Imagine, if you will, a pregnant pause.
Tony Blair was fighting to be the first Labour leader to win a third term. There was much anger and vitriol in the country over the Iraq war, and most especially over the death of Dr David Kelly, and the subsequent Hutton Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding it.
The Conservatives, in an insane moment, had chosen Michael Howard as their leader. Michael Howard is regularly satirised (and has been for many years) by Rory Bremner (a prominent political satirist and impressionist) as a vampire, an image which had passed into the popular imagination. I have no idea why they chose someone a large section of the population associated with an evil undead blood-sucking creature of the night to lead them, but that's why I'm not a politician.
The Tories campaign had seemed to some to be bordering on xenophobia, while some Labour posters were accused of being anti-semitic. It was a febrile atmosphere, but many previous Labour voters didn't feel that the Tories or the Lib Dems provided a real alternative. The election was to prove to have a low turnout, despite the massive increase in postal voting, with safe Labour seats seeing sharp drops as Labour voters stayed at home.
Complicating the matter for some, Tony Blair had already announced he would not be fighting a fourth general election. Despite his statement that he intended to, nevertheless, serve a full third term, it was widely expected he will stand down as Prime Minister at least a year before an election, to allow his successor enough time to bed in. The Tories had briefly mulled a poster campaign of "Vote Blair, get Brown", but scrapped it when initial polling showed that encouraged more people to vote Labour.
And so I sat in that car, wondering if I could do it. Could I vote for my current Labour MP again? Even knowing she was a through-and-through Blairite, with nary a single rebellion to her name?
I'd been having serious doubts for a long time. The only reason I was down campaigning for Labour (I'd taken a week off work to do so) was because it was my friend standing. (In fact, other mutual friends who would never usually consider voting Labour also came over to help out.) I had been out pounding the streets, delivering leaflets we had written ourselves, knocking on doors, pressing the flesh. I'm fairly certain that I personally convinced some people to go and vote for us. Sadly, I think the main effect of our campaigning was to convince previous Labour voters not to vote for the Lib Dems, but rather to stay at home - the areas that had been Labour in the past had remarkably quiet polling stations on the day. I also spent a good half hour convincing someone they should vote Labour, and only then did he tell me he was from south Wales, and only visiting.
But maybe all the fine words I was crafting were starting to have an effect on me as well. I'd been telling people to remember how much worse things could be, how bad they had been under the Tories, and, of course, was able to point at Michael Howard, a relic of those times. Many people still didn't trust the Conservatives, and they still didn't look credible as an alternative government.
And so I sat in my car, my pen poised above the ballot paper. I had been intending to simply not vote, using the excuse of not being in the constituency to salve my conscience. But my own rhetoric had been working on me, to an extent. And so I sat there, torn about what to do.
And we can end the flashback there.
So now here we are, back in 2008. Theoretically, Brown could go on until May 2010, though it would be more usual to go to the public in 2009. With a year, possibly two to go, then, what is my answer to the question? Can I bring myself to vote for them again?
For me, this breaks down into two questions. Firstly, can I bring myself not to vote for the party I am a member of? Secondly, if I did manage that, could I vote for anyone else?
The second question is the easiest. No, no I can't. When I look at the other two major parties, I know there is no way I could ever vote for them. I wish I could explain this in rational terms, but the truth is it isn't a rational decision. It is something I don't have a choice over. The mere thought of voting for someone else leaves an icy grip around my heart, a knot deep in the pit of my stomach. It is a purely visceral reaction.
I am a tribal animal. It is a terrible flaw, but there you go. And my tribe is Labour. I am Labour. Always will be. The Liberal Democrats are inconsequential, the Tories beyond the pale. Neither could ever get my vote.
I'm reminded of an interview the BBC did in Nuneaton after the local elections this May. Labour had lost control of the council for the first time since it was created in 1974, to the Conservatives. And worse, the far-right British National Party had gained two seats. The BBC were interviewing a young man who had voted for BNP. He was angry at Labour, angry that he felt he was being ignored, that his community was being forgotten and allowed to die. But of course he couldn't vote Conservative, his dad had been a miner until Thatcher closed all the pits.
You see, there are areas of this country where it is less shameful to vote for a far-right racist party than it is to vote for the Tories. I don't agree with that view, but I can understand it. That's what I mean by being a tribal animal. (Incidentally, there is a question over how bad Labour's popularity must have become to send its supporters to the BNP, but that is another story, and will be told another time.)
