Changing the mind of 500 voters would have prevented George W Bush coming to power. Could there be any clearer example of the importance of getting people to register and to vote? Bush launched the Afghan war and the Iraq war and presided over the naive faith in free market economics that eventually led to the near total implosion of the US economy in 2007-8. Bush poured investment into the oil industry, promoted fracking and did away with a lot of environmental protection. No one can know how Al Gore would have acted in power but out of power he proceeded to spend his time turning himself into one of the leading campaigners in the world on green issues. The contrast looks to have been extreme. With Gore in power the world might have avoided all the horrors that have followed on from the impetuous mistake of invading Iraq and it could also be a lot further forward in tackling the climate crisis we all now face.
One of the commonest things I hear people say these days is that all politicians are the same and there is little point in trying to change anything because nothing ever does change. When you look at the behaviour of political leaders like Tony Blair then it is not hard to see why such cynicism has arisen. But the example of the US election clearly shows that a small amount of political activity can sometimes make a huge change.
I am one of those people who think that the scale of the changes that we need to make to the way we run our economy, our agriculture and our society are enormous and that we need something akin to a revolution in our value system and in the way we go about practically implementing those values. That is not the same as believing that what we need is a single moment of violent revolution which will somehow fix all our problems and we cannot make any progress without it.
In any given situation small actions of the individual and the community can always make things better or worse. Every choice that we make is important even when that choice is about the lesser of two evils. Previous generations of campaigners have left us with some impressive legacies that are well worth defending. The vote itself wasn't given to the public out of some capitalist conspiracy or some great generosity of spirit of the ruling classes. It was forced out of our rulers by fierce campaigns by radicals who were cut down by swords at 'Peterloo' in Manchester and by suffragettes who were beaten up and force fed. Similarly the NHS and the welfare state weren't voluntarily offered to working people. They were created as a result of the determination of a generation that had just fought in a World War to secure real and genuine improvements to the lives of ordinary people.
Within any given society there are always ways that you can make things better and always ways that you can make things worse and the degree of energy that each of us puts into supporting the positive forces for change matters enormously. It isn't the case that all forms of capitalist society are just as bad as each other. A capitalism moderated by tax credits and a welfare state is infinitely preferable to one of food banks. A capitalism with freedom of speech is preferable to one where you get arrested for speaking your mind. It matters whether the bulk of the press is owned by one rich right winger and, for all its faults, it matters whether there is a strong public broadcaster called the BBC and how much intimidation and control that broadcaster is placed under.
Even between those that we disagree with there are degrees of difference. Under a capitalist state there are extremes of inequality which radicals would wish to oppose, moderate and change. There is also a degree of freedom to campaign for those changes. Under a fascist state anyone who campaigns against the government gets arrested and shot. The two experiences aren't the same. One is worse than the other. The same is true of the contrast between the rule of extreme religious fanatics and even the most right wing of capitalist governments. I don't want to live in a society where women of 15 are enslaved to military commanders. I don't want to live in a society where people are beheaded if they make a choice about who they make love to that is disapproved of. I don't want to pay a tax if I don't pray to the right God and be shot if I don't.
I don't approve of many things about the UK. I didn't support the invasion of Iraq. I don't support wasting money on Trident. I don't like the way we turn a blind eye to so much Israeli aggression or do arms deals with oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia. I disapprove of the way the government tells us that we all have to tighten our belts and then spends £375 billion on propping up banks, triples recruitment for the surveillance services. Most importantly of all I think the country is investing far too little in making the essential and very urgent transition to a low energy environmentally sensitive economy.
Nevertheless I don't fool myself for a second that someone with my views would survive in ISIS territory. There are degrees of difference in the people we oppose just as there are in the ones we support. Assad is probably better than ISIS despite the fact that he is guilty of torturing so many political opponents that he provoked the Syrian war. I think Hollande has adopted some incredibly damaging policies but I would rather he governed France than Marine Le Pen and the Front National. I prefer Cameron as Prime Minister to Farage. I have in the past voted Liberal Democrat in the hope of beating a Conservative. There are circumstances in which I would not wish the Greens to field a candidate against Labour. There are a lot more circumstances where I think it crucial that the Green arguments are put and that Greens fight as hard as they can to get across the urgency of prioritising environmental issues and of living lighter on the planet.
No doubt everyone reading this will draw the line differently when it comes to deciding who they would support and oppose in any given situation. That is healthy. Concluding that our opponents are all the same, so we might as well give up unless we can start the revolution, is not. Our ancestors created the best bits of our society by hard long struggle. It is up to us to fight our own battles and every individual can always make some degree of difference. Characterising all our opponents as the same is a route to inactivity and despair that we can ill afford at the current moment of time.