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Why I will be voting Labour on Thursday

In the style of most self-indulgent blogs, this really isn’t for your benefit, it’s for mine. The fact that I’m voting Labour will be about as much shock as the Telegraph and Mail backing the Tories. My Facebook and Twitter followers have seen plenty of “left wing propaganda” in recent weeks (hi Steve!), so I don’t think anyone was expecting me to have suddenly swung to the right. What I wanted to do was work out how I got here, and if in the meantime I can help nudge you in the right direction then that’s a bonus. Incidentally “right” doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with me; we all have to work out what is “right” for us, and that’s far from easy thanks to the depressing state of political discourse in our country caused largely by our ineffective and often feral press.

The lapsed Lib Dem

Five years ago I was a committed Liberal Democrat voter. Don’t I feel stupid now. The electoral mathematics dealt them a shocking hand which left them screwed and unpopular whatever they did. As the excellent Channel 4 docu-drama Coalition recently showed, Nick Clegg thought that securing a shot at voting reform made holding their nose worthwhile. He didn’t bank on how low the Tories and the press would sink to maintain the status quo of first past the post, which ironically now seems to be working for no one. Furthermore most of the Labour party seemed to be hell-bent on being in opposition, and the numbers didn’t stack up for a Lib/Lab coalition anyway. So the Lib/Con coalition was probably inevitable and the right thing to do.

As Clegg has often and rightly pointed out since, coalition means compromise. The Lib Dems didn’t win the election and so didn’t have the right to implement their manifesto. That’s why tuition fees couldn’t be scrapped. But here’s my problem: not implementing your manifesto is one thing, implementing the precise opposite (i.e. trebling fees) is quite another. Especially when the coalition agreement explicitly gave you the option to abstain – it wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome, but it would have felt like much less of a betrayal.

So where does that leave us? Either the original pledge to scrap fees was a lie, an impossible pipe-dream that hadn’t been thought through, or Clegg doesn’t see a problem with contradicting himself and his party. I err on the side of cock-up rather than conspiracy, but whatever the reason it leaves every Lib Dem manifesto pledge utterly worthless. And it’s not just about fees: I cannot believe that such suffering that has been inflicted on some of the most vulnerable in our society at the hands of the Lib Dems, a party I am now ashamed to have supported.

They now see themselves as the counterweight to whoever is in power. That has some appeal, since the answer so often lies somewhere between the two extremes. That leaves me broadly untroubled by them having an influence in government, but with absolutely no positive reason to vote for them. They’re like the referee – they have a job to do, but nobody pays to see them. (A sporting analogy? What the hell has happened to me?)

UKIP and the Greens: Hell no, and sorry but no

A quick word on UKIP, if we must. And the word is no. Just no. While blaming all of our woes on the EU and immigration has a simplistic appeal, it doesn’t cut it. The EU is far from perfect and changes are needed, but walking away is not the answer. I work in higher education which benefits massively from EU research funding; leaving the EU would be catastrophic for our sector. But nobody talks about that, because frankly nobody (me included) can unravel the complexity of the EU issue. That’s why I don’t want a referendum; that and the fact I think it’s a completely inappropriate issue to spend the next two years fighting over when there are far more important things for us to deal with.

Anyway, UKIP’s message is constantly, repeatedly and irrecoverably undermined by the fact that it is a party which disproportionately attracts some of the vilest sides of human nature. And (or including) Richard Desmond.

I have more time for the Greens. Their intentions are clearly in the right place, but sadly their policies are, well, a bit bonkers. 60% income tax, wealth taxes, £300bn of additional borrowing…. Most of it is either un-costed, unaffordable or simply a Robin Hood version of the politics of division which the coalition have hammered us with for the past five years. Sorry, but it’s another no.

