It’s none of your business. How you will vote is none of my business. This country cannot proceed along any lines that make sense or promise hope unless we can all get along no matter how we vote and unless we respect the primacy of the secret ballot. Having said which, open and free discussion of the people, parties and policies up for consideration is all part of democracy too.
What Right Have I to Blog?
Should I even be writing this blog? In a free country under the new dispensation of social networking is my ‘influence’ so disproportionate that for me to be revealing my voting intentions (which I am not quite going to do, by the way) in some sense inimical to the democratic spirit? I have about a million and a half Twitter followers, most of them I should think of voting age. If I changed the mind of even 1% of them would I somehow be cheating?
There are arguments for and against my involvement at such a level. One argument is that columnists in newspapers who have absolutely no more legitimacy in terms of influence, education, knowledge, understanding or right to persuade and interfere than I have are attempting to do so every day and with far more vitriol, conviction and absolutism than I would ever dare to exhibit. Which will not stop them from having a go at me were I to presume to pop my head above the parapet and suggest a voting preference. The screams of “Labour Lovie!” or “Lib Dem Lovie!” would be heard from here to hell. ‘It’s all very well for a pampered celebrity to parade his so-called caring credentials …’ blah-di-blah-di-bleugh. In ideological wars of this nature the first casualties are consideration, mutual respect, sense, proportion and dignity. Fair enough, one must be tough I suppose, although I’d much rather not be.
Another argument to propel me to write may be that the very weight of Twitter followers and website traffic behind me ought to bring with it some sense of civic duty. Maybe, there is a chance at least, this election matters. I don’t question whether or not it matters to the candidates, of course it does, but whether it matters more than most historically, socially and individually to us, as Britons. If this election does matter then surely my ignoring it would put me in the position of one of those rather silly people who is content to jeer from the sidelines, ‘they’re all the same anyway’ and ‘it makes no difference’ – which believe me I understand, for we are all tempted to be one of those. ‘Lord, what fools these voters be,’ we say to ourselves, if we are the kind of pompous Shakespeare quoting arse that I am at any rate, ‘you won’t catch me committing myself or risking a vote, much better for me to rely on the acuity of my vision which sees through the lot of them.’ Believe me, I do understand how tempting that position is. But I think we all know, in the innermost chambers of our heart, that such a position is unworthy of us.
The nailing of my colours to the mast might just encourage some of you to vote. I really do not mind how you vote, but I think you should. The ‘I can’t make a difference’ assertion is neither true, nor impressive, nor amusing, nor worthy, nor dignified. It is lazy, cowardly and inane. In Australia and some other countries voting is compulsory. Maybe it should be here too. At the very least the poverty and inadequacy of my arguments or assertions may at least propel you to the voting booth to vote against everything I believe. That at least would be something.
To sum up. What business do I have to ventilate my psephological dispositions for the Great Choosing that will take place on Thursday? Do I think that my electoral intentions are relevant, important, worth more than anyone else’s, of national interest? None of the above. On the other hand, I have been approached by all three major parties who have sensed that I might be more of a floater (in every sense of that unfortunate epithet, I suspect) than I ever was in previous general elections. And on the other other hand some of my Twitter followers seem to think that my coyness in refusing to reveal my intentions amounts to a kind of cowardice or failure of citizenship. So I have decided to write this piece of bloggage in the hope that it will at least acquit me of apathy or irresponsibility. But I will preface it now with this insistent motto: do not let anything I say influence you. Vote with your heart, vote with your head, vote with your gut: your heart, your head, your gut – no one’s else. I just hope you have courage, style and charm enough not to hate me for what I am about to say, for I assure you I will not hate you if you say the exact opposite. Trollers, resentful maniacs, weirdos and abusive beasts can stop reading now, I have no interest in horrible and offensive meanness of spirit. You must believe me when I say that I have never hated any fellow countryman or woman because of how they vote or how they express their voting intention.
