Don’t vote the way you always do

Last week I had a conversation with a friend which disturbed me. It was a classic story. She always votes Labour. Why? That’s what her family has always done. Horror of horrors, her daughter, just old enough to vote, is talking about not voting at all. Not acceptable!

I have always thought of not voting as an insult to all those people who risked their lives campaigning for democracy. When you hear about elections in African countries, where people queue all day knowing that the results may get rigged anyway, but are determined to vote because they know about dictatorships, isn’t it irresponsible to just not bother?

On the other hand, perhaps voting by family tradition is even worse. As it happens, if my friend’s daughter does vote Labour in a general election she will be voting for Louise Ellman, who is an excellent constituency MP; but neither my friend nor her daughter are aware of that. In the UK three parties benefit from the ‘family tradition’ vote: Conservatives, Labour and (to a lesser extent) Liberal Democrats. They all know the places where they can rely on that vote. Most of the parliamentary constituencies, and most of the council wards, are safe seats for one of these parties.

What do the party leaders do about it? They ignore those seats. They focus all their attention on attracting the votes of the people in the marginal seats. Over time their policies are more and more designed to attract those people. The rest of us don’t matter because they know what we will do.

So the recent drastic impoverishment of so many in cities like Liverpool, which would in another age have galvanised the Labour Party into making a major issue of it, is no longer of such concern to them. They have done their electoral sums and they know they will get elected here whatever their policies are.

So over the long term, the three traditional big parties cease to represent the people they once represented, and converge on representing the people in marginal constituencies who may change their votes. Party policies become more and more similar to each other’s. Choices get narrowed.

The poor in places like this were once right to think a Labour government would serve them better than a Conservative government, and the difference would have been significant. Likewise, time was when a Conservative government would represent wealther people’s interests a lot better than a Labour government. Today this is much less the case. While it still makes a difference which of them is in power, the difference is much smaller than it used to be.

This, therefore, is one of the important reasons why so many of us feel we are not represented by any of those parties. The convergence of party policies has happened because so many people vote the way my friend votes: according to family tradition, not according to the policies on offer today. I very much doubt whether my friend’s grandparents voted Labour for the same reason. I guess they would have been able to explain what was good about Labour. What they thought was good about Labour then is probably not true of Labour now. Ditto for the other parties. Thus voting for a party because of family tradition means we get worse governments, governments that take us for granted and only concern themselves with swing voters in marginal constituencies.

For all I disagree with UKIP’s policies, therefore, we need protest parties. We need a way of telling the dominant party in safe seats that they no longer represent us. Proportional representation would help; but even if we had it, it would still be important to judge parties on their current merits, not just repeat what we did last time.

So don’t vote the way you always do, just because you always did. Things are changing.

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