Another Bloody Election

I remember when I was working at the petrol station, not so long ago, and Wagner came to visit. I’m talking about the bloke from the X-factor, not the long-dead German opera guy. I informed him of my regret at his then-recent exit from the annual freak show, and he responded by shaking my hand and reminding me of the famous quotation by Josef Stalin:

“Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote decide everything.”

I mention this because, as you may have noticed, another election is imminent. It is said to be a very unpredictable election. That said, there are a few things we can be reasonably certain of. The first is that the outcome, whatever it may be, will disappoint at least half of us. Probably more.

Another certain thing is that the last few weeks will be sickening. How could they be otherwise? Years of masturbatory faux-argumentation will soon approach the inevitable crescendo; whereupon the nation will finally spasm out a revolting climax. It is during these last few moments that we are forced to endure the basest, most depraved, most revolting un-politics imaginable. Politics that nauseates. Politics that makes you want to puke. Politics that gets published in a manifesto.

We’ll talk about it the election. My God, we’ll talk about it. Dinner tables across the land will again recount, for the benefit of elderly attendees, every commonality between Nigel Farage and Adolf Hitler – from dog-ownership to tie-wearing. Furious debates will be waged while we wait for our late-April barbeque grills to arrive at the correct temperature: On one side shall be those that think around 4% of the NHS should be run privately, on the other shall be those that absolutely believe 6% of it should be. A third party may also interject passionately on the matter, but this person will ultimately end up disappointed.

These conversations will change little; most people have already arrived at a decision about who they’d like to run things. And so the political animal must compete for the affections of the remaining few who have yet to make a decision either way. These few are difficult to please. They are adrift on a gently undulating sea of blissful thoughtlessness, whose tides carry them between the five or six different parties with pronounceable names and a nebulous memory of a savoury snack once lost down the back of the sofa.

It is these people who presumably see great significance in:

  • The number of kitchens Ed Miliband has.
  • David Cameron’s ability to bottle-feed a new-born lamb.
  • Whether Nicola Sturgeon secretly admires David Cameron’s ability to bottle-feed a new-born lamb, and, in her darkest moments, doubts Ed Milliband’s ability to do so.
  • Whether or not Ed Miliband’s ability to ‘stab his brother in the back’ by successfully running against him in a leadership election is a good predictor of his ability to renege on a promise not to disarm trident.

I look forward to the weeks that follow, when we might see George Osbourne affix a set of brightly-coloured tassels to his testes, and oscillate them wildly for the edification of these brain-damaged few, upon whose judgement the fate of the nation rests.

Oh Lord, make it stop.  Please.  Lamma sabacthani, indeed.

Voting, to be sure, is a tricky business. You might think that you’ve already decided who to vote for. You might think that you’ve examined the policies, rhetoric and character of the various parties competing for your affection, and intend to vote for the one whose views most closely resemble your own. You might, for example, agree with all of the Green party’s policies, and therefore intend to vote Green.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a particularly effective strategy. To boldly vote for whichever party you think best is naïve, bordering on idiotic. Let’s take Wyre Forest, the constituency to which I have recently moved. If you live here and intend to vote for the Greens or the Lib Dems (parties whose policies, I would submit, reflect the ideals of the electorate better than their representation in parliament might suggest) then you’re basically throwing your vote away. You might as well wipe your ballot-paper across a bodily orifice, you depraved lunatic. You loathsome deviant.

We’ll explore your stupidity shortly, but first let’s take a look at this constituency. Wyre Forest is a Tory seat, but this has not always been the case. Independent do-gooder Dr Richard Taylor won it in 2001, after a campaign which sought to prevent the hospital’s A+E ward from being done away with. He then retained it in 2005, and probably would have done so again in 2010, had the Liberal Democrats not fielded a candidate. But they did, and thereby deprived Taylor of the necessary 2,643 votes required to prevent the Tories gaining control of the seat.

Of course, as soon as the Conservative Mark Garnier did get in, he immediately set about ushering in an age of darkness, under whose shadow we now reside, cowering – hearts hardened against the strife of ever-winter, eyes numbed against the now-routine sight of recently-birthed peasants being flayed alive by ravening packs of Thatcherite ogres. “Trickle-down economics!” they cackle, by way of explanation. You know, like Tories do.

Ahem. Anyway, this time, the Greens have stuck someone up, thereby diluting the sanctimonious, Guardian-reading, exclusively-herbivorous vote still further.

This is the sort of constituency which is interesting only to politics nerds.   The weather is mild, the high streets are mostly derelict, and the skin of the locals is pasty-white and wrinkled. It’s the sort which UKIP, if they have the slightest bit of sense, should be targeting.