Let’s agree to disagree
For a Labour voter to hate a Tory voter or vice versa is for us all to stumble into the revolting and nonsensical little-endian big-endian madness that Swift pilloried in Gulliver’s Travels. Let me say here and now and beg you to believe that some of the people in the world I most love, reverence, adore, admire and respect will be voting Conservative on Thursday. I grew up a Tory, I spent my childhood summers at Conservative fêtes and whist drives and dinner dances. I thought anyone who voted Liberal, let alone Labour, was creepy weird and horrifying. At some point the wind changed. The wind’s name was Margaret Thatcher, but we won’t go into ancient history. All the vices I once attributed to Labour — vulgarity, meanness of spirit, lack of warmth, sympathy or lightness of touch — I now attributed to the Conservatives. I went so far as to join the Labour Party, to write speeches, or parts of speeches, for Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, all of whom I met and liked. Mind you, I met and liked John Major and plenty of Tories too. I’m a whore when it comes to meeting and liking people. It is most annoying to have one’s prejudices overturned by real life. However one thing has remained constant in my political affiliations, and that is a deep contempt and fear of tribalism.
When I meet a Labour voter who can only hiss, stamp and fume at any Tory, or a Conservative voter who can only jeer and condemn a Labour voter then I bridle, bristle and simply writhe with indignation. Let this be known and celebrated: we all have the right to vote the way we want. We all have our reasons and motivations and they do not justify anyone insulting or reviling us. Actually, the fact is that ‘reasons’ is probably the wrong word, for we are all (or almost all) energised in politics above all by feelings, by loyalties and deep turbulent emotions that bubble down in our depths. These have far more influence upon our political ‘views’ than rational and logical considerations. There may be those who are capable of carefully and objectively weighing the qualities of each party’s policies and coming to a voting decision on that basis, but I have yet to meet such people. We all know we should be like that, but we all know that we should only put into our mouths what reason tells us is nutritious, calorifically justified and environmentally sustainable. We eat by appetite, emotion and desire and we vote according to criteria of loyalty and connection that are much closer to the support of football teams than to rational assessment and analysis. And, of course, we respond to the personalities that are put up in front of us. I have yet to find anyone who is not influenced by personality. Only, being humans, we are all hypocrites, and we accuse those who dislike our hero or admire our villain of being the ones who succumb to the cheap allure of personality politics, we of course, are immune. Of course, so deep run our alliances that we impute good qualities to personalities we would otherwise not warm to and see ghastly characteristics in those whom we would probably like in real life, if only they were not from the Other Side. What we cannot bear is when someone from across the political divide from us is obviously believable, likeable and reasonable. That is when we accuse their supporters of being victims of personality politics and the individual in question of being ‘a media creature’.
If such innate tribal fixity was wholly the case then Gilbert and Sullivan would be right and that Nature really does contrive that ‘every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.’ We all know that, aside from those so ingrained in loyalty that they simply could never vote outside their born or acquired adherences, there are such creatures as floating voters and that they are the ones who determine electoral outcomes. I find, for the first time in thirty years, that I am one such.
Forgetting the forgettable, there are three parties we can choose from. They represent, so far as I can see, the Same, Another Same and something New and Untried. There are powerful, in my opinion, reasons for believing either that the last thing we need now is discontinuity or for believing that we need fundamental change. In other words, I can see why we might want to plough on through the debt crisis that faces us with a reliable, if unexciting administration and I can also see why we might want absolutely to alter direction and experiment with new ways of hammering out consensus, compromise and pragmatic reform. What is harder to envisage is a new driver in the same car, a change that satisfies tribal loyalties but actually achieves nothing.
Britain is in dire straits financially. We are, not to put too fine a point on it, shafted six ways from Sunday. As always, those who will suffer most will be the already disadvantaged. No matter who wins or commands a majority on Thursday there will be appalling cuts in public services, terrible depredations made that will hit first and hardest those who can least afford it. Twas ever thus, you might think. But the ripples in crime, discontent, infrastructure decay and quality of life degradation will affect all, even those who least care about the destiny of the destitute.
