Tactless voting1

Apparently a few people in the comments section (and vast volumes of fictitious email correspondence) want to know what the merry hell I’m playing at by saying I’m going to vote Conservative next time round. So I suppose I’d better clarify the matter. I probably made a mistake in the way I phrased the issue below, because it implied that I was only going to vote Tory if I could be sure that they weren’t going to get in. That’s not really true; I’m going to vote Tory and I really don’t care whether they get in or not. This is an explicit “moral equivalence” position; I simply don’t think that it makes a difference whether the blue Tories or the red Tories get in. They’ve already done all the things that they were claiming the Tories would do (abolishing the right to silence, university tuition fees, introducing workfare, being complete bastards to asylum seekers), and their performance on that little lot means that they will hardly be convincing when they come round in 2006 trying to put the fear of God into me about the Health Service and the last vestiges of progressivity in the income tax. People have been treating this “they’re all the same”, “New Labour = Old Tory” thing as if it were a joke for too long. I’d even argue that there is, these days, far less ideological distance between our two main parties than there is between the Republicans and the Democrats. The centre of gravity in UK politics is a little bit further over toward the Big-State side of things, but even that’s not particularly anything to be proud of; both Blair and Duncan-Smith appear to be firmly of the belief that the main purpose of the State is to make people do things that they don’t want to do, unless they can afford not to.

Needless to say, this point of view scandalises my friends. Objections to it fall into two categories: 1) but the Tories are such bloody horrible people!, and 2) why don’t you just vote LibDem/Green/not vote? Taking them in order:

First, yes, it really, really goes against the grain to vote for the other side. Not all Tories are bad people, but a lot of really awful people are Tories, and voting for them gives direct succour to the worst kind of fox-hunting, race-baiting, queer-bashing arsehole. Given that I tend to favour theories of morality which have a lot more to say about the kind of people we are, than what we do, this matters to me. Added to that, good old-fashioned team spirit is a powerful force. Even now I know what kind of saccharined authoritarian nightmare Blair has been, I still can’t forget how great it felt to give the other lot a bloody nose back in 1997. Believe me, I wouldn’t be considering this point of view if I wasn’t really extremely angry.

Why so angry? Well, it’s basically the lying thing. In general, I can’t claim to be an absolutist on the subject of lying. On the whole, I’d actually probably say that for any given lie, I’m as likely as not to be in favour of it. But I have a complicated code of morality which helps me to distinguish between types of lie; the actual features which I distinguish probably lie in the area of Hayekian “tacit knowledge” rather than anything else, but I attempt to codify them below out of a belief that other people are likely to recognise some sort of truth in them.

  1. Lies told about matters of fact are worse than lies told about one’s own opinions.
  2. Promising to do something and then not doing it is not as bad as promising not to do something and then doing it.
  3. Lying to someone before they’ve made their mind up on what to do, is not as bad as telling a lie calculated to change someone’s mind.
  4. And most importantly, lies told by people who have the monopoly on the legitimate use of force to people who don’t are per se worse than any other relevantly similar lies

This to me suggests why I am more outraged over the cocktail of falsehoods that have been thrown our way over the recent war, than about the general run of fibs that all politicians of any stripe tell us. Recognising that I can’t prove that any particular member of the government was actually lying (rather than passing on in good faith some terribly untrue information gained from sources they regarded as trustworthy), I have concluded that if these statements were lies, they were very bad lies indeed. And since I’ve always regarded “innocent until proven guilty” as a wonderful rule of procedure for putting a man on trial for his liberty but a bloody awful way of selecting a people’s representative, I’m operating a somewhat more relaxed standard of evidence for making my personal assessment of who to vote for. In any case, I’d note that since the Crichel Down affair, it’s been a general principle of British government (albeit one honoured in the breach rather than the observance, and one pretty badly damaged by Michael Howard) that a Minister ought to resign when it is shown that he has misled the House, even if he did so in good faith.

Which brings me onto the second question; that of why the Tories rather than some other form of protest vote? Well, for one thing, I can’t just stay at home as a protest because I’m already doing that as a protest against a) the number of meaningless elections, local elections, European elections, London mayoral elections, devolution referenda and other such calls on my time, and b) against the Labour party’s continued failure to make good on its promises to the drinking man.

(This last one was a big issue for me in 2001, and directly contributed to canvassers not bothering with my house anymore. A sample conversation on my doorstep went as follows:

New Labour: Hello sir, I see you’re down on my list as a Labour supporter. Can we count on your support?
D^2: I’m sorry, I don’t wear one. ([c] Spike Milligan, 1922)
New Labour: (insincere laugh) But seriously, will you be voting Labour?
D^2: Depends … what is New Labour offering the drinking man?
New Labour: Oh plenty! We intend to lower the rate of alcohol duty to European levels as soon as is practical ie never, and even better than that, we have a manifesto commitment to open the pubs 24 hours a day!
D^2 Oh. Yeh. Right. Sure. And I suppose that while we’re in the 24 hour open pubs, we’ll be drinking out of the oversize “fair measure” pint glasses that you promised us last time you wanted to get elected? My memory hasn’t gone that much, you bastard. I’ll be staying at home on polling day, drinking the last remnants of my Calais trip.
New Labour: I’ll put you down as a “maybe”.
D^2: While you’re here, can I ask what your party’s policy is on telling fucking lies2 in order to start a fucking war? That’s the sort of thing which often influences my vote.

Sorry, I appear to have digressed)

But anyway, I’m already on a stay-at-home protest. And the LibDem/Green Axis of Ineffectuality doesn’t really appeal. Mainly because both those parties are extremely rich in a) the kind of meddling, everything-would-be-so-much-better-if-only-everyone-listened-to-my-precise-200-point-plan type I really can’t stand (the kind of person who spends evenings on design of voting systems is always going to make me nervous) and b) the kind of careerist I-want-a-career-in-politics-but-couldn’t-quite-make-it-in-a-proper-party-so-I’m-going-to-stand-in-the-West-Country type, that I can’t stand. Plus, ironically, lots of people I really, really, like. But there you go.

But also for sound economic reasons. As anyone who’s studied the economic theory of signalling (for which Spence won his Nobel gong) will know, there’s no point in doing something to “send a message”, unless it’s something that it costs you to do. Voting for a more leftwing party would just send a sign to Blair etc that Davies has dropped off the left edge of British politics into the swamp of People Who Can Safely Be Ignored Forever. What I want to do is to show Blair that faced with a choice between him and the Tories, I’m prepared to select the option that is both lesser and evil – the choice which is genuinely repugnant to me – in order to send a message to him about being a lot more careful about the bloody “intelligence reports” with which he pollutes the public discourse during a time when a nation is trying to make up its mind whether it wants to go to war. In order to do that, I have to do something I don’t want to do.

I don’t know whether, when shite comes to bust, I’ll be able to actually go through with it. I’m more likely to sit at home, particularly if there’s something good on the telly. But I know this; if any canvasser comes to my house, I am for certain going to tell them that I’m voting Tory because Blair didn’t tell the truth about Iraq. If enough people do this, it might come through in the focus groups.

I would never presume to tell anyone else how to cast their vote in a secret ballot. But telling little lies to politicians strikes me as the smallest step toward a world in which politicians don’t tell big lies to us.

Update: Note that it is perfectly consistent to take one view about whether we should have fought a war in Iraq, but another view altogether about whether Blair should have misled Parliament about Iraq.

1Thanks to the chap in the comments section who suggested this name.

2Oh all right then, “material falsehoods”, in case anyone feels like waiving their Parliamentary privilege in order to sue me.


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