Saturday, 2 May 2009

What do we vote for?

I received my voting card today, informing when and where I must go to vote for the forces of good in the forthcoming European Parliament elections. It got me thinking about something I find both interesting and amusing.

The very nature of our electoral system is that we cast our vote but there are no rules about what we should or should not take into consideration when deciding where to put our mark. There is a very obvious reason for this because we can decide on whatever grounds seem important to us, or on flippant grounds or on no grounds at all, we can vote tactically to prevent the election of someone we don't like even if the result is that someone we dislike a little less gets in, we can vote for a candidate knowing they have no chance whatsoever of being returned; it is a complete free-for-all. There can't be rules about it because there is no one to make such rules and no way of enforcing them.

One effect of free votes is that a particular candidate can succeed despite a clear majority not supporting any of his policies. If you need 15,000 votes to win and can attract 1,000 votes each from single issue fanatics on fifteen different issues, despite them not supporting anything you say on any of the other fourteen fanatical issues or any other issue, then you will be elected. Fair enough, although it's probably unlikely to happen. At least it's unlikely to happen in a general election where core issues tend to come to the fore, particularly if there is a realistic chance of a change of governing party. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that inconsistent reasons will lie behind the majority achieved by each successful candidate.

During every election campaign I can remember there have been debates on television and radio about what people think their vote is for. Some will argue that we should all vote for the candidate who will be the best representative for the constituents, others will argue that choice of party is more important and others still that a general election is really a vote for your preference as Prime Minister. People get quite unnecessarily heated about this when the reality is that each argument is valid to those who find it valid. If Mr Ordinary uses his vote for his party of choice and Mrs Ordinary for her preferred Prime Minister, each is equally in the right because it is a free choice to do what you want with your vote according to your personal judgment. In all but the most extraordinary of circumstances nutty and emotive issues are swamped by more general considerations, hence the changes of governing party in 1979 and 1997 and the fluctuating majorities held by those parties during their recent periods in office.

I still read suggestions that the current government is somehow illegitimate because it only polled 35.3% of votes cast at the last general election and each time I do I sigh and think of apples and oranges. They received 35.3% of votes cast under the current system of first-past-the-post constituency elections rather than proportional representation. Having won a majority of seats they are the legitimate government, no matter how much I dislike that fact. No one can say how many votes they would have received under any of the many versions of proportional representation nor what effect it would have had on seats won in the House of Commons.

I also read assertions that Gordon Brown is not the legitimate Prime Minister because he was not leader of his party when the last general election was won and Tony Blair said at the time that he intended to serve a full term in office. That assertion, too, is without substance. Under the system we have the leader for the time being of the majority party is invited to form a government, if he or she stands down and a new party leader emerges that new leader will be invited to form a government. You can't sensibly ignore one aspect of the whole process and claim that it removes legitimacy from someone appointed under the process that was in place at the time of the election. Poor Gordon is the legitimate Prime Minister, albeit a hopelessly incompetent holder of that office, just as he would have been had Tony Blair been run over by a bus a week after the election.

A highly visible aspect of voting decisions being affected by differing considerations is the way things happen in by-elections compared to general elections. The issues are different and having the spotlight on a single constituency allows attention to be brought to particular local and topical matters on which the incumbent government has a less than unblemished record. Innumerable examples exist of protest votes at by-elections resulting in the governing party losing the seat, only for it to be regained at the next general election - of course that doesn't always happen but historically safe seats for one party tend to revert to their usual holder.

European elections raise yet further issues. Support for the UK Independence Party soars far above its level at general elections because all three major parties seem keen on Belgian gravy being a fatty product whereas the people would prefer it to be weak and watery. In a way it is curious that elections to the European Parliament tend to revolve around our views of the EU and its institutions rather issues of policy because something like 80% of our laws now come from Europe. But then it is not really curious because any views on policy expressed by the electorate of one country out of twenty-seven are of no importance to the Brussels machine.

It will be interesting to see how far the vote swings against Labour at the upcoming Euro elections. There is little difference between the position of all three major parties on the EU so there is no reason to read a loss of votes for Labour as reflecting anything about their position on matters continental. Of course we can never know why people will vote as they will, but that won't stop the speculation, and jolly good fun it will be too.

1 comment:

sauermaische said...

The choice is between those who are content to allow the current EU "gravy" to have its current "fatty" consistency, and those who wish to change it.

Those who wish for a change have a choice between those who want to stop contributing ingredients and walk out of the kitchen altogether, and the new party, Libertas, whot just wants to change the recipe.

It will be interesting to see the comparative success of UKIP and Libertas, the eurosceptics who want to leave the EU, and the eurosceptics who want to stay and make the EU democratic and properly accountable to the European electorate.