Tomorrow, today will be yesterday

In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.)

This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?

There are four things, I think. The most trivial is that I’ve had five years of exposure to Liberal Democrat publicity, and it hasn’t impressed me; actually it’s irritated me intensely, for reasons I went through in this post. The local Lib Dem MP isn’t what you could call personable; he doesn’t even take a good picture. (Being unable to fake a smile is a bit of a handicap for a politician – ingratiating yourself with colleagues, rivals and assorted punters is a fairly fundamental skill in the job, and it does helps if you can look like you’re enjoying it. Leech always looks as if he’s reading off a card that says “Smile for the plebs!”)

Secondly, the Lib Dems under Clegg have moved fairly decisively to the Right. Under Ashdown and Kennedy, the Lib Dems seemed to have a game-plan of monopolising the well-meaning Guardian-reader vote, with a view to settling in as a semi-permanent ally to Labour on the party’s left-libertarian flank. You could say that Campbell and Clegg have taken the party back into the ‘centre’, except that this is a completely meaningless notion, given that the meaning of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ in mainstream politics changes from decade to decade. It’d be more accurate to say that Clegg and his allies calculated that the party wasn’t going to make many more gains from Labour and therefore needed to start poaching voters from the Tories – which, for credibility, necessitates attacking Labour from the Right as well as the Tories from the Left. (It also entails declaring that the party would be willing to work with the Tories and keep Labour out of power.) For a while back there, switching from Labour to the Lib Dems was starting to look like a move leftwards. Despite some good policies on civil liberties and immigration, it definitely doesn’t look like that now.

Thirdly, Iraq, Blair and New Labour. Under Brown Labour is just not as toxic as it was under Blair; the New Labour project isn’t dead but it has been weakened, and in the post-Brown period there’s a chance that the party will move back to the Left. And, if you’re Labour, it’s hard to hate Gordon Brown, in a way that it wasn’t at all hard to hate Blair. (Judging from the press, exactly the reverse appears to be the case if you’re not Labour.) I wouldn’t have voted for Labour under Tony Blair if he’d offered me free beer; I’m considering voting for Labour under Brown despite the fact that he’s personally cost me money, then denied doing it*.

But the most important factor is the last one: voting against Labour was safe last time round. What was the worst thing that could happen – a hung parliament, with Labour dependent on the Lib Dems? Bring it on! I don’t believe there’s a chance of the Tories winning an overall majority tomorrow, but there is a chance that they’ll be the largest single party – and in that situation I certainly wouldn’t trust Nick Clegg to do the right thing (or John Leech to rebel). Labour need to be in government this time next month, because the alternative is putting Cameron and Osborne in Downing Street.

What has this got to do with my individual vote? Let’s go the long way round. Mancur Olson was a sociologist who had a huge, and only partly baleful, influence on social movement studies. He argued that people work collectively in order to gain benefits that they couldn’t otherwise obtain, and that groups working in this way are always vulnerable to ‘free riders’: people who join the group to get the benefits without putting in any effort. Obviously a group consisting entirely of free riders would cease to function; groups and their organisers therefore need to combat free riding behaviour, by distributing selective incentives so as to encourage participation. So far, so insightful. The problem with Olson’s theory was that, like a lot of economistic theories, it presents itself as a complete and universally-applicable model, which only needs to be translated into different vocabularies in order to account for all relevant forms of behaviour. This resulted in a lot of increasingly strained and Ptolemaic social movement literature, using concepts like “symbolic benefits” and “ideological incentives” as a way of describing people putting themselves out to do something they believe in.

Voting is a test for Olson’s theory, and one which it fairly resoundingly fails. After all, your vote is more or less guaranteed not to make a difference: there’s no effective difference between a majority of 15,205 and one of 15,204 – or between a majority of 62 and a majority of 61. (In this article David Runciman takes the argument further, pointing out that if ever a party does have a majority of one or two votes the rival machines will immediately swing into action, leading to a series of recounts whose outcome will be decided as much by exhaustion as by precision. “When an election is as tight as the presidential contest in 2000, the individual votes that might decide it disappear in a miasma of political confrontation and confusion.”) We could argue that voting is purely expressive – I vote in order to stand up and be counted for my views (which in my case, according to two different Web sites, are a very good match with the Greens, an only slightly worse match with the Lib Dems and not much of a match at all with Labour). But this only restates the problem – in expressive terms there’s no real difference between 35,205 Labour votes and 35,204, or between 1,502 Green votes and 1,501.