If there is a way out of it, it will require dullness, concentration, probity, focus, geeky financial fanaticism and an almost horrible obsession with economic detail and technique. Sound like anyone we know? The last thing that is wanted, this vote might suggest, is an untried chancer who makes promises that we know, with the best will in the world, he cannot keep.
Hands up anyone, anyone who believes that the Osborne/Cameron nexus will honestly punish or regulate the City as they need to be punished and regulated? Whatever noises they make about it, you know, you know as surely as you know that turkeys would never vote for Christmas, that somehow, by perfectly reasonable and unforeseeable routes, any manifesto promises to be tough on financial impropriety will somehow get lost and the smarting chastisement that the short-selling creeps who got us into this mess deserve will never be forthcoming. (In fact you can pretty much guarantee that even a Labour vote will not guarantee the regulation that wise financial insiders know is necessary ) ‘Oh it will just cause a mass exodus from the City.’ ‘Oh, alienating the wealth creators is the surest route to bankruptcy.’ ‘Germany hasn’t done it, nor has the SEC in New York.’ ‘We have to compete. Cut our banking houses off at the knees and you hobble the British economy, perhaps fatally.’ Gosh, how convincing that all sounds. As a result insane bonuses and horrific financial instruments will rise again, a debt dependent economy will boil once more into life and dozens of journalists and commentators will rise to their feet to applaud.
I don’t mean to be sneery or negative about this, it is what the Tories stand for and there are arguments one can subscribe to which convincingly defend their nature and their instincts and their outlook. Goodness knows there’s a huge part of me that is libertarian and contra-dirigiste enough in outlook to look with longing at the certainties of the Reasonable Right. But you would have to be naive or dishonest to deny the certainty of the outcome of a Conservative government in terms of its friendship with bankers, financiers, fund managers and those who manipulate and massage capital for a living. I do not for a minute concur with some visceral Labour views of Tories as being automatically and genetically uncaring or socially illiberal. True, there are dozens and dozens of Conservative candidates whose repellent stupidity and vulgarity would make even a Daily Mail reader blush and stammer, just as there are dozens and dozens of Labour candidates whose bigoted, dull-witted asininity would embarrass a Guardian reader into dribbling delirium. And there are plenty of Tories whose hopes for the poor and the dispossessed and the outcast are as sincere as that of any socialist or liberal. Vote One, if I were to cast it, is all about a belief that – despite the rather obvious and predictable PR choruses to the contrary – continuity, solidity, sound management, a lack of interest in anything but the economy and a bone-headed refusal to pay much attention to image makers and spin doctors is what is required now. Far from All Change, let’s go for No Change and weather the storm that is coming with a dull, intelligent, responsible, proven and determined pilot at the helm. One who won’t ask for relief when the waves batter but will plough on, head down, until we find calmer waters and sunnier skies. That is Vote One. In case you’re very very dim, that would be a vote for Gordon Brown and Labour. It isn’t very exciting, you might think, but it might just see us through.
An argument against Labour might be that Iraq and the revolting Digital Economy Bill and a catalogue of fudge, fumbling and failure that three successive periods of power has (necessarily) witnessed may well be reason enough to turn away. Those who feel most betrayed by Labour’s shortcomings and reversals of policy are those least likely to be drawn to the Tories however, so one imagines that the disenchanted left will either stay home or vote Lib Dem. The worst of the Labour calamities, the war in Iraq, would have taken place under a Conservative administration too and it is one which Brown is less personally involved in than was Blair. For all those betrayals and deceptions it is hard not to believe that the most pressing question must be the economy.