Let’s talk about the Conservatives

How do I talk about the Tories without degenerating into a hysterical Polly Toynbee style rant? It’s really difficult, because I so profoundly disagree with their view of the world. Broadly speaking they believe that everyone should be responsible for looking after themselves and that the state, which by definition is also us, should not be expected to help out. Why should the bin man pay for the lawyer’s university education? Why should the strivers getting up for work at 6am pay for benefits for those who can’t or won’t (a distinction I’ll come back to in a moment)? Let the top of society succeed and the prosperity will trickle down to all who deserve it.

For me the different is that I want to live in a redistributive society and am intently relaxed about certain people paying in more than they get out, at least in absolute fiscal terms. I squarely put myself in that category; far too many people on the left define the “rich” as being those earning around £10k more than they do, which has given rise to the infuriating concept of the “squeezed middle”, where people on salaries well above the national average complain about being clobbered by the taxman and no longer being able to afford as many holidays. So let me be very clear: I should be paying more tax. Every year for the past five years my April pay-packet has grown as a result of tax changes; in a time of austerity when “we’re all in this together” there is no way that someone like me, on a good salary with plenty left over each month, should be paying less.

But why should I, a “striver”, pay for the “skivers”? Because, quite simply, I don’t think that I am. Of course there are some people milking the system for all it’s worth and/or living irresponsible lives that, by intention or otherwise, require the state to bail them out. They’re the people that get splashed all over the newspapers, held up as the tip of a scrounging iceberg that is dragging the country down. Of course I don’t want to support these people, and I would never oppose a genuine attempt to deal with them although it’s far from simple especially when children are involved.

I genuinely believe they are the exceptions and not the rule, something so often borne out by the statistics. What I want is a welfare system that helps those in genuine need, and somehow weeds out the true skivers. But no such perfect system exists, and so I prefer the compromise which allows a few people a free lunch if the alternative is one where the compromise is that genuine cases suffer. I wish Labour would say that, because pretending that the problem cases do not exist does them no favours.

Let’s give the Tories the benefit of the doubt; policies such as the bedroom tax, benefits sanctions, disability work assessments and compulsory work programmes can all be seen as having reasonable intentions, aimed at flushing out the skivers. But the lack of nuance in their design and implementation mean that the far bigger impact is massive distress, upheaval and even suicide or death amongst those who need and deserve the state’s support. I don’t believe that the Tories are evil; I just don’t see how their policies can be implemented without horrendous collateral damage.

The Conservatives want to lop another £12bn off the welfare bill but refuse to spell out how, ridiculously claiming that as they cut it in this parliament they can do it again. Such simplicity is either treating us with utter contempt, or they genuinely believe it in which case they have even less economic credibility than I thought.

The Tories are obsessed by the deficit. Maybe it’s just an excuse to hack away at the public sector, but again let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume not. Everyone needs to live within their means, whether it’s a household, a business or a country… but “living within their means” has different implications for each group. Businesses, big and small, are funded on a mixture of equity (shareholders) and debt; debt is not a bad thing in business, provided it is affordable and it is used to do things that are worthwhile, which in business ultimately means making money. The same applies to countries (in fact more so as they can borrow so cheaply) although the definition of “worthwhile” is less monetary. So the idea that we should be aiming for zero debt is ridiculous.

That’s not to say that the deficit is not a problem, but the question is how far and how fast should it be cut, and what is the fairest and most effective way to do that. In 2010 George Osborne claimed that austerity would be difficult, but the prize would be balanced books by 2015. Ooops. The problem is that the economy is a giant, self-feeding machine – suck money out and that withdrawal multiplies. People don’t spend, either because they have less money or less confidence because apparently we’re on the brink of turning into Greece. People buy less stuff, businesses suffer, everyone pays less tax, more people have to claim benefits, and suddenly the money you saved in spending is dwarfed. This is an excellent read on the economics of austerity – it’s worth the time, I promise.

So, Labour

The Guardian’s editorial (somewhat reluctantly) backing Labour is probably a good summation of my feelings. If I don’t want David Cameron to run the country, I therefore must want Ed Miliband to do so. He’s undoubtedly the lesser of two evils; my view of the major parties has long been that Labour have good intentions but mess it up; meanwhile the Tories are much more effective at achieving aims which I think are misguided. But I’ll take good intentions over effective destruction any day. And over the course of the campaign I have come to see a vote for Labour as a much more positive step than simply a “grin and bear it” tactical protest.

