With a uk general election looming, pundits at the Guardian and New Statesman have been urging the Prime Minister in waiting, Keir Starmer, to set out a credible plan for government. Labour, we are told, ‘desperately needs to stand for something’; it ‘needs a big idea’, a ‘political vision’ that ‘resonates with the majority’, a ‘clearer policy platform to win voters’ trust’.footnote1 Yet there is nothing particularly obscure about Starmer’s programme. Petty authoritarianism, ‘fiscal discipline’ and fealty to the White House are the hallmarks of his politics, which he practises with perfect coherence and consistency. Those for whom this type of politics is either blandly uninspiring or actively repellent do not need further clarification of Starmer’s beliefs. For them, the only reason to vote Labour is to dislodge the governing Conservatives after a dismal decade and a half in office. As the ballot approaches and the polls narrow, the Starmerite commentariat will begin to register this fact. They will become less concerned with defining Starmer’s ‘vision’ and more focused on addressing this pool of potential abstentionists—urging them to put aside their qualms and vote for the lesser of the available evils.


The argument can appear unassailable. The lesser evil, by definition, is the least bad of a given set of options. To refuse to accept the least bad is to prefer the worse over the better, which seems obviously illogical. This, it is often implied, is not only a failure of rationality but also of morality. By failing to minimize the bad, you are in a sense responsible for the ‘surplus’ that is embodied in the realization of the greater rather than the lesser evil. This is often linked rhetorically with notions of maturity and immaturity. The argument of the lesser evil is styled as ‘grown-up politics’: accepting that we cannot always have what we want, that we must sometimes swallow our disappointment and make do with second worst.footnote2 Those unwilling to do this are cast as unable to master their own impulses for the greater good. They are stubborn, petulant, selfish, clinging to their idealism out of spite or vanity. Or their behaviour is painted as an expression of privilege. It’s easier to say ‘Damn the consequences’ if you will be immune to them anyway, while others suffer the brunt. In other words, those not receptive to the argument of the lesser evil are spoilt children.footnote3

Even if we feel instinctively that something about this familiar line of argument is fraudulent, it can be difficult to pin down the error. Perhaps the most obvious response is to point out the way it directs our attention onto a question that matters much less than others we might ask. Why are we debating whether or not to vote for A, who is (let us suppose) marginally less odious than B, rather than thinking about how we came to be faced with such an appalling choice in the first place? Because, it is tempting to answer, diverting the public with this relatively inconsequential question is rather useful to those with power: as long as we’re busy debating A versus B, we will feel like we’re involved in political decision-making, but without being in danger of actually changing anything. And if A versus B is so boring that many people lose interest in ‘politics’ altogether, so much the better.


Part of the reply, then, is that it often doesn’t much matter whom we vote for or whether we vote at all. This, once again, is a stance liable to be accused of immaturity, a kind of adolescent nihilism, although it need be nothing of the sort. There is much that can be done other than voting—and even if there weren’t, this wouldn’t make voting any more effective a means to social change. Yet there is a grain of merit in the accusation that indifference to the electoral game is a luxury. Édouard Louis makes the point, in The End of Eddy, that even minor political events, like passing a bill or changing a policy, may be crucial for the poor—an occasion for despair or relief—in a way that is less likely for the rich. The precariousness of individual lives is such that small developments have major implications. A bureaucratic mistake, a delayed operation, a rent increase or a visa problem can set them unravelling. The hollowness of liberal democracy doesn’t mean that different outcomes within that system are not consequential, up to and including the distinction between life and death. Neither point takes away from the other. So if it doesn’t matter, it also does—at least sometimes.