The point is, I think, that the day after the election something will have been decided; we vote to bet on a particular outcome while making it fractionally more likely, because we want to have contributed to bringing that outcome about. It’s a bit like the paradox of predestination and free will, as I understand it (I’m open to corrections from those who know about this stuff). If I’m a Calvinist, then here and now I will strive to do the right thing, in the confidence that my efforts will be blessed. However, those blessings don’t represent a reward for my choice to do the right thing – I haven’t changed God’s mind about me. Rather, the point is to dedicate myself to being the person I was always going to be – I will look back at the end of my life and see that I have been the kind of person who strives to do the right thing and who is blessed for it. (As God, of course, knew all along, from His vantage-point outside time.) Christopher Hill likened Calvinism in this respect to Marx’s historical determinism: there is a right side to history and you can be on it, and if you are one of the Elect (or a revolutionary) you will strive to be on it. Similarly – on a less exalted level – with voting: every time we go to vote we’re saying that there is a result we want to bring about, and we want to be among the people who can look back and say they made it happen.

There are a number of things we can make happen by voting. In 1979 – my first election – I voted tactically, for the Liberal; when the results came in the Tory had been re-elected and Labour had lost their deposit. I was part of making that lost deposit happen, in other words, and I’ve regretted it ever since. This time round in Manchester Withington, I could be part of Labour retaking the seat (see line 15); if I vote Green and their vote’s high enough I could be part of Labour failing to retake the seat; if I don’t vote Green, I could be part of a Green lost deposit (although since the threshold has been lowered to 2% there’s not much chance of this).

All in all a Labour vote is looking like a distinct possibility, for the first time in nearly 20 years. But by God, they aren’t making it easy. A personally-addressed election communication arrived by first class post today. I quote:

Vote Lib Dem or stay at home and you risk a Tory government.
Only Labour can beat the Tories.

Many think voting Lib Dem is a safe option – but Nick Clegg has refused to rule out backing the Tories in a hung parliament.

Yes, that’s just what I’ve been telling the boys and girls. And that would make really bad things happen, would it?

The Lib Dems want an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

And, like the Tories, the Lib Dems would cut Child Tax Credits and Child Trust Funds.

So I should vote Labour a) to get tough on those scrounging immigrants; b) to perpetuate a bureaucratic monstrosity which has delivered precisely £0.00 to this household (and see footnote*); and c) to maintain a token gesture towards redistribution which appears to have been dreamt up by Old Etonian interns (“You know how not everyone actually has a trust fund, right?”), and which is almost certain to be in the firing line for public spending cuts anyway. And, in the case of our local candidate, to offer enthusiastic support to staying in Afghanistan and bringing in ID cards, and only lukewarm opposition to attacking Iran.

But then, one less Lib Dem MP does mean one less potential Tory ally… Damn. Electoral politics is hard.

*The 10% tax rate was calculated on an individual’s pre-tax income from employment. Working Families’ Tax Credits are calculated on a household’s post-tax income from all sources. It is therefore entirely possible, despite Gordon Brown specifically stating that nobody would lose out, for an individual to be worse off after the removal of the 10% rate and the introduction of the tax credit.

Update 7/5/10 I did vote Labour; since the Lib Dem won, this means I was part of nothing more than a rather cynical and unsuccessful attempt to keep a Lib Dem out on the grounds of tribal loyalty and not trusting the blighters. (On the other hand, I am loyal to the Labour tribe and I don’t trust the blighters, so I’m not entirely ashamed.) Unfortunately the Green vote did get squeezed; having fallen 280 votes short of the 5% threshold in 2005, Brian Candeland fell 102 votes short of the 2% threshold this time round. Sorry, Brian. (I voted Green for the council.)


  1. Posted 6 May 2010 at 11:59 | Permalink | Reply

    I’ve met and interviewed John Leech, and he’s came across as a very nice guy, willing to give time out of quite a hectic schedule to talk about politics and civil rights with a plainly inexperienced documentary maker. Not that this is that relevant to the rest of your post, but I thought I’d mention it. I can’t say I’m surprised that he’s not got the best doorstep manner – Gordon Brown doesn’t either, though, does he?

  2. Posted 6 May 2010 at 12:39 | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t know – Bigotgate suggested that Brown is quite good at hiding his dislike of the voters; Mrs Duffy was genuinely shocked to hear what he thought of her. John Leech as good as told my wife what he thought of her (Labour voter, critic, timewaster).

    I don’t want to be too hard on John Leech – I’m sure he is a conscientious guy with a genuine commitment to a lot of the things I’m committed to (and Labour by and large isn’t). It’s just that, as a Lib Dem, he’s signed up to a package with some pretty noxious elements – including the possibility of supporting David Cameron in government.

  3. Posted 6 May 2010 at 13:36 | Permalink | Reply

    Indeed. But then, as a voter who has had numerous red lines crossed by both Labour and the Tories, and who thus in good conscience cannot vote for either, but who nonetheless realises one of them will take the lion’s share of the spoils by tomorrow, I can’t see how either alternative represents something the Lib Dems could be especially proud of. Either way their best hope is to be an ameliorating influence on one group of awful people or another, while not being exactly being the world’s best counterweight to begin with.

    I wish I could be more critical of the Lib Dems because they’re plainly not very good. But they’re also the least-worst party out there by a long distance. It’s very upsetting.

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