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Big with Nuts

Oh dear. As a political junkie, I think I’ve hit rock bottom. Last night, Mrs Digest came up the stairs late at night wondering why I wasn’t in bed and found me watching coverage of the (UK) local elections. I honestly think I’d have been less ashamed if I’d been caught watching a porn channel. I have never remotely been tempted to vote in these elections (or indeed to find out whether I could have voted; I’m not sure whether they had them in London), but I’m just addicted to the coverage. I love the fancy logos (the BBC had a particularly good “Vote ’03” one which frankly deserved a better election), the silly computer graphics of debating chambers, the “results coming in” from places I couldn’t point to on a map, the sheer self-importance of it all. And, of course, the sadist in me loves to see how badly most politicians cope with staying up late at night. (Thinking about it, I seem to remember posting a while ago about how the appeal of boring sports like snooker was that they basically turned on the psychological destruction of one of the contestants. I was also watching the snooker from the Crucible last night, and it sort of segued into the elections. Same appeal).

But although I’m an addict, I’m not so far gone as to believe that these elections matter. In fact, I would support the view that local council elections matter a negative amount; the better a political party does in them, the worse a state it is in. To explain this view, let us consider the makeup of the electorate for these elections. We know (or at least, credibly guesstimate) that of the voting population of the UK:

a) 2% are fascists
b) about 4% are Welsh or Scottish nationalists.
c) 10% are civic-minded souls who will turn up and vote just because there’s an election.
d) A thick 10% are single-issue nutters of one kind or another
e) about 1% are more or less fictional characters because they are the result of ballot fraud.

All of these groups will be voting in the local elections for sure; the fascists and nationalists have to turn out because it’s their only chance of getting anyone elected at all, and the other three groups have to vote by definition. Already, with these groups, all five of which are by any reasonable standard weirdos, we’re up to 27% of the electorate. A further 5% of the population belong to political parties, and about four-fifths of these can be expected to get out and vote. We have now reached 31% of the electorate and turnout was only 36% in the local elections.

The weirdoes have usually made up their mind how they’re going to vote on issues of no relevance to a general election campaign (I include the “civics” in this category, because they make up their mind based on their assessment of the issues and thus are swamped in a proper campaign by a mass of voters who just treat it like a football game). The party hacks vote the party line. Therefore, when we’re “taking a barometer reading of the nation” in these elections, we are looking at a sample which is made up of fourteen percent regular Joes who just happened to be walking past the polling station, plus eighty six percent cranks, ideologues and hacks. If you’re doing well with that crowd, you’re in trouble.

The problem is that the single-issue cranks are the swing voters in local elections. If something’s on the cover of (say) the Daily Mail every day, then you can guess that about eighty per cent of the readership don’t give a fuck, and just turn to the features about Catherine Zeta Jones getting a bit fat and the Fred Basset cartoon. But the more gullible fifth will be foaming at the mouth with rage as directed, and if it’s the Mail, that’s four hundred thousand voters out of a turnout less than 15 million. One party ends up being the beneficiary of this 2.5% swing, and believes that there’s been a massive endorsement of their entire platform. Since one tabloid or another (in fact, usually more than one) is always in the self-righteous rage game, this swing is completely random, and since usually the tabloids are catering to a niche audience (people who need to be told they are right all the time because at some level they realise their views are bizarre), there is a come-uppance at the general election when the population as a whole make up their minds. There are real consequences to this, unfortunately; hundreds of people have quite likely been tortured and killed because the political class of the UK got it into their head that being “soft on asylum-seekers” was an important political issue on the basis of local election results.

Bottom line: “Really popular with nutters” isn’t an election winning strategy, but it can get you a good showing in UK local elections. All of which makes me even more determined to vote Tory next time. I really want to punish Blair for lying to me, and I now know that I can do so without taking any material risk that the buggers will get in. And the frightening thing for Duncan Smith is that my kind of support is probably quite a material proportion of his entire franchise.

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