I like what Miliband has to say on inequality; I agree that the success of the economy depends on everyone being successful, not just those at the top; I like that he does and says what he thinks is right, whether that’s reaching out to the insufferable Russell Brand or refusing to disingenuously apologise for the previous Labour government’s economic policy (even if the public have swallowed the right’s contention that the deficit can be blamed solely on Labour, not on the global banking crisis which nobody saw coming even if they should have done); I agree that the EU is not the biggest problem facing our country; I think that the housing market is failing and that state intervention is necessary; I do believe in a 50p top rate of tax, even if I have to pay, at least until the deficit is brought down and the economy is stable.

What I don’t care about is Ed Miliband being “a bit weird”, looking daft eating a bacon sandwich, stumbling off a ridiculously shaped stage on Question Time, or that he ran against his brother for the leadership of his party. I don’t care that he was backed by the trade unions, provided that they’re backing him because they agree with his policies and not because he will compromise his principles to bend to their will. People complain about politicians being style over substance, then ridicule one who lacks style. The other day a caller on a radio phone-in said she believed in Labour values but couldn’t bring herself to vote for him. What a sad and ridiculous state of affairs.

Miliband’s personality problem is stoked up by the press, which seems to have sunk to lower levels than ever before in this election. The Mail and the Express always print crap, so no shock there, but the Telegraph really have destroyed their credibility as a quality right wing broadsheet, most notably with the discredited letter from “500 small business owners” which turned out to be almost anything but. Meanwhile The Times has printed a page 24 correction quietly acknowledging that its hysterical page 1 claims on Labour were basically rubbish.

The other factor that has got the press frothing at the mouth is the prospect of the SNP being involved in Westminster politics and wanting to have some influence. How dare they?! What right do they have to stick their oar in? Oh hang on, they’ve got 50-odd seats? The people of Scotland democratically said that they wanted to be represented by the SNP? And no other party won enough support to be able to govern on their own? Maybe they’ve got a point.

I don’t agree with the SNP on many things, not least the fact that I want Scotland to remain part of the UK – although who could blame them for wanting to leave when we tell them that their elected representatives are dangerous and should be locked out of Westminster. And after we promised them all sorts of powers for voting no to independence only to literally the next day turn it into an issue of English nationalism. Come to think of it, maybe Scotland should leave the UK. As long as I can emigrate there.

The fact is we’re heading for a hung parliament and it’s up to MPs of all colours to decide who’s Queen’s speech they will back. That’s how our system works… it’s not about the most seats or votes, it’s about the confidence of the House of Commons, which is needed for stable government. Labour have (I think short-sightedly) allowed themselves to be bullied out of working with the SNP, but when push comes to shove I’m sure that Nicola Sturgeon will back a Labour Queen’s speech at which point the Tories and the press will declare that Labour are squatting in Downing Street. It’s going to be ugly, at least in the papers, but less ugly than another five years of Conservatism which, ironically, would almost certainly see me personally being better off, just living a country that I am increasingly ashamed of and depressed by.

A final (semi-positive) note on conviction

Credit where credit is due: thanks to this government we now have equal marriage, and one day, if I can find someone stupid enough, I could have a husband. It was a policy that David Cameron did not need to force through, and one which greatly damaged his standing with elements of his party, pushed some supporters towards UKIP and probably hasn’t attracted many new Tory voters. But he believed it was right and important, and so he did it anyway.

Politicians of all colours should learn from such conviction; dare I say that much as I disagree with Nigel Farage, at least I know exactly what he stands for . If they would all clearly state and stand up for what they believe in, and credit the electorate with an average level of intelligence rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator, we might get back to a position where politicians command some respect and political discourse can be scraped from the gutter. And that will be better for us all, whatever our political leanings.

Happy voting everybody. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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