A bit later than I thought, here’s the second part of this. Before I start, some people were interested in exactly what happens in a balanced parliament situation – here’s a report from the Hansard Society (pdf) that sets it all out.
I’m going to try here to set out what all the major parties in the UK General Election believe, as simply as I can. I’m going to try to avoid words like ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism’ because I want this to be useful to as many people as possible – I genuinely know quite a few people who don’t know even what the most basic ideas of what the parties stand for even at this late stage. It should also, though, help my foreign friends understand things a bit better. If you’re a member or supporter of one of the parties listed and you think I’m being unfair or inaccurate (within the very simplistic way I’m doing this) please leave a comment.
The Conservative Party are the simplest party to explain. They believe that, more or less, the way things are is the best way they could be. They think that the people with power at the moment (not just politicians, but religious leaders, business leaders, banks and so on – ‘important’ people) are the people who should keep power. This also means that even though it’s not actually their policy, a lot of them think that middle-aged white straight men deserve more power than anyone who isn’t a middle-aged white straight male, though some individual Conservatives, including their current leader, don’t think that. The Conservatives are also called the Tories, and over Britain’s history they have been in government most of the time. Their leader is David Cameron.
The Labour Party are the hardest to explain. They used to believe that working people deserved to get a better share of the money than they do, and that government should make sure of that, but that otherwise it would be better to give people more freedom. Labour governments brought in the National Health Service, created the Open University, ended capital punishment (hanging) and legalised homosexuality and abortion. (Many of these were Liberal ideas originally, but Labour brought them in). However, after the Conservatives were in power for eighteen years, the leaders of the party decided that people didn’t want a government like that any more, and Labour became more-or-less identical to the Conservatives. There are some slight differences – they brought in the minimum wage and civil partnerships for gay people – but otherwise they have behaved almost exactly like the Conservatives (increasing the gap between rich and poor, supporting the Americans in illegal wars). Many Labour *members* though still hope the party will go back to the way it used to be. Labour have been in government for the last 13 years, and their leader is Gordon Brown.
The Liberal Democrats are both Britain’s oldest and newest party, being formed in 1989 from a merger between two other parties, the Liberals (Britain’s oldest party) and the Social Democrats (a new party formed by some ex-Labour members). We believe in freedom – that the government should not interfere in you doing what you want with your life. We realise, though, that you can’t be free without enough food to eat or somewhere to live or medicine if you’re sick, so we think the government should do what it can to make sure everybody has those things, even if it means interfering a bit with rich people’s freedom (by taking some of their money away) to make sure poor people have them. We also think it’s worth making sure we have a better environment for everyone, because the freedoms not to choke on fumes or to have your home not be flooded by dangerous weather are also important. We also want a fairer voting system, to give everyone the freedom to have a say in how they’re governed.
We also want to make sure that *everyone* has more freedom, so we support gay people, and transsexual people, and disabled people, and other people who have a hard time at the moment, and we want to make sure they have the same rights as everyone else and can also do what *they* want to with their lives.
The Liberal Democrats have never been in government, although the Liberals were a long, LONG time ago, and Nick Clegg is our leader.
The Green Party want to protect the environment, and to share money out more so poor people have more and rich people have less. They share a lot of the same ideals as the Liberal Democrats, but we think some of the ways they want to do things won’t work properly, while they think we’re too similar to the Conservatives and Labour and not radical enough. The Greens don’t have any Members of Parliament at the moment, but are hoping to get some. Caroline Lucas is their leader.
The Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru are nationalists – they believe that Scotland (for the SNP) and Wales (for Plaid Cymru) should become separate countries. As you would imagine, they don’t have many MPs (Scotland and Wales don’t have many people in compared to England), but they both have a lot of members of their respective assemblies (the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly). Alex Salmond leads the SNP, and Ieuan Wyn Jones leads Plaid Cymru.
There are *lots* of smaller parties in Northern Ireland, where the major mainland parties don’t stand. Roughly speaking the Unionist parties (those that want Northern Ireland to stay part of the UK, mostly Protestants) will support the Conservatives in Parliament, while the Republican parties (those that want Northern Ireland to join with the Republic of Ireland, mostly Catholics) will support Labour, but some Republican parties (like Sinn Fein) won’t take their seats in Parliament because you have to swear allegiance to the Queen. The Alliance Party, which tries to work with both communities and bring them together, are formally linked to the Liberal Democrats.
Racist UKIP The official name of this party is the United Kingdom Independence Party, but I refuse to refer to them as anything other than Racist UKIP, because I was threatened with legal action for saying they are racists. Racist UKIP’s policy is mostly centred around not liking foreigners, so they don’t want to be part of the European Union and they want to stop any foreign people coming over here and get rid of some of the ones who already are. Other than that, they’re mostly the same as the Conservatives. Their leader is Lord Pearson Of Rannoch , and they don’t have any MPs in the Commons but do have members in the House of Lords.
The Bastard Nazi Party, officially the British National Party, are a party that formed mainly to hate black people, though in recent years they have branched out and now hate Muslims too. Their leader is DickIbegyourpardonNick Griffin, and they are bastard Nazis. They don’t have any MPs at the moment, and if you vote for them you are scum.
With the European elections coming up, many people are thinking, as one of my friends put it today, “I don’t know who to vote for and everyone whose political opinions I respect is partisan.”
Now, as no-one could possibly respect my political opinions, based as they are on blind ignorance, anger and a belief that everyone else is a complete bastard, I thought I’d tell you all how to vote.
