Saturday, 19 April 2014

How to vote

There's an election looming in much of England (and across Europe) and maybe also near you: if you're not sure which party to support, websites such as VoteMatch and Vote For Policies will help you decide. They ask you questions about policies then show which party best matches your view - bosh, vote for that party, job done. 

Much better than those fools who always vote for the same party without checking their latest plans for transport, farm subsidies and flood defences. Or is it?

I used to think that researching policies made sense, but as I've studied politics I've changed my mind - I now think that voting habitually for a party can be quite a sensible approach and probably beats densely scrutinising the latest policies. Let me explain.

Parties go into elections with policies that they intend to pursue, but once in government they will prioritise some over others, they will be forced to react to events, and even when different parties' stated policies are similar, the results will probably be different. That's because (and this is the key point) the people in the different parties are not the same: they have different values and they will try pull the country in different directions. There is some overlap, but if you really think they're all the same then you're not paying attention.

In a representative democracy we don't elect a delegate to go forth and do our bidding, but a representative who debates, scrutinises, and uses their own judgement on our behalf. So as a voter, the most important job is to weigh up their judgement and values. What sort of judgement do they have? What are their values and priorities? What kind of person are they? When events throw up choices, what are they likely to choose?

This is why you should look past party policy and try to elect someone based on their values and judgement.

Parties' current policies are based on their values of course, but they're also based on what they think you want to hear. For instance, the eurozone economy is not going well so fans of Britain joining it are lying low, but they are still out there* so you can find them if you look at party values not policy.

By focussing on values not policies, you can see past the latest political fashion, you cut through a lot of the poll-driven political campaigning that tends to make the parties seem similar, and you give yourself a decent shot at electing someone with your values.

You could spend a lot of time studying your local candidates, and if you're willing to investigate their record and listen to them speak at hustings that's a good approach. But that will take a lot of time and effort. Instead, you can use the party they've been chosen to represent as a useful rule of thumb for the kind of person they are and the values they hold. 

If you've already considered your own values and decided that they most closely match a particular party, you can then save yourself a lot of time by simply voting for the candidate from that party whenever there's an election. I suspect that doing that is more reliable than digging through policies or using those "policy match" websites.

You could occasionally check whether your own values have changed or whether the main parties have shifted, but perhaps once per decade or so is plenty often enough. Then cast your vote and get on with your life.

* Hint: "We're the party of in" is the Lib Dems' coded declaration of support for Britain joining the euro, even though they'll tell you that signing up is not currently their policy.