UKIP evidently agree; they’ve spent actual money getting leaflets printed and shoved through doors. Farage gurns from billboards across the town centre. Each image now has its forehead emblazoned with a swastika, while each upper lip shews an obligatory toothbrush moustache.  For good measure, words to the effect of ‘I am a racist shit’ issue from the mouth. The headquarters of their MEP, James Carver, have also been on the receiving end of a good bit of vandalism, doubtless perpetrated by some friend of democracy.

Taylor is running again, this time beneath the banner of a new party he’s invented, called NHA. But I’ve yet to encounter anyone who speaks enthusiastically about them. Moreover, I’ve yet to encounter anyone who speaks about them at all. I have received no leaflet. There exists no billboard. Do any of you know what NHA actually stands for? Is it ‘Nice Hospitable Antelope’? Is it ‘No Homo, Asshole’? Even if you knew that NHA stands for ‘National Health Action’, you would be hard-pressed to know exactly what said action would consist of, unless you were to the sort of person who goes looking for these things, out of some masochistic desire to bore yourself stupid. Clearly, NHA’s resources are meagre. As will, I suspect, be their vote.

This is all very important and worth considering. You see, in order to vote effectively, you must form not only an idea of the candidate you’d like to win, but an idea of the candidates other people are likely to vote for. After all, if your preferred candidate is not going to win, then there’s very little point in voting for them. And if a candidate you’d very much prefer not to win stands a chance of success, then it stands to reason that you should vote for the candidate most likely to defeat them.

How would we figure all this out? Well, the short answer is: with great difficulty.  If this Ashcroft poll is in the slightest bit indicative of the overall election result, then Taylor’s goose is well and truly cooked. Perhaps a better barometer comes in the form of the bookies, who put the Tories as slight favourites over the ‘kippers.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the Tories will come first, that UKIP will come second, and that Labour will come third. NHA, the Lib Dems and the Greens will come in some way behind that. A guess. An educated guess, to be sure, but a guess all the same. It might be that the Labour vote is a great deal stronger than I imagine; it might be that UKIP is not quite as threatening as I imagine it to be.

We can say nothing with certainty but one thing. You may have noticed it: our voting system is not very good. It is, in fact, very bad.

For most of the country, it doesn’t matter who you vote for. This is true of safe seats, but it’s also true of a lot of marginal seats, too. If you live, for example, in Bromsgrove, your vote will change nothing. You can vote Tory, you can vote Labour, or you can vote Green. Sajid Javid will be your MP. This is true of almost every constituency in the land. If you live in Wyre Forest, on the other hand, your vote may well change something, but it might have the opposite effect to the one you intended.

Let’s imagine a car. In this car, standing on the brake pedal causes it accelerate. Conversely, standing on the throttle causes the vehicle to shriek to a halt. Depressing the clutch will cycle randomly through the gears; just do it once every five years and within a quarter of a century you’ll get the one you desire. I suspect that any of these problems should warrant a visit to the mechanic, because the car is clearly unsafe to drive.

What is the function of a democracy? To place power into the hands of the people. First past the Post – the electoral system which we use, at present – is in this sense democratic. It does indeed deliver power into the hands of the people. But, to continue the analogy, it also requires that the people also be wearing those novelty oversize foam hands that the Americans are so fond of wearing at their silly ‘sports’ stadia. The people, so encumbered, are unable to effectively wield the power, and so it is spilled all over the floor. FPTP is atrociously awful, terrible and double-plus ungood.

If it isn’t entirely clear to you why FPTP is so abominable, then I strongly strongly STRONGLY recommend that you watch this series of videos by the excellent CGP Grey.

This is a system through which UKIP, who (whatever you think of them) command the support of around a fifth of the nation, will in all likelihood end up with around a twentieth of its parliamentary seats. The Scottish nationalists, on the other hand, look set to seize a far larger chunk of power with a proportionally piddling number of votes.

The one supposed virtue of our current pseudodemocratic arrangement is that it delivers  clear results – can this really be argued if, as seems likely, it delivers the second hung parliament in as many elections?

The electoral system, then, is broken. And, to be clear, I don’t mean that in the vague, meaningless dribbling way which most people take the phrase to imply. I’m not advocating standing in parliament square with a Guy Fawkes mask on, like an irredeemable ballbag. I’m talking specifically about the way in which the vote is tallied, the most popular candidate decided, and the will of the people thereby enacted.