Now, I am partisan, in that I am a member of a political party, but I’m not going to tell you to vote for the Liberal Democrats (even though I’m going to vote for them, and campaign to get other people to vote for them). In fact, if anyone takes my advice it will probably make them slightly less likely to vote Lib Dem. I’m going to give honest advice here.
Firstly, I’m going to assume if you’re looking for advice that you don’t have an absolute preference. If you’re Gordon Brown, then you’re probably going to want to vote Labour. Secondly, I’m going to assume that you do have *some* opinions – because you’re capable of reading this sentence, and thus qualify as a sentient being, so you probably have some preferences as to how you’d like to see the world run. And thirdly, I’m going to assume that you don’t support the Bastard Nazi Party (or their well-dressed cousins UKIP) , because supporters of fascist dictatorship voting would be hypocritical, wouldn’t it?
So given that, it’s reasonable to assume that you’re probably trying to decide between two parties – very few people are thinking “Well, I’m in five minds here – the Conservatives, the Socialist Workers, the Greens, the BNP and Plaid Cymru all have their good points…” – so once you’re in that position, the choice is actually simple – vote for the less popular of the two parties you’re trying to choose between, so long as they’re a ‘proper party’ (one of the ones that get mentioned, at least occasionally, in newspapers, not the Bring Back The Birch And Legalise Heroin Party or something). The reason you should vote for the *less* popular party is because the Euro elections use a ridiculous voting system called the d’Hondt system, which could almost be designed to give proportional representation a bad name.
(Please note, incidentally, that my advice here only works if not everyone takes it – if this post gets sixty million hits and the Greens or UKIP sweep the board because they’re ‘less popular’, don’t blame me).
Now, the way the d’Hondt system works is this – everyone votes for a party rather than a candidate, and the party with the most votes gets a seat. Simple so far. But then you halve the number of votes that party has, tot them up again, and see who now has the most votes. And going through the number of seats you have to allocate, each party’s votes count as 1/(n+1) votes where n is the number of seats the party’s already won.
Believe it or not, that’s the simplest way to explain it. The system’s absolutely horrible and gives PR a bad name (Lib Dems generally want multi-member STV which is a nice, simple, representative system which gives control to voters). Let’s have a look at how it works in practice. Suppose you’re one of only twenty-five voters, choosing between five parties (which we’ll call Red, Blue, Yellow, Green and Bastard). Now the other twenty-four people have voted:
Blue 9 Red 7 Yellow 4 Green 2 Bastard 2
Ignoring your vote for a while, that would play out as follows:
Blue win the first seat, so they now have 9/(1+1)=4.5 votes and one seat
Red win the next seat, so they now have 7/(1+1)=3.5 votes and one seat
Yellow win the next seat, so they now have 4/(1+1)=2 votes and one seat
Blue win the next seat, so they now have 9/(2+1)=3 votes and two seats
Red win the next seat, so they now have 7(2+1)=2.333 votes and two seats
Blue win the next seat, so they now have 9/(3+1)=2.25 votes and three seats
Red win the next seat, so they now have 7/(3+1)=1.75 votes and three seats
Blue win the next seat, so they now have 9(4+1)=1.8 votes and four seats
We now have Red with three seats, Blue with four, Yellow with one, and Yellow, Green and Bastard all tied for the last seat.
Now we add your vote in. If you’d voted for any of Yellow, Green or Bastard, then that party would get the extra seat. In the case of Yellow, your vote would count as half a vote in giving the yellow party its second seat. If you voted Green or Bastard, your vote would count as a full vote in giving those parties their first seat. On the other hand, if you’d voted for Blue, your vote would only be counting as 0.2 votes for the final seat, or 0.25 if you vote Red. In both cases that would only bring them up so it was a four-way tie, rather than the three-way one it is at present.
So the smaller the party you vote for, the more your vote counts as the system allocates the last few seats. Now, one of the big things that’s happening in this European election is that the BNP are trying very hard to win a seat. In the North-West, for example, where I live, they’re running Nick Griffin, their leader. And with the current anti-politics mood in the country, it’s a real possibility that they might win.
Now, there are a variety of voting tactics that can be used to try and stop the Nazis getting a seat, and they all revolve around what happens at the low end of the scale. The Greens have been campaigning on this quite strongly, pointing out quite rightly that they only need to increase their share of the vote by 0.8% (assuming the BNP don’t increase their own share) to beat the BNP. This strategy is criticised here, which suggests that the best party for an anti-BNP vote would be UKIP (however, having seen their repellent propaganda about ‘unlimited immigration’ and ‘taking control of our borders’ I must say that they’re using the same racist rhetoric as the BNP and should be treated the same way) but also that ‘the most likely scenario’ would be the Lib Dems picking up a second seat (we only have one seat in the North West at the moment, but that’s because of a turncoat bastard who got elected as a Lib Dem and then took his seat as a Tory, which given that he was elected, as all MEPs are, on a party list system, meant he was depriving his supposed constituents of representation – they voted for the Lib Dems, not for him).
So if you want your vote to *matter*, vote for a small party. I’d obviously prefer it if you voted Lib Dem, but I could easily see a strategic vote for the Greens making sense in this election. Of course it helps that the Greens are the only party other than the Lib Dems I could consider voting for myself…
(BTW PLEASE note that the d’Hondt system is so completely fucked-up that there is no sensible way to predict in advance who’s going to win a seat, so this isn’t advocating that you switch your vote – if you want to vote Labour (though God knows why you would) don’t switch to the Lib Dems or Greens to ‘keep the BNP out’, just vote Labour. Tactical voting with d’Hondt is a fool’s errand. But if you’re honestly trying to choose between, say, Labour and the Lib Dems, or the Tories and the Greens, then the vote for the smaller party may well be of more use).