In which I wonder whether it’s even worth having an opinion

There are some truths which, in this little hippy liberal corner of the interweb at least, we hold to be self-evident. Things like the idea that extreme weather events definitely aren’t caused by Katy Perry kissing a girl and liking it, and that the welfare state is, on balance, A Good Thing. Other Good Things would include the NHS, the BBC, free movement of people across borders and the recognition that newspaper headlines that are phrased as a yes/no question can almost always be answered, ‘Probably not.’ (EG ‘Is your iPod giving you cancer?’ ‘Are floods of immigrants going to establish sharia law in Melton Mowbray?’ etc. I made those two up, but you get the idea.)

What is depressing this little corner of the interweb today, is the unfortunately equally self-evident fact, that none of these opinions matter. My opinions, like most of yours, are irrelevant to my political overlords. I’m not rich enough to be likely to donate significant money to any political party. I’m not a hard-working family, being childless and generally quite lazy, and therefore, it would appear that very few politicians see me as a demographic worth pursuing.

Having said that I do live in a relatively marginal parliamentary seat with a current majority of less than 3000. Marginal seats are the places that actually matter in general elections – the seats where the sitting MP has a small lead and where the seat could plausibly change hands. That should mean that I’m one of the people who politicians are spending stupid amounts of money trying to please. So why aren’t the papers full of stories about politicians competitively trying to outdo one another over how lax they want to make our border controls, and aggressively trying to give passing unemployed people free monkeys and tv licences, and maybe a nationalised railway to play with? All of that would appeal immensely to me, but none of it is happening.

And it’s not happening, because although I live in a relatively marginal parliamentary seat, I’m not an undecided or swing voter. The problem is that I know what I think, so when my hereditary Tory MP turns up on the doorstep, our views are already too diametrically opposed for there to be any significant risk of me voting for him, so, although I might berate him lightly for a while, neither of our hearts are really in it, and in the end we just shrug at one another and he pops off to try to woo someone more plausibly wooable. Essentially the people whose opinions matter to politicians are the group of people who:

a) live in marginal constituencies;

b) are undecided about how to vote (and ideally are undecided between the 1st and 2nd place parties – people umming and aahing between the Greens and a friendly looking Independent are less relevant); and

c) are definitely intending to vote for someone.

In the 100 most marginal seats in Britain at the moment (based on 2010 electoral boundaries and results), the total number of votes between the 1st and 2nd place parties is just over 120000. If we keep things simple (simpler admittedly than they actually are) and just think about votes shifting from the 1st place to the 2nd place party, you only need half (plus one) of those voters to move to change the result. So that’s 60000ish voters whose intentions politicians are actually interested in. The current population of Britain is roughly 64 million, and the number eligible to vote in general elections is around 46 million. That means, in practical terms, somewhere around 0.1% of the electorate actually have the electoral clout to influence political debate and policy. Obviously that maths is massively dodgy and oversimplified but the conclusion pretty much holds. A very small section of the population actually cast votes that make a difference to the outcome of major elections, and I’m not one of them, and if you’re not one of them there is very little incentive for career politicians to care what you think. And I find that rather depressing. That is all.

In which I offer contemplative musings (and a leaflet-based points system) on how to vote

So this Thursday is election day in locations across the UK. I appreciate how some of you might have missed this exciting news nugget by doing things like living in other countries. However, here in the UK, we are in the grip of election fever. I’m sorry. That’s not right. It turns out I’m in the grip of  fever, but I’ve got antibiotics so I’ll probably be fine in a couple of days.

The local elections have, however, pretty much failed to raise an eyebrow, let alone a fever. The possible exception to this is in our esteemed capital, where they’ve managed to boil the whole business of local elections down to a simple act of trying to remember whether it’s the balding whingey one or the blond bonkers one’s turn this year.

Here, in the hotly contested political battleground of St Suburbans ward in Normal Town, we don’t have those easily identifiable political personalities to pick between. We also don’t have very much sense of what each political party stands for in local terms. A nice Labour leaflet about how the Tories are cutting tax for higher earners is all very well, but I’m not entirely clear how my choice of local ward Councillor is going to change that.

