From “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72” – Hunter S Thompson
These familiar frustrations, when manifested in a low turnout, are often misinterpreted by the political classes as ‘voter apathy’. Given the chance to actually vote in favour of something we might suspect that voter interest in the coming election would be rather higher. In fact, since many smaller parties exist, it’s probably the option of voting for a candidate that stands any chance of making a difference that people feel is missing. So is it worth voting at all? Does voting matter?
So as to be as uncontroversial as possible let’s use the starkest, most obvious example of how governments make a difference to peoples lives and why its therefore worth, in however small a way, trying to influence who forms those governments: Iraq.
Through war and sanctions the present UK government’s policies have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis. Whether or one regards the price as worth paying the fact remains that these deaths are the shared responsibility of everyone in this country. We live in a relatively free and democratic society; there’s no secret police to kidnap and torture us if we speak out or organise in opposition to our government. Whether by voting or by abstaining, by taking direct action or by staying at home, the net result of all our political activity or non-activity is the government of this country, no matter how poor our electoral system or how narrow our choices. Since how Britain is governed is literally a matter of life or death, any contribution we can make to influence this, however small that contribution may be, is something we should take very seriously indeed. When we’re talking about one of the most powerful governments in the world small differences can make for significant outcomes.
Of course voting is just one way we can influence how our societies are governed. What we can contribute to organisations, pressure groups or charities like Amnesty International, Oxfam or the Stop The War Coalition can be just as important. There are four to five years between national elections and plenty we can do in between times. But the election plainly influences how our country is run so the question is how to make best use of it.
Whatever your political inclination, and indeed whatever voting system you’re faced with, the tactics a voter should employ are pretty much always the same. You vote for the candidate or platform that’s closest to your own views and most likely to have an impact. When choices are at their narrowest you vote for the candidate or platform you find least abhorrent to stop a yet more abhorrent candidate from prevailing. Thanks to the UK's ludicrous first-past-the-post system, and to the difficulties in presenting a less than totally corporate friendly set of policies in a capitalist economy, the choices we’re presented with are severely limited. What sort of genuine democracy could replace this grotty little pantomime is a question that urgently requires an answer. We have vast amounts of time between elections to work towards getting there. But for one day every four years we must work with what we’ve got.
Unlike a grown-up democracy the UK voting system does not throw together a varied range of politicians representing the myriad of political views that make up a diverse civil society; representatives who must then work together and compromise much as we all do in our day to day lives. Rather we elect one group to dominate the scene. Under our system a party must win the most votes in a regional constituency to have a representative in parliament. The result is that parties with a degree of support across the country but no actual majority in any one place (e.g. the Greens) have no representation whatsoever in government. Many voters who understand this dynamic then abandon the small parties they might otherwise have voted for, holding their noses and voting for the ones they know can win. The system under-represents the small parties and over-represents the large ones, which in turn encourages voting behaviour that exaggerates this disparity further. The outcome is parliaments dominated by one party, as opposed to ones that represent a balance of all views. The dominating party might have the support of less than two fifths of the population, and many of them may have only supported it for what they perceive as pragmatic reasons.
So the progressive vote may not be able to change the course of government at one fell swoop. But, by first accepting this reality, it can then use the voting system to win that victory in increments, election by election. Instead of individuals voting centre-right (Labour) to keep out the hard right (Tories) a concerted and collective effort could be made by progressive voters to abandon party loyalty and concentrate voting behaviour on moving British politics in a progressive direction. In a marginal seat that’ll mean voting for the most progressive candidate of those that have a chance of winning. In a safe seat it means voting entirely with your conscience and so demonstrating that there are votes to be had in a progressive set of policies. The latter is as important as the former, though the results are less tangible. Moreover, a high turnout from hitherto frustrated progressive voters is essential. Whilst the success of this method of tactical voting is not guaranteed, staying at home is an absolute guarantee of failure. If we accept the need for patience that is required we can now consider ourselves to be voting for something: increasingly progressive government.
Put very simply, this would mean applying the following formula:
If your seat is marginal Conservative/Labour, or there’s an outside chance of a challenge, vote Labour
If your seat is marginal Conservative/Lib Dem, or there’s an outside chance of a challenge, vote Lib Dem
If your seat is marginal Lib Dem/Labour, or there’s an outside chance of a challenge, vote Labour
If your seat is completely safe for any of the main parties, vote Green or Respect
If you live in Wales or Scotland, lucky you. Vote nationalist and have a cigar.
One complicating factor is of course that political parties, despite the best efforts of their leaders, are not homogenous groups. Take the marginal Lib Dem/Labour seats. In one seat we might have an anti-war, anti-privatisation Labour MP versus a pro-privatisation Liberal Democrat who was only anti-war until the shooting started. In another we might have a Blairite android who’d cheer Bush on if he invaded Canada versus a Liberal Democrat who’s shown real bravery in standing to tabloid hysteria on asylum seekers. Using the vote to inch Britain away from the neo-Thatcherism of Blair and Howard will require us to take a close look at the individual candidates in our own constituencies. That is especially true when one issue dominates the scene.
The factor that sets this election apart is of course the war. Plainly the election of a government involves a wide variety of considerations. Hospital waiting lists, quality of education, improvements in public transport, whilst all important factors, are things many Iraqis would love to be the extent of their concerns. The slaughter and devastation visited on that country by our backing of Saddam in the ‘80s, the vicious sanctions regime, the massive aerial bombardment from two wars and the hellish anarchy that has held sway for the last two years are not a secondary issue to better public services in the UK. Nor is the launching of a war of aggression, i.e. attacking a country that poses no threat to us, an act the Nuremberg judges described as the supreme international crime. British governments have committed unspeakable acts abroad in the past, but this barely concealed return to western military colonialism, which has cost so many thousands of lives already and could well be a mere prelude to far greater disasters in Syria and Iran, is of a greater order of magnitude than any domestic concern and must be dealt with urgently. How can we use the vote to achieve this?
Whilst some Conservatives opposed the war, a Tory candidate that is acceptable to a genuinely anti-war voter will be extremely hard to come by. The question of voting anti-war will more clearly arise in marginal Lib Dem/Labour seats, but again that will depend on the candidates in question. The difference from the formula mentioned above is in safe seats where the sitting MP voted in favour of the war. Earlier, in the case of safe seats, I recommended a clear vote with your conscience. However, in certain cases a concentrated effort around a single progressive anti-war challenger could seriously worry, or even bring down some very senior figures responsible for the invasion. If Martin Bell can unseat Neil Hamilton for corruption can a couple of senior Blairites not be unseated for waging an unprovoked war? Craig Murray, the former Ambassador to Uzbekistan who was removed for speaking out against the brutality of our allies there, is standing against Jack Straw in his Blackburn constituency. If the anti-war vote could unite around his candidacy, others could step aside to give Murray a clear run, and if this could be repeated in Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon’s constituencies, a clear message could be sent, by targeting the ringleaders, that left-liberal voters had drawn a line in the sand; indicating the limits of what they would accept. In fact there are already plans afoot to field such a candidate in the Prime Minister’s Sedgefield seat. Claiming any one of those three, or even giving them a decent scare, would be a massive victory for the anti-war movement. The political cost of war is raised by every vote for an anti-war candidate in every constituency, and by raising those costs further wars might just be prevented and thousands of lives saved. Isn’t that something positive to vote for?