Back in 2005, there was a reason to, in the words of Polly Toynbee, "hold your nose and vote Labour". We all knew Blair was going to go, and we all knew that his successor would be Gordon Brown. Back then, that was a cause for hope for many. Even I, who had severe doubts about him, remembered the conference speeches he gave, speeches where he really connected with the rank and file of the party. And so a vote for Blair could be seen as a temporary measure, letting him get the party into power again, before the good times began under someone else.
But today? Here's a quick test - without looking, how many members of the cabinet can you name? It's damn hard. The long saga of Blair and Brown appears to have drained the party of any other stars, anyone else who makes a credible candidate for Prime Minister. I mean, can you see Jack Straw in Number 10? Harriet Harman? Alan Johnson? I suppose Milliband is an outside possibility, but I just don't see it, not in the short term. So, assuming Brown is still the PM at an election, you'd be voting for him, knowing you'd get him. I'm not convinced 'better the devil you know' applies in this case.
Even so, you're voting for a government, not a Prime Minister, so you can't decide all of this on the personality of one man, no matter how much our media these days panders to that presidential notion. At the very least, you need to look at the policies that are being trumpeted.
And here I run up against another problem. The horrible truth is that I don't really believe the Tories would put forward policies radically different from those Labour are pursuing. As I have mentioned before, we are in an age of managerial politics. The small details may change, the style, the presentation may change, but we will just have chosen a different group of managers.
That's not to say the Labour government hasn't pursued policies I've agreed with, quite the opposite. They have increased funding into the NHS - but they have also introduced a massive increase in PFI schemes. They have worked to reduce waiting times - but they have also brought private delivery into the system. They have got rid of the vast majority of hereditary peers - but they didn't go the whole way, and made the upper house even more one of patronage. They introduced a minimum wage - but have kept it at a level below a living wage. Absolute poverty has been cut - but social inequality has risen.
Worse, social mobility has fallen. Some accuse me of class warfare, class envy, what have you. If you live in a society where people can't move from their class, class war is the only method of improving the poor's lot in life...
The problem I have is that it is hard to see how this new style Conservative Party will make significantly different policy decisions. If anything, they can't get away with as much on the NHS as Labour did. It would be politically impossible for them to restore hereditary peers. Getting rid of the minimum wage would be electoral suicide. I'm sure there may be other areas where people will be worse off, but areas where others will be better off.
Now, of course, this is all supposition, because we are a long way away from any manifestos, and the Tories may surprise me, though I doubt it would be a happy surprise. I accept this is all supposition, and based on my own filthy prejudices, but that's all I really have to work with right now.
So, given I know I can't vote for the Lib Dems or Tories, and yet I don't believe there would be a massive change between current Labour policies and those of a future Tory government, does this mean I should abstain?
Some tell me I should never abstain, that people fought and died for my right to vote. Personally, I'm more inclined to believe they fought and died so I had a choice, and one of the options is choosing not to vote. In an electoral system without a 'none of the above' style option, you can spoil your ballot paper or abstain. If you spoil your paper, it gets lumped in with those who still haven't grasped the concept of putting a cross next to one person. At least if you abstain the government gets worried about lower turnout. (Yes, it worries them. Postal voting wasn't expanded as a great democratic aim, it is there to shore up the numbers.)
Which brings us back to 2005. The sun is still beating down on the car, and that pregnant pause you were all imagining has just ended. And yes, I put a cross next to the Labour candidate's name, seal up the form, and post it. But I really didn't know I was going to do that until that very moment. It was a difficult decision for me last time round, and it will be even more difficult for me this time. But will I vote? I genuinely don't know, and I won't know until the moment comes. It may seem like a cop-out answer, but it is also the only truthful answer I can give.
Writing this (admittedly very long-winded) response to the question has, inevitably, depressed me again. I've had as little to do with politics as possible for a long time now. Maybe it was just that my youthful fantasies had been crushed, maybe it was because I had too much else going on. Maybe it's just that politics is still the only subject that can stir me to anger, to bitterness, to passion. Maybe it's just me. Maybe that's why it depresses me.
But maybe, just maybe, the problem is with British politics. And maybe, just maybe, that means we need to do something about it.
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