It’s decision-time – almost!
Polling day for the UK general election is in just a week – on 7 May.
But that’s too late to start thinking about your vote. There’s simply too much information to digest and cogitate on a single day to make a meaningful judgement. Instead I see it as a decision that should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.
If you want to shortcut that, The Sun has offered some helpful advice…
Here are two different papers, with a clear divergence in their editorial line.
- If you vote in England or Wales, The Sun says vote Conservative.
- If you vote in Scotland, The Sun says vote SNP.
But there appears to be a strategic alignment. In England & Wales, it’s about buoying up the Conservatives; in Scotland, it’s about sinking Labour. Others say it simply about backing winners, but I see it as backing David Cameron in his bid for a second term as PM.
You could do what the Sun says, or the Mirror, or the New Statesman, or the Spectator. But this is your decision. By all means listen to their arguments (see a wide range here), but make the decision yourself.
So, unless you’ve already voted by post (I have), what factors should you weigh when you cast your vote?
All the main parties have published their manifestos – the pledges on which they propose to govern. They tend to be long. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto is 160 pages, totalling 33,000 words. My university dissertation (about the Good Friday Agreement, since you wondered) was about 12,000 words.
They are probably too long. Partly with regard to this, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman wonders why they’re all “so rubbish”. Rob Ashton even explains why, with his analysis of the writing style of seven manifestos. Labour, he writes, had the highest number of grammar and punctuation errors.
Famously, Lord Pearson – the UKIP leader at the time of the 2010 General Election – was unable to answer questions about his party’s manifesto. His successor, Nigel Farage hadn’t read it and later described it as ‘drivel’. Perhaps it wasn’t the only one, then or now.
I won’t be reading the manifestos. It’s simply too much work, and I’d rather leave the analysis to key bloggers and political correspondents. Sometimes the parties do their own point-scoring analysis of their opponents’ manifestos. This can be surprisingly insightful, particularly where a key policy issue is fudged or omitted entirely.
For all their faults, manifestos do reveal a something about a party’s plans for governance. Those plans are vulnerable, of course, but they are not to be ignored. For all the backlash the Lib Dems felt for their U-turn on tuition fees, each one of their five priority pledges of 2010 was honoured in part or in full (at least in theory). Once again they have five priority pledges that we might suppose they would bring to the negotiating table in the event of a hung parliament.
I think the temptation for some people is to feel they can make their voting decision based almost solely on weighing up the manifesto proposals. That process is worth something, and it’s interesting to check out which party you seem to most align with using web tools like Vote Match.
Making your decision based on policies alone is a purist approach. Perhaps too pure, in my view. Here are a few other perspectives to consider.
Typically, it’s the values that underpin the policies. What values are important to you, and what priorities flow from those values?
A party’s values should be fairly constant over time. But sometimes the values of a party leader or his/her lieutenants do drift from the core values of the party – sometimes genuinely, and sometimes for reasons of expedience.
This particularly applies to the party of an outgoing government, but it’s also a factor to consider with a party of recent governments. How did these governments perform during their hour in the sun?
This is why I’ve suggested your “decision should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.” But how far back do we go? The reputational question becomes less and less relevant as the candidates of today are able to divorce themselves from the governments of yesteryear. Candidates who were ministers in previous governments need to be held to higher scrutiny than candidates who were not even born during the period in question. That may apply for some Conservative candidates with regard to the Thatcher years; it will certainly apply to many Labour candidates with regard to the Callaghan year, and it applies to every Liberal Democrat candidate with regard to the Gladstone years.
4. Prime Minister
Who do you want to see as your Prime Minister? Or whose breast pocket do you want them to govern from?
The leadership question is a blend of other factors in this list, along with judgement and character. The more controversial question of whether they ‘look the part’ is really a wider one about charisma and authority, and it still matters. It helped Winston Churchill win the war by inspiring his country, and it continues to matter on the world stage.
5. Wider Cabinet
The process of government is a team effort, so it makes sense to assess the members of the team, particularly if you have a particular policy interest. Who’s likely to be the minister overseeing that policy?
6. Your candidates
Who are the key candidates in your constituency? Is one of them a friend, or someone you hold in high regard? It might persuade you to cast your vote for an unfavourable party. I confess to having voted for a party way outside my comfort zone in a local council election several years ago, because I knew the candidate was a good egg. He later defected!
Someone I follow on Twitter recently wrote to her local candidates, which included a Cabinet Minister, to ask where they stood on life issues (ie abortion, euthanasia, etc). She posted the minister’s response, in which he confirmed such issues would be subject to a free vote if it came to it – a party answer, not the personal answer requested. It was such a shame he declined to give a meaningful response. As my Twitter contact said, even if the minister disagreed with her, “I’d at least respect his honesty in informing me.”
It’s important to understand our local candidates, and often local hustings help with this.
7. Tactical voting
Ideally we make a simple decision on our preferred candidate and cast our vote accordingly. For many of us, that’s all there is to it:
- In a two-way marginal (eg Conservative vs Labour), if you already wanted to vote Tory it’s a no-brainer. There is no tactical benefit to voting for another party.
- If you are party loyal, or loyal to a friend who’s standing, you may decide to sacrifice tactical concerns to add to your preferred candidate’s vote tally – even if they are guaranteed to lose.
- If you take a purist approach, the tactical benefits of voting outside your party loyalty are neither here nor there.
But there are many places where tactical considerations lead to some awkward choices. A few examples:
- In Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg is under threat from Labour. Conservatives might vote for Clegg to prevent Labour winning another seat. Some of them might also feel that Mr Clegg would be a more favourable Lib Dem negotiating partner for the Conservatives than some of his colleagues.
- In Brighton Pavillion, some Labour supporters might vote for the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. It was a three-way marginal in 2010. While Labour could still win the seat, some voters might feel Mrs Lucas has a better chance of locking out the Conservatives’ Clarence Mitchell.
- In Conservative marginals, some UKIP supporters might consider voting Tory to lock out their more Europhile opponents.
- In Scotland, some Conservatives might vote Labour to keep the SNP out, or Labour supporters might vote Lib Dem for the same end.
I suspect tactical voting will be a big deal at this election.
So there we have it. Seven factors to weigh when you cast your vote next week.
Weigh them carefully!