So why aren’t more people worked up about this? The answer, I suspect, is a simple one. The problem with electoral reform is that it’s boring. And it is difficult, if not impossible, to be simultaneously outraged and bored.

Another problem, closely related to boringness, is abstractness. We can at least muster some sort of interest in the NHS, because we know what it is. It’s a concrete thing we can grasp, swallow, and, if need be, anally administer. If we speak in terms of numbers of doctors, nurses and beds, then we all know what’s being discussed, since we all have had to deal at some point with the NHS.

This is something which the big banks understand well. If I were to start populating my sentences with jargon like “sub-prime mortgage” “collateralised debt obligation” and “quantitative easing”, I would probably bore you. And then you’d stop paying attention because – hey, that’s what happens when you’re bored. This would become a sub-prime blog.

If, on the other hand, I say “shitty mortgage”, “a bunch of shitty mortgages chopped up and blended together”, “printing a bunch of money to compensate for the shitty mess created by all the shitty mortgages”, you might have at least an inkling of what I’m talking about.

Just look at our media’s choice of topic. War, immigration and celebrity paedophilia make for marketable material; they amply provide the gruesomeness we all crave, along with bounteous opportunity for sanctimony.  These things are exciting.  Electoral reform offers neither of those things. It’s like a maths lesson.

It is easy to become worked up – hysterical, even – over food banks, immigration, welfare spending, the European Union, banking regulation, trident and taxation. Throughout the land, there exist many people for whom these issues are enormously pressing. There exist few who can summon outrage over the machinery through which these things can be influenced – ie. Democracy.

If we (the people) have any influence over how the country is run, then it is through poorly-understood, obscure, arcane means. One might expect such a system to produce apathy, disillusionment and anger. One might expect the populace to come to think that politicians have little in common with the people who elect them, and that voting changes little. That they are democracy’s passive observers rather than her active participants.

It is often claimed that the public is disillusioned with politics. That people do not feel represented by the politicians they elect. Can anyone seriously be blamed for feeling this way? Is it any wonder that so many people feel incredibly pissed off? Is it any wonder that our political discourse is so execrable?

Another symptom of this particular malady is that politicians begin to say rather peculiar things. For example, after Douglas Carswell last year defected to UKIP, David Cameron was concerned.

“…if you vote UKIP, you’re in danger of getting a Labour government with Ed Miliband as Prime Minister, Ed Balls as Chancellor.”

And when Ed Balls was wooing Scottish voters the other week, he was similarly concerned.

“…a vote for the SNP means it is more likely David Cameron stays in Downing Street. Every vote in this election that might allow the Tories to be the largest party is a vote for Tory austerity to continue.”

Note that neither of these men is advocating their own party. Nor, really, are they denigrating one another. They are simply pointing out that voting for a third party – even one with whom you happen to strongly agree – is idiotic, because ‘the machine’ is broken.

In doing this, by the way, neither seeks to imply that ‘the machine’ is in need of fixing; only that voters must consider its brokenness when visiting the ballot box. A vote for UKIP is a vote for Ed Milliband, or a vote for Labour is a vote for Alex Salmond, or a vote for anyone but Labour is a vote for David Cameron. And that’s just the way it is. A vote for purple is a vote for red and a vote for green is a vote for blue and a vote for yellow is a vote for whatever random colour offers yellows an attractive deal when the seemingly-inevitable hung-parliament is finally delivered.

When apparently rational people begin suddenly to make insane statements, it’s usually evidence that some sort of game is taking place. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable to jovially inform a friend that they’ve inadvertently sunk a fifteen-thousand ton warship, or that their dog has clocked up a £2000 hotel bill.  But only if you happen to be playing Battleships or Monopoly. In any other context, these statements would be very peculiar indeed.

Politics, too, is a game – and one which necessitates that its players occasionally utter absurdities. Bad, on occasion, must equal good; fair should equal unfair; right should equal wrong; cats and dogs should live together. ‘Spending’ should be labelled ‘investment’, while ‘cuts’ should instead be called ‘savings’.

It seems clear to me that the rules of this particular game are in dire need of revision.

Anyway. I’ve banged on about this for far too long now. I’m sure George Orwell has discussed these things better than I ever could. I wish he were alive to think these things over on my behalf. But he isn’t. So let’s bring this to a conclusion. Let’s conclude by finally acknowledging the elephant in the room. We can all think of one instance during this parliament where Britain was really, truly democratic, and that’s the one through which a proposal to introduce an Alternative Vote system was soundly defeated in 2011.  So what does that prove?

It proves that I hate elections, that’s what it proves.