For several years I’ve voted tactically in elections where “my” party has not stood a chance of getting in, and I’ve wanted to keep a Tory out. I’ve been successful in that, and I do believe there’s a duty not to waste a vote on a hopelessly ideological gesture that fails to recognise the flaws of the system or is rooted in an naive belief that there is no real difference between the two front runners.
It wasn’t always like this. The first time I voted, I elected the candidate whose campaign I’d worked for, who lived in my constituency, and who swept into power along with a Labour government with a huge majority. It was idealism and pragmatism in happy union.
Now I’ve moved into a constituency where the anti-Tory vote goes to Labour and I can vote for the party I want to, but I’ve felt very half-hearted about it. I thought, maybe even still think, that we need a shake up that might be provided by a hung Parliament. But over the weekend, reading through the Guardian letters page: Steve Tainton wrote “Apparently, New Labour has “broken” Britain by giving us the minimum wage, more people in work, Sure Start, the winter fuel allowance, hugely expanded university education and a massive schools rebuilding programme. We also have crime figures continuing to fall, NHS waiting lists dramatically cut, rising school standards and a Kyoto emissions target that has already been met.” And, more crucially, Tim Horton of the Fabian Society observed how of the Lib Dems, many “believe they are somehow the leading party on tackling inequality. I’m afraid they are not. Despite having many good people in their ranks, the Lib Dems’ policy record on redistribution is one of shifting resources to their target group of middle-class swing voters.”
Twitter has been buzzing with links to policy matching websites that allow you to compare blind your instinctive reactions to policies and get a report matching you to those of the main parties, something @BenGoldacre described as “evidence based voting”. But that only holds if we give the manifesto the weight of a guaranteed prediction or promise. Otherwise we have to weigh up something more complex and elusive: how much do we trust each party, and its intentions? As Horton says, the Lib Dems have some good people, but not all of them are Dr Evan Harris, and the evidence in the disparate record of Lib Dem councils around the country show its soul is fractured. Some follow the social democratic ideology of the SDP while others the laissez faire economics of its liberal heritage. But because of its history, its record, and its links with the unions, I know the Labour Party. I understand the instincts of its politicians even when I disagree with their policies; and when circumstances arise that are not predicted or prepared for in the party manifestos, it is a Labour government (perhaps supported by one or more of the smaller parties) that I would like to see set the country’s course.
I wasn’t going to write about the whole bigot gate debacle because I thought it unimportant to warrant the attention it was already getting. I wasn’t bothered by what Gordon Brown said in a private conversation in his own car. I was sorry it was overheard, and that a woman (sorry, lady) was upset by it. I was much more concerned by the fact that what he’d said in the car he hadn’t said to her – and then, to make it worse, he apologised! Calling someone a bigot is worse than being a bigot? He should have taken a risk and debated her (if it were the West Wing that’s what he’d have done, and won the argument, too). He should have said “I feel passionately about dismissing the contribution that legal immigrants can make to this country”, he should have stated clearly that he deplored racism in all its forms. He should have put his point across with all the force and drive he seemed instead to be channeling towards poor Sue.
The disillusionment I’ve felt with the government hasn’t been really idealogical. It’s been because it’s become deadlocked, mired in infighting, because after 13 years its much harder to know how to make change happen. There’s only one way things can stay the same, lucky conservatives, but for the progressives the choices for change are literally infinite. It’s a bit like a TV show that has a successful first season, following the arc plotted out for it, then when it gets renewed its not quite sure what to do (I’m looking at you Primeval, Heroes). It feels like the plot has drifted, the message has been diluted, and it’s not just you don’t know where it’s going, you’re worried the writers don’t either…
Then, today, I saw Gordon Brown’s barnstorming speech at the unofficial fourth debate.
“When Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece and people turned to each other, they said: ‘Let’s march.’ Let’s march for justice, dignity and fairness. That’s what we have all got to march for, and let’s march for it together.”
I no longer feel half-hearted. It’s a luxury and pleasure to be able to whole-heartedly cast my vote according to both my head and my heart.