSE TO VOTE!’
Joe Soap appears not to have featured in subsequent election campaigns, though anarchists groups have coined the most memorable abstentionist slogans with posters to match: ‘Don’t vote, it only encourages them’; ‘If voting changed anything it would be illegal’; ‘Whoever you vote for, the government gets in’; and ‘Guy Fawkes, the only honest man to enter Parliament’.
Voter turn-out in the ‘Joe Soap’ general election of 1955, by the way, was a respectable 77%.
He’s an editor of History Workshop Journal.