You may of course argue that there has been nothing sound about Labour’s management of the economy either, but actually I cannot believe that the financial tsunami that struck Britain and the rest of the world in 2008 would have been any better dealt with by anyone else. I do feel that the very determination and uncool dourness and resolution of Brown might well be a good bet. When the house is a ruin, go for solid and unglamorous damp-coursing and roof relining – you can worry about the wallpaper, furniture and carpeting later. You might also think that dour and unglamorous as Brown may be presented, when he is allowed to let go and reveal his true self he is surprisingly more impressive than either of the other two candidates. Take ten minutes out of your life to watch this. You really do have to twist reality to claim that this is a spin-doctored act and not the real passion of a conviction politician. That is the man and what he stands for. It may not move you however. You may not find it interesting or appealing. Conviction politics may not be what you think the country requires or you may regard such idealism as false or irrelevant.
It’s not about quality of parliamentary intake. God knows most of you reading this should be aware that the kind of people standing for election are simply the same kinds of idiot that we were at school with, that we are ourselves. Human, frail, unreliable, greedy and stupid – only with the rather dubious (you might think) difference that they actually want to be in Parliament, which you or I do not. But my heart always sinks when I get a tediously clichaic tweet saying ‘Bloody hell Stephen, don’t you know they’re all the same?’ or ‘Hung parliament? Yes, they should be! Hahahahahahahah!!!!!’ Well now steady on, how can we inhabit a democracy and simultaneously dismiss and loftily choose never to vote for, those who actually get off their arses and allow that democracy to come into being? No matter how crap, sterile of imagination, predictable, verbally trite, sententious or weird every single one of the candidates presenting themselves for election may be, at least they have actually offered themselves up for the cruel, impertinent and unspeakably humiliating inspection that candidacy entails. And for what? For power? Come now, do you really think that? Maybe there is a touch of vanity in their ambitions, but is it any more than the vanity that anyone after a good job should have? And if you say, ‘well it isn’t a good job, snigger snigger,’ then please offer up for all of us an alternative to democracy, one in which your higher standards and your superior understanding will prevail. In the meantime, as Neil Kinnock used to say, ‘don’t moan about it, change it. Stand yourself! Be a candidate!’ And if you simply relay that you’re a nobody, and that it’s not what you know but who you know, then you still haven’t got the point. You could be a candidate, yes, you could be a candidate, but you would have to go to meetings, walk pavements, shake hands, consult, seek views, consider options, do all the things that those who involve themselves in democracy do. Honestly now. I mean really honestly, haven’t you, as I have – I’d be the first to admit it – sounded off about the crapness of politicians without ever really considering the full nature of democracy and what it implies, or should imply? One of the very reasons I would run a thousand miles from public office is the sanctimonious, sententious, unforgiving, inquisitive and merciless scrutiny to which my every move and every word would be subjected. I couldn’t take the responsibility of not being able to make a light joke and I couldn’t bear the insufferable indignity of having to speak so blandly for fear of giving offence that I would sound like every other politician ever sounded. It is really no good us moaning about the quality of our politicians when the intensity of our inspection of everything they are and do is so great they are not allowed those very qualities of eccentricity, originality, colour, life and surprise that we claim to want in them.
Conservative. Dave seems alright. He’s got a ‘team’, he’s young (ish) and energetic. He wants power, he’s motivated enough to feel that he deserves it and that when he gets it he will operate its levers with efficiency, drive and purpose. He will have to do almost everything that Brown would have to do in terms of cuts, cuts, more cuts, taxation and more cuts, because our economy is so burdened with debt that there is no other way out. Those who are predisposed to conservatism might hope that he will roll back the frontiers of the state and destroy the culture of Health and Safety, Political Correctness and liberal relativism that has, they think, mired our society in nanny-state dependency, but it has to be said there are no such claims made in his manifesto. He claims to believe in multiculturalism, gay rights, the national health service and the welfare state even though many of his supporters in the press and in the real world manifestly do not. I do not actually believe that he will dismantle any of the major elements of that welfare state any more than Labour did, but I expect those who fear he will make huge cuts in the arts and other ‘sacred cows’ of the ‘liberal elite’ are right and that the climate under Cameron will be less friendly to much that they hold dear. He may bring back hunting with dogs, he may (especially if he has a small majority) be forced to give full rein to some of the Christian oddities and other shudder-worthy nuts in his party, but then Blair and Brown have had to placate the weirdos in the Labour back benches too. Under a Cameron administration will crime go down, will the ‘war on drugs’ be won, will the troops come home from Afghanistan, will pensions be safe and standards of education rise? I don’t know. I more than faintly doubt it, but I doubt whoever gets in power will solve those problems. Cameron is not as ideologically motivated as Thatcher was which might allay the fears of some floating voters as much as it irritates some red-meat Conservatives. It is a vote for the same car, as I have suggested, but in the hands of a different driver. Up to you to decide how well you think he will steer it.
