Have you decided how to cast your vote on Thursday? Will it really make any difference?
The 2015 general election actually presents the UK with a greater opportunity for real change at national level than any in recent history. After decades of the two-and-a-half party system, this year there are four parties (Conservative, Labour, SNP and the Liberal Democrats) which stand a genuine chance of having a significant role in government during the next parliament.
But the paradox for an individual voter deciding what to do with their ballot paper is still the same: for the vast majority, it will have no effect. The reality is that 90% of the 650 seats up for grabs on Thursday are safe seats, with such a big majority that the conclusion is foregone. The election will be decided by the results in the remaining marginals, where the 2010 results and the polls are so close that there’s a real chance of seats changing hands. So unless you live in one of the small number of marginal constituencies, your vote is effectively pointless.
It gets worse. Even in marginal seats, the winner is likely to end up with a lead of certainly hundreds, perhaps even a few thousand, votes. The chances of a seat being won by one vote are vanishingly small. On the rare occasion that the candidates’ results are within even a few tens of each other, they’ll demand a recount, and when recounts have occurred, the results have changed by several votes each time. In other words, your vote is smaller than the margin of error.
I’ve always been on the rough end of this deal: I vote in one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. This is one of the reasons (along with a deep mistrust of all the main parties and dissatisfaction at the pitiful choice available) that I’ve always spoiled my ballot, in order to exercise my democratic right in a way that is consistent with my views, can’t be condemned as apathy, and is no more pointless than anyone else’s vote.
However, I’ve realised that there is a way of voting that can potentially make a real difference, even in safe constituencies. And that’s what I’m going to be doing (in fact, have already done – I have a postal vote).
The method is this: Vote for an independent candidate. Any independent candidate.
Here’s my reasoning. A candidate has to pay a deposit of £500 to stand for election, and if they receive less than 5% of the vote, they’ll lose it. Your vote may not have a hope in hell of affecting who wins the seat, let alone who ends up governing in Westminster, but there’s a chance it’ll make the difference between a candidate retaining or losing their deposit. It’s still a small chance, but it’s less small than the alternative.
Also, it doesn’t matter what ideology or platform the candidate is standing for, as they’re not going to be elected and be able to do anything about it anyway. If you’re a leftie, and your only independent is a small-c conservative, vote for them. If you’re a Tory in a safe seat, and your only independent is a radical socialist, vote for them. I might grant you an exception if it’s a real monster, like a racist skinhead who’s been kicked out of the BNP for extremism. But otherwise, by making a non-partisan vote in favour of an indie, you can claw back some small amount of democratic effectiveness for your ballot paper even in our broken first-past-the-post electoral system.
You could extend the argument and say vote for any minor party candidate, or even look at the polls and pick the one who’s closest to the 5% threshold. That’s not a bad shout either, especially if a party you support is in that position. But I think it’s more important to support independent candidates, for two reasons.
Firstly, they’re standing without the financial backing of a party. That £500 is their personal money, as is anything they’ve spent on their campaign. Even a Green Party no-hoper is supported by a national organisation which now has over 60,000 members, and an income of several million pounds a year. So your vote, if it does make the difference on their deposit, will make a much bigger difference for that person than it would for a party candidate.
Secondly, and this is a more personal view, the dominance of the party system is detrimental to integrity, values and representation of the people in modern politics. However closely aligned you think a candidate’s views are to yours, and however much they promise during the campaign to fight for your concerns, once they get to Westminster, they’re a cog in the party machine. Barring a few rare exceptions, they’ll vote as their whips tell them, and for whatever shitty policies their party HQ has been sold by lobbyists and establishment cronies. A party politician is, in general, a career politician, and advancing their career requires putting loyalty to party leadership over loyalty to voters.
An independent politician, on the other hand, answers to no-one but the electorate. A parliament with more independent politicians would be a better parliament, with more MPs voting according to their consciences, and the mandate of their constituents.
We’re not going to achieve that in this election, or the next. But if more independent candidates retain their deposits, that’ll encourage them to stand again, and it’ll encourage others to stand too, or support independent campaigns.
That’s why I’m recommending voting for independent candidates, of any flavour. It might make a difference in the short term to that individual, and it might even improve our democracy in the long term.