I’ve never had any doubt that this election I will be campaigning for, and voting for, the Liberal Democrats, the same party I’ve voted for in every election since 1997 (except I think for a single council election about fifteen years ago, where I wrongly thought that the Green had a better chance of beating Labour in my ward).
But I’m very lucky, in that the candidate in the seat where I live, Dave Page, is someone I could never *not* vote for. He’s not only a very good friend of mine, but he’s an extremely principled liberal, the hardest working activist I know, the most *effective* activist I know, and someone who’s both intelligent and a genuinely nice person. When your choice is between someone like that on the one hand and Gerald Kaufman, a useless, venal, time-server who doesn’t even have a constituency office but did try to claim nearly £9000 in expenses for a TV, and successfully claimed £1800 for a rug, there’s no choice at all. Dave gets my vote.
Similarly, the constituency where I’ll be doing most of my campaigning, Manchester Withington (next door to mine), has John Leech as its MP. John is an absolutely exemplary MP who does a *huge* amount of constituency work, and is also one of the most rebellious MPs in the country (20th out of 650, and fourth most rebellious of the 57 Lib Dem MPs), regularly voting for the liberal thing rather than voting with the government when the two disagree.
So in my case, I can happily vote for, and campaign for, my local Lib Dem MPs with a clear conscience, knowing that I’m actually voting and campaigning for people who will be supporting liberal principles. The same goes for those in the constituencies of many other Lib Dem MPs and candidates — if you vote for, say, Adrian Sanders, Julian Huppert, or Tim Farron, you know you’re going to get a good representative who will do good work in Parliament.
However, some Liberals, or leftish people who’ve voted Lib Dem in the past, aren’t so lucky. Their local MP has been in government, and has made compromises as a result of that, compromises which the voter is uncomfortable with. We could argue all day about to what extent those compromises are justified, and everyone has different red lines. Personally I have a lot of sympathy for Tim Farron’s position, when he recently said:
“I’ll tell you the thing I am most proud of, most proud of, that nearly nobody knows about, is that there are nearly 3,000 children of asylum seekers who are not under lock and key now because of what Nick Clegg did with his popularity.
“I hear Nick Clegg being attacked regularly; if you want to know the integrity of somebody, it’s that he spends his political capital, gets nothing for it and makes people’s lives better. That’s a man with integrity.
And in general, I think the Lib Dems have done a lot of good, underreported, things like that. But we do all have red lines, things we simply cannot tolerate, and I don’t think there’s a single Lib Dem member who hasn’t been so annoyed by something this government has done that they haven’t thought “Is this worth it? Is this really what I got into politics for? To support this?” at least once (those who follow me on my non-public Twitter will have seen exactly how often this happens to me…)
But even if you’re one of those people who think that the compromises the party has made in power have been too great, there’s one very important reason to vote Lib Dem again.
This election, more than any other, shows that our electoral system, and our political system more generally, has become unfit for purpose. As the Daily Mash put it, A vote for the SNP ‘is a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for the Tories is a vote for UKIP’. The so-called “first past the post” system (a misnomer if ever there was one, given that there’s no post — “biggest loser” would be a more accurate term) made some kind of sense when there were two ideologically opposite, distinct, large parties to choose from. If you’re trying to choose between a party that wants to nationalise pretty much everything, raise the top rate of income tax to 95%, and scrap nuclear weapons, and one which wants to privatise pretty much everything, bring back the death penalty, and criminalise strikes, and there are no other parties contesting the area, then the biggest loser system makes sense.
But when your choice is between two right-authoritarian managerialist parties debating head-of-a-pin distinctions like “we will stop anyone under 25 from claiming benefits, and make them take a job” versus “we will have a compulsory jobs guarantee, and anyone under twenty-five who doesn’t take the compulsory job will lose their benefits”, while at the same time there are another five parties who might affect the final government, with policy platforms ranging from “free money for everyone and save the whales” to “we hate the foreigns”, the biggest loser system is laughably unsuitable.
We have a system now that is only democratic in the loosest possible sense. What government we get this election will have almost nothing to do with what people vote for, and still less with what they actually want. When you add in things like the unelected Lords, and the Bishops who still sit in Parliament, the system’s barely fit for the nineteenth century, still less the twenty-first.
The Lib Dems are the *only* party that will actually do anything to fix this problem. When the chance came to change the voting system, even though the option available (AV) was one that would disadvantage the Lib Dems (the Lib Dems would do better under a proportional system than they do now, but AV isn’t proportional), the Lib Dems voted and campaigned for it. The Labour Party — who had a referendum on changing the voting system in their manifestos in 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2010, but just never quite got round to it — voted against having the referendum at all, and then the majority of them campaigned with the Tories against the change. The Greens’ one MP voted against having the referendum as well.
When the Lib Dems got a cross-party committee to come to a consensus for how to reform the Lords and make it democratic, Labour, a party that had Lords reform in its manifesto every election but somehow never quite got round to it, voted with the Tory backbenchers to stop the bill having Parliamentary time, blocking reform. The Greens’ one MP voted against even setting up the committee to look into it.
Quite simply, politics is broken. There is no space in the current political system for the voices we need to hear — whether from socialists, or environmentalists, or libertarians, or nationalists, or Burkean conservatives, or anyone else outside the tiny Westminster consensus. To my mind, the issues surrounding this — whether to do with the actual electoral system, or with the increasing restrictions being placed on freedom of speech, are the most important facing us at the moment. We can’t get anything else right in politics until we have a system that *allows* us to get things right, and right now we don’t have that.
I broadly agree with the Lib Dems’ policies, and I think most of the Lib Dems’ elected representatives are at least basically OK, but even if I disagreed with the party on almost everything else, I think the fact that they’re the only party that actually want to fix our broken system would be reason enough by itself to vote for them.
I have no idea what will happen in May — my *guess* is that the Lib Dems will get about 35 seats and Labour will be the single largest party, but beyond that I haven’t a clue — but whatever happens, it won’t be what *anyone* wants or has voted for. I’m hoping that whatever mess of a government we end up with in two months, in five years, if nothing else, I won’t have to write this same blog post again. And the only way to make that even slightly likely is to vote Lib Dem.