There is one thing that cultural commentators in our press cannot convincingly mimic, much as they may try, and that is the rhetoric of the Right across the Atlantic. The Sarah Palin world of ‘hockey moms’ and ‘Christian virtues’ and ‘family values’ simply does not play in Britain. We writhe in discomfort at any hint of religion, hence the embarrassment of Tory supporters at that peculiar Philippa Stroud woman, a candidate for Cheam who may or may not have officiated or assisted at ‘gay demon exorcisms’ at some time in the past as part of some ludicrous evangelical sect of which she is or was a member. The British resent strongly the idea that a politician has any business telling us how to love or behave in private or which ‘values’ to cleave to. The thought of Christians or any other religious group having influence over policy is something party leaders know they have to hide rather than parade. In America, the Right routinely calls Obama a member of the ‘liberal elite’ – it is hard to know quite how this rhetorical distortion first got into the political vocabulary. America has a self-made myth of plain-speaking wiseacre folk which deprecates complexity, ambiguity, difficulty and nuance. There is a long-held distrust in the United States of verbal fluency, wide reading, historical knowledge, interest in the arts or intellectual curiosity. All those things seem more often than is comfortable to dispose people towards agnosticism and liberalism, therefore they are characterised as urban, un-American, European and ‘elitist’. It is hard not to wonder if the ideal American citizen is no more than a god-fearing, family consumer who never questions that while bankers and financiers may be sophisticated and clever and educated and wise, anyone else with those qualities should be religiously tarred and righteously feathered.
When I was growing up ‘elitism’ was a word sneered from the lips of the Left, now it is sneered from the lips of the Right. The sneering was ugly then and it is ugly now. Knowledge, science, understanding, literacy and curiosity are absolute goods and to hell with anyone who tries to follow that American habit here and attempts to construct a discourse in which only a despised liberal elite are interested in science, the arts, history and ideas. Such wickedness reminds one of those who opposed Education For All at the end of the nineteenth century. All knowledge should be free and available and all people should be encouraged to acquire it. It will not necessarily lead to liberalism, but it will lead to understanding and a desire for openness and decent, non-tribalist exchanges of the kind that can only enrich our democracy.
This is, of course, the possibility of voting Liberal Democrat in the almost certain knowledge that the vote will in reality be cast for a hung parliament and the creation of some sort of coalition, almost certainly with the Conservatives taking the lion’s share of the Great Offices of State. Many people in Britain might think that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are more impressive than most of the candidates and senior members of any party and that our country can only be enriched, in its moment of economic crisis, by their presence in government at some level. The arguments, if arguments they be, that hung parliaments mean hobbled, lame parliaments are surely nonsense. The Scandinavian and German examples show that where there is political will and determination anything is possible, including stability, continuity and relatively swift economic recovery. For every example of a bad coalition system there is an example of a good one. We cannot assume the worst, however British a trait that may be. Our society is open enough, with its media and social networking, to force the politicians to come to a workable arrangement. If the terms of a Lib Dem win are Proportional Representation for all future General Elections and a determined effort to move to a genuinely open and well constructed parliamentary democracy then I for one am excited. It might all go wrong, but then it is so wrong already that this is a risk I would not be too unhappy to run. I do not think it means that Peter Firth, Rupert Penry-Jones and the cast of Spooks would be forced to take over in a bloodless coup d’état, nor do I think it would cause rioting in the streets and mutiny in the ranks. It may turn out to be a rather British damp squib, or it may be (which I think more likely) result in a jerky, jolting, juddering evolutionary move towards something a little better. I do know that my Labour friends would all be rather horrified by my entertaining such a vote, for they are convinced that a vote for the Lib Dems is tantamount to a vote for Cameron. That is something you will have to decide.
