It probably hasn't escaped your attention that we're going through a general election campaign here — and it's the most fascinatingly unpredictable one in a third of a century. British election campaigns are fast and furious; rather than happening on a regular cycle, an election is called at some point within five years of the previous one — either at the discretion of the prime minister, or in event of the House of Commons voting a motion of No Confidence in the government. The campaign then runs from start to finish in less than ten weeks. It's a sprint, rather than the year-long marathon that is a US presidential election campaign, and in the case of the current campaign there's a lot of drama and day-by-day surprises.
I'm currently sticking my fingers in my ears (at least metaphorically) because I've already voted. I applied for a postal vote a couple of months before the election, knowing I'd probably be away when the election was called; consequently I'm locked in now, unable to change my mind. Here, in case you're interested, is a discussion of who I voted for, and why.
For the past twenty years or so I've been a consistent Liberal Democrat voter, only considering alternatives if there was some reason to vote tactically. (I currently have the luxury of voting my conscience; I live in a Labour/LibDem marginal, with the Conservatives so far behind that they're in danger of losing their deposit.) This is not a matter of tribal loyalty, however. I've met (and lobbied) my MP, Mark Lazarowicz. He's an intelligent, conscientious, hard-working constituency MP; I am not comfortable about voting against him, and if I was voting for the person rather than the party I might well have abstained or voted for him on the basis of his strong local interest. Alas, he's a Labour MP. And I really want to see Labour banished from power or reined in by a minority coalition partner.
The first election I was eligible to vote in was the 1983 general election, and I came of political age under Thatcher. The experience has left me with a permanent aversion to the Conservative party, whose centralizing instincts, polarizing disdain for opposition, instinct for class warfare, bigotry, xenophobia and homophobia were a stain on the politics of the 1980s and 1990s. I have no great aversion to the conservative political philosophy of Edmund Burke, but the praxis of his latter-day inheritors gave us a range of happy fun experiences including mass unemployment, Section 28 (of the 1988 Local Government Act), the Brixton riots, the Miners' strike, the Poll tax and subsequent tax rebellion, the Westminster bribes scandal, and ... well, I think I'm going to stop there and lie down for a while. Thatcher's ideology was a stalking horse for bigotry, intolerance, and xenophobia — and a clampdown on civil rights exemplified by initiatives such as the Criminal Justice Act (1994).
(David Cameron, to his credit, appears to be making a sincere attempt to modernize his party and distance himself from the outrages of the past — and his avowed commitment to civil liberties is very welcome indeed. However, you don't have to look far to find that the changes are very far from being a done deal; the otherwise-admirable near-total autonomy exercised by Conservative Party constituency organizations acts as a strong brake on centrally-guided attempts to reform the party.)
The Labour party ... I didn't vote for them in 1997 or subsequently, although I did rejoice in 1997 when Tony Blair replaced John Major in 10 Downing Street. It didn't take long for disillusionment to set in, and today I'm barely more likely to vote Labour than I am to vote Conservative. Labour under the Blair/Brown axis — and for all the press magnification of their differences, there's vanishingly little room between them — have proven to be dull authoritarian managerialists with a fetish for top-down micromanagement and a total lack of commitment to human rights and basic freedoms. The roots of New Labour are to Stalinism as the American Neoconservatives are to Trotskyism; they've managed to create an average of one new criminal offense per day of parliamentary time since 1997 (over 3500 according to some measures), and seem thoroughly committed to creating a surveillance society that would be the wet-dream of any secret policeman. Perhaps luckily, they're incompetent at managing large-scale IT programs (a vital core competency in modern government), and seem to be as deeply in thrall to large corporate interests as the Conservatives before them. They've also, in the past 15 years, committed a huge political sin by casting their original base adrift; once the party representing the working class, they're now just as much a centre-right managerialist party as the Conservatives. Which leaves their traditional base with a sense of aggrieved abandonment, and largely accounts for the alarming growth of the BNP on the margins of British politics.
