Thursday 6 May 2010

Decisions, decisions

Astonishingly, the campaign seems to be over. As the everyone and his brother have remarked, it's been a lot more interesting than it should have been. When it started, I was faced by two very tempting arguments for doing something other than I've done in the last three elections I've been able to vote in.

The first tempation was not to vote. Not something I ever thought I'd find myself contemplating, but it was strangely beguiling. For one, I live in what is pretty much a safe seat - an initial impression daily strengthened by the complete absence of Tory or Lib Dem activity as the campaign wore on. There's been a lot of talk about how this makes my vote meaningless - the flip side of that is that abstaining comes at a low cost. Essentially, I can duck the whole issue without worrying that I'm failing to influence a crucial election. But this of course is just moral cowardice. Whether or not the future of the UK hinges on my vote, failure to exercise it just makes me a free rider. Someone has to vote, to use the power that ultimately rests with the citizen - letting other people do the hard work of choosing while I hold myself aloof is beyond apathetic. As much as anything else, I want the right to complain about the next government and I don't get to do that if I didn't participate.

The second temptation was not to vote Labour. This, frankly, was much stronger. There's a long list of reasons not to, which have been rehashed to the point of tedium over the past 4 weeks. For a Labour supporter disillusioned with some aspects of the Blair/Brown government, the most dangerous temptation runs something like this: "Labour are a force for good, but they've lost their way. Let them have some time in Opposition to clear out the dead wood, reinvigorate themselves and rediscover their political soul." In that way, you see, a vote against Labour is really truly a vote for Labour, if you think about it. Except of course it's not. There might be times where it seems like it doesn't really matter who's in power over the next five years, so that you can afford to take time to regroup. This is not one of those times. Whatever way you vote, you have to be voting for the party best placed to govern now. Other considerations are just jam tomorrow.

But this raises another much more fundamental question, which is what good government is. For a lot of people, the measure of good government is how much their own lot in life improves. But I find it difficult to use this as a yardstick. I'm a middle-class mortgage payer in a dual-income household with job security. Yes, the effect the next government has on the economy will have a knock-on effect on my finances, but not as much as for other people. And that's not to say that I don't get any value from e.g. childcare vouchers, because I do. But I am not a priority for government action and to vote as if I were would be narcissistic. So my concern for what the next government will or won't do isn't whether it will make my life better, because frankly there are limits under any vaguely centrist government to how bad my life can get.* It's whether it will make life better for people who's lives can go from bad to worse, or bad to good, or tough to impossible. Now, there's quite a large extent to which the general health of the economy will contribute to that, so if the choice were between a party I thought would ruin the economy and one that would save it there would be no choice at all. But not being in that situation, my concern is to vote for the party that will do it's best to a) make sure that the pain of recovery is mitigated for those most vulnerable to it and b) make sure the gains of recovery are shared beyond those best placed to benefit.

I can't make myself believe the Tories fit that bill. And while I agree with the Lib Dems on lesser issues, I don't see that this is their priority. And for all that Labour have got things wrong in their 13 years, their record on fighting poverty and providing services is pretty good. More to the point, I think it'll continue to be better than the alternatives.


Bigvic said...

From everything that I have learned from my studies of the History of Economic Thought and the British Labor movement I feel like the Labour Party is just a shadow of its former self, no longer really embracing its former economic policies and adopting a pretty neo-liberal policy.

John B said...

Hmm. Not sure I agree with BigVic - obviously the recent Labour party has abandoned ownership-of-the-means-of-production classic socialism, but it has, unequivocally, done a great many things to benefit the poorest in society throughout the 1997-2010 government (from the minimum wage through tax credits, childcare vouchers, SureStart, etc).

Andy - I can see why you made your call completely. But from my perspective, if I'd been in a guaranteed-safe, weigh-the-Labour-vote seat where the possibility of making a difference was *solely limited* to the national share, then I'd've considered voting LD or Green just to raise their national vote share and slightly advance the case for electoral reform (with the Green, there's also a chance you'll help them keep their deposit, which is useful given the party's limited funding).

Andrew R said...

The idea that Labour were total sell-outs no different from the Conservatives when it came to welfare and poverty has been pretty tenacious, but it's really not true in several important ways. Quite how and why it was allowed to stick is something of a mystery.

John, that's a subtle level of tactical voting that frankly didn't even occur to me! However, I'm reasonably happy to have done the simple thing and voted for the party that, on balance, I wanted to govern. Next time round however, I will be positively invited to be clever about it.