The obvious response to this problem is apathy. And I’m not going to spend too long arguing against that. I’ve never bought the notion that voting should be compulsory. That would just mean that a whole load of people who don’t know and don’t care get rounded up and shoved into polling booths. Frankly, if you’re not fussed enough to put an X on a sheet of paper without compulsion, I’m really not that bothered about you not getting your say.

However, I do think voting is important. People fought wars, threw themselves under racehorses and drafted lengthy parliamentary amendments for my right to vote, so, personally, I’m fairly commited to exercising that right.

Local elections are a conundrum though – if only someone provided a handy set of suggestions for how to select who to vote for. If only that existed in blog form, preferably in some sort of numbered list.

Well here you go. To follow this guide you will need to start by collecting all the random election leaflets off your doormat (or retrieving them from the recycling). We will be adopting a leaflet-based points system. This means that, in my case, I can disregard the Lib Dem and Green candidates straight away as they haven’t even managed to send me a leaflet. Tough break for them, but sometimes you do have to be ruthless about these things.

 

1. Candidates should be rewarded for detail

Detail is good. Detail is what makes the difference between an intention and a policy. Any sentence that starts “We would support…” or “We would like to see better…” should be viewed with suspicion. These sentences merely suggest a willingness to go along with someone else who could be bothered to do something about whatever the issue at hand might be. They don’t suggest definite actions. Look for the detail. They gain points for that.

At my house the Tory is doing surprisingly well – perhaps because he’s the sitting councillor he has more facts and figures about what he’s up to that most of the others. There’s an independent also scoring well. Labour and UKIP are poor so far.

 

2. Look for local policies

There is a tendency to view local elections as a mid-term referendum on the sitting government. This means that parties are tempted to pack their election literature with guff about national policy. Unless it’s a policy that can meaningfully be changed at a local election that’s all just leaflet space filler. Ignore it. If it pleases you, you can even put big red lines through all the stuff that local councillors have no influence over. So that’s everything to do with Income Tax, defence, the NHS, our membership of the EU and university tuition fees, gone. I should warn you, you might not have much leaflet left.

On my count – Tory and Independent are still in the lead. Labour have made a bit of a comeback. UKIP definitely trailing.

3. Be wary of lunacy

There is a certain sort of person who stands in local elections. Of course, I mean civic minded, hard working, community spirited people. There is then another sort of person who stands in local elections. The loon. With care you can spot them. I suggest starting with the punctuation and layout of the leaflet. Excessive use of exclamation marks, randomly placed capitalisation, a willingness to pop quotation marks around almost any word or phrase – all these are symptomatic of an overly excitable mind, and also of a person without a friend prepared to proofread their election leaflet. That’s the first sign.

Further evidence can be gleaned from the obligatory “About the candidate” section on the leaflet. Writing these must be hell – it’s like a personal ad designed to appeal to all ages, genders and proclivities. However, any mention of a self-consiously zany hobby should cause concern.

Don’t want to be cruel, but, from my leaflet selection, I think UKIP are definitely out of the running at this point. Sorry.

4. Oh yeah, and do you actually agree with any of the policies?

Some commentators would suggest you consider this first, but I find that thinning the leaflet pile on the criteria above makes this stage much more manageable. For me, I’m guessing this is where the Tory is going to lose ground.

 

So by my own system the candidate who wins my vote is an independent socialist called Peter. That’s a turn-up for the books. Without this, clearly deeply well thought out, process I’d probably have voted Labour or even for the leaflet-less Lib Dem, but the system doesn’t lie. Maybe Labour and Lib Dem will learn from this for next time.

So that’s me mused out for the day. Please do subscribe in one way or another if you like my occasional ramblings, and do join in the chat. How do you pick who to vote for, if you vote at all? Was it unfair of me to disregard the Green, when leaflet production really isn’t very green at all? Any improvements and amendments to The System will be considered.