I happen to believe that on economic matters, any British government, regardless of ideology, will face the same constraints: we're locked into a transnational free trade framework, not to mention a pan-European regulatory and legislative framework. Whoever wins this election will face the same budget deficit, the same currency/exchange rate issues, the same challenge of maintaining a private sector economy that has been excessively biased towards the financial sector since the mid-1980s, while maintaining core services (including healthcare and infrastructure).
However, the big political-philosophical question hanging over the 21st century is how we, as a society, are going to deal with having complete access to information about everything and everyone under our noses at all times. This is a social consequence of the technological changes now unfolding, but it has barely begun to impinge upon our politics at a national policy level. The problems of maintaining privacy and human autonomy while living in a panopticon are very real, and the risks of getting it wrong are enormous. While I am sure the Labour cabinet have only the best of intentions in mind in commissioning systems like the NDNAD, NIR and ContactPoint, such databases would be among the most potent tools of social oppression ever created if power passed into the hands of a malevolent administration. While both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives seem to be at least partially aware of the concerns for citizens' rights that sustain organizations such as No2ID, The Open Rights Group, and Liberty, the Labour Party is not so much hard of hearing as profoundly deaf.
Which brings me to the Liberal Democrats.
As it happens, I don't agree with all the items in the Liberal Democrats' manifesto. (In particular, I think their position on nuclear power — no new construction is dangerously wrong-headed. George Monbiot seems to agree. Indeed, nuclear power appears to be turning into a litmus test among environmentalists — one that runs between pragmatists, who're willing to consider it with appropriate safeguards, and doctrinaire ideologues, for whom it still bears cold-war cooties. But I digress ...) There are other issues I don't see eye-to-eye with party policy on. I am not, therefore, willing to actually commit myself to them and campaign on their behalf.
However, I think that overall they're probably less wrong than either the Conservatives or Labour. They appear to be more flexible and pragmatic, and much more deeply committed to civil liberties and decentralization and reform of political power than the other major parties. They're committed to abolishing the National Identity Register (which alone would be enough to capture my vote for an election), and more importantly, their party framework is based on a value system I understand.
In my more cynical moments, I suspect that I can only support them enthusiastically because they haven't had a chance to disappoint me yet. Doubtless, if a miracle were to happen and they were to form a majority government, they'd disillusion and disappoint me in short order: that's inevitable in politics (as Barack Obama's progressive supporters in the USA have discovered). But I know that either a conservative or a labour government will offend my precious socially libertarian sensibilities; there's an outside chance that a Liberal Democrat government wouldn't do so, or at least would do so less often and less severely.
And most importantly, a strong Liberal Democrat showing will prevent either Labour or Conservatives from forming a strong majority government and implementing an ideologically driven program without regard for public opinion. I'd like to see electoral reform. I'd like to see a rollback of the database state, and more respect for civil liberties. I'd like to see less centralization of state power. A Labour or Conservative government in which the Liberal Democrats are a coalition partner is likely to have to act on some of these issues in order to buy their support.
Anyway, that hopefully explains why I voted Liberal Democrat.
I'm not going to advise you to follow my example. You've doubtless got your own political priorities, and they're probably different from mine. Its okay to disagree; human beings aren't identical cut-outs, and it's perfectly possible for sensible, well-informed, intelligent people to reach radically different conclusions on the basis of the same information — especially on matters of politics, which tend to depend on deeply held personal values.
But if you're voting in this election, I would like you to read not only the main party manifestos, but also to look at the party's backgrounds and the philosophical values that inform them: and then to question your own values, and look a little deeper into the matter than simply asking whether you like Gordon Brown's face or David Cameron's wife. It's okay to vote against people you wouldn't mind sharing a bottle of wine with if you think their policies are short-sighted. The political is not personal on this scale, whatever the tabloid newspapers would like you to think.