On one front alone I would absolutely urge you to vote LibDem and that is if you live in the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency. Your incumbent member, now under threat because of boundary changes, is Evan Harris MP, far and away the most persuasive and impressive parliamentarian in the cause of good and open science and enquiry that we have had in the past decade. He has been central to mould-breaking and inspirational multiparty cooperation in issues of scientific concern since 1997. It seems to me (almost!) that he should be elected unopposed like the Speaker. If you have any interest in the promotion of science and evidence based policy-making and a voice to oppose superstition, religious vested interest and new age nonsense, then do check him out and get those Oxonian Abingdonians working for his re-election.
My intentions and yours
Well, I’m sorry that I have ignored the other parties, but this blog is long enough and I am trying to be realistic about the tri-partisan options most of us will consider. I will be honest inasmuch as I can confess, and it will probably not come as much of a surprise, that Vote Two is not one I envisage making. I find it unappealing for a number of reasons and I will confess that sheer gut instinct is one of them – a dislike of the party and its loudest advocates, not of any individual members and certainly not of Tory voters and supporters as individuals: as I have already said and cannot repeat enough, some of the people I love most dearly in the world are natural and proud Conservatives and I love them none the less for it, just as they (I hope!) love me none the less for my politics. I also find (and I know how much some of you will groan at this) that I worry how much crucial strides in my lifetime towards gay rights would be threatened under the Tories. This article interested and alarmed me greatly. Plenty of you will think that is just bloody typical of faggoty Fry and that I should put my sexual nature behind me when voting. I would happily do so if I didn’t believe that too many Tories are not prepared to offer me the same courtesy but will toil sedulously to make life more difficult for gay people. Work I’ve done for Stonewall and others has shown me that the bullying, suicide and homophobia that still exists in the world today is not something to be taken lightly. Picture your son or daughter, brother or sister being victimised, taunted and threatened in the playground and street and tell me that it’s all just ‘political correctness’.
More important than my own political views or my own voting intentions are my hopes that nothing I say will stop you from choosing Conservative if you consider it the right way to cast your vote. It may be you will be voting Tory through dyed-in-the-wool instinct and loyalty or it may be that you are someone who once voted Labour or Lib Dem but who has decided that Cameron and the Conservatives will be best for Britain. It’s none of my business, but do vote just as you want and be proud to do so.
As for me, I am still hovering between One and Three and I suspect I will not be sure until I am actually facing the voting form, Sharpie in hand. (Will it be Sharpies? I do hope so. I virtually addicted to their fumes)
I know that the above may please no one. Some will despise me for failing to condemn Conservatives more outrightly and fervently, others will think that I’m a stupid lovie pinko who should shut the hell up. We can all agree I hope that my views are worth no more (and no less) than yours in any sense, but especially in the sense that counts — in the polling booth.
A final plea
If you wish to avail yourself of the commentary option below, please remember to be considerate, understanding and democratic in spirit. By all means tell me why I should vote Conservative or UKIP or any other way, but do so without rancour, resentment, spite or viciousness. Trolling is the internet’s cancer and its lethal metastasising horrors have no place here. Go to other political blog sites or newspaper comment areas if you want to be splenetic and loud and mercilessly abusive. Not here. Please.
Above all. Vote on Thursday!
Wednesday 12th May 2010. Comments are now closed for this blog. Thank you for your contributions.