It can be rational to vote. If everybody voted, it almost certainly would be pointless to. But if everyone believed that, and so no one voted, suddenly you would in effect be dictator with complete power over the result.
The reality is somewhere in between, and given the uncertainty in what everybody else thinks – and what they think everybody else thinks, and what they think everybody else thinks everybody else thinks etc – it’s probably not a terrible thing to spend twenty minutes heading down to the local church or youth club and writing a cross in a box.
I don’t think it’s a “duty”, though. Personally I think all those Emiline Pankhurst types fought and died to give me an option, not an obligation. If only Mao, Hitler and Stalin were on the ballot would you feel you had to vote then? Just out of interest who for, and how did you come up with that? Answers on a postcard, please.
But anyway, this election. It is, alas, about parties. And constitutional make up. So what are we actually talking about here?
Three (hundred and twenty one) – that’s the magic number
There are 650 seats in the House of Commons. However, four of those are the Speaker and his flunkies, who don’t vote. Another probable five are from Sinn Fein, who also don’t vote. That leaves 641, of which a majority is 321 or more, which is the number of seats any putative government must look to control. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011 actually makes this more straightforward than it has been historically. If 321 members pass a motion of no confidence in a government, it’s game over for them. When 321 members pass a motion of confidence in a government, that’s it. It’s entirely possible we get the first but not the second, in which case we’re Belgium.
So, who is going to get how many seats, and what does that mean for potential governments?
Let’s ask Celebrity Bayes’s Theorem Enthusiast Nate Silver. He’s the guy whose nerdy models (frankly, as a man with more mathematics degrees than sense I’m insulted by the idea of Bayes’s theorem as qualifying as nerdy, but anyway) correctly predicted the outcome of the electoral college in the 2012 US Presidential election. He’s been analysing the election in typically irritatingly correct American fashion based on how it is *actually* decided, rather than the comforting irrelevant national polls favoured by the British. He’s combined what little constituency polling there is available with a complex (grrr) statistical model to predict what might happen. And boy, is it close.
The first thing to note from his numbers is that he’s at least 90% certain that neither the Tories or Labour will get a majority on their own (the boxes around the dots in the table represent his 90% confidence interval), though either can in combination with the most likely kingmakers, the Liberal Democrats. The biggest change from the previous set of results is a large loss in seats for the Tories and Lib Dems, and a massive jump in support for the SNP. The Greens and Ukip are basically irrelevant. Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish Social Democratic Labour Party are more important.
Together, the Tories, Lib Dems and Ulster Unionists (who can for the sake of argument be assumed to vote in favour of confidence in the incumbent government), have 315 seats, six short of a majority. Chuck in Ukip’s seat and they are five short. That means that if Miliband could count on the members for the SNP, the SDLP and Plaid Cymru, as well as the solitary Green MP, voting for no confidence in the existing government, Cameron will be packing his bags. Miliband could do without one of the SDLP and Plaid Cymru, but not both.
I for one welcome our Celtic overlords
That’s step one. Now for the trickier vote of confidence in some government. Miliband has ruled out a coalition with the SNP. However, he would be unable to muster a majority of seats backing his government without them – if they want to force his hand, they could vote with the Tories against a motion in favour of a Miliband government. If they do so, he may be forced to go into coalition with them.
Unlike in 2010, he cannot offer their leader a job in the cabinet, as just about the one certain thing about this election is that Nicola Sturgeon will not win, as she’s not actually standing for anything. But her predecessor Alex Salmond, who is standing for the seat of Gordon, in North-East Scotland, might get something. Conceivably Deputy PM, like Clegg did. Those “scaremongering” Tory posters are looking pretty accurate now, aren’t they?
This will be accompanied by a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, by people across the political spectrum. The second most senior official of the country may be somebody who doesn’t even want the country to exist, at least in its current form. It may be that Miliband can find something to bribe them with to get them to back a Labour minority government without explicitly involving them as a literal coalition partner, possibly removing Trident, or even more devolved powers than the considerable ones the current coalition is offering. That’s my base case scenario.
The second most likely scenario is the continuation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, possibly needing the backing of the DUP, as per the above numbers. This will also piss a lot of people off, as it’s very likely that majority of voters will vote for neither of the main coalition parties, and in effect explicitly against the government.
There are other interesting scenarios. If the Liberal Democrats feel the wind is changing, they may offer Labour a deal. But since the SNP will be so powerful in large part because they will have kicked out incumbent Lib Dems, they would have a tough job convincing their supporters as to why they are getting into bed with the Evil Tory-Helping Bastards.
Then there’s the possibility that Sinn Féin wins more than its expected five seats. That would change what the needed majority is. That’s assuming they keep their pledge not to vote in Westminster. The one circumstance where they might change that stance is if they can vote with the SNP to break up the Union somehow. It’s not impossible.
But there’s one more coalition that easily gets a majority. Further, the parties concerned have almost entirely separate and non-conflicting aims. They have maybe one serious issue where they disagree. And potentially they could lock up power over their respective areas for decades to come.
It is of course a Tory-SNP coalition. The Tories have no hope in Scotland; they will lose their one seat there currently. By definition the SNP don’t care what happens in England. The two can quite safely carve up the bulk of the country into a safe majority simply by agreeing to stay out of each other’s corner. The only thing they need to do is find somewhere else to put the UK’s nuclear missiles, and they’re done. It really is the rational choice.
So at the end of the day your voting decision boils down to a very simple set of questions:
1. Are you in a safe seat, that has a reasonable chance of changing hands? If not, only vote if the giggle you get from the walk to the polling booth and the knowledge that you have incrementally affected the irrelevant popular vote statistic is worth the opportunity cost of what else you could have done with your time. This is is the position I am in. I’m looking forward to voting; it will be my first time since the 2004 US Presidential election.
2. If it is competitive, you need to take a position on whether you support the current government or not, and vote for the candidate for the party in the repsective two camps you think most likely out of them to win the seat.
A rational reasoning for supporting the current government might go as follows: you think that the cost of borrowing the additional funds on top of the 11% budget deficit inherited by the coalition in 2010 needed to fund the 3% in real terms that it has cut from spending would have been higher than the social cost of those small cuts. This may be because you think that, for instance, since the bulk of them fell on defence, the civil service, local government and the fire and police budgets and you haven’t noticed a drop in the quality of service, they were a good thing.
You think that while some of the welfare cuts have no doubt been painful, there have been good ones, such as increasing the scope of means testing and taxing underused social housing in a bid to free it up for the most needy. You think that under a Labour-led government – by their own admission they would not have cut less – if anything more of the cuts would have been visited on welfare recipients, since the party is in large part funded by the public sector unions whose members bore the brunt of the cuts.
You think that the coalition’s extension of the income tax allowance to £10,000 from £6,600 has been a massive help for the working poor and that their idea to extend it further so that minimum wage earners pay no income tax is even better. Especially since the Labour Party are planning to bring back the 10% tax band and add a percentage point to VAT, which both disproportionately hurt the working poor. You worry that a Miliband Premiership will be weak, and in hoc to selfish minority interests like the SNP, and fringe lunatics like the Greens. You think gay people deserve equal rights with straight people, for instance to marry.
Rational reasoning to vote against the government might be: you believe that interest rates were so low in 2010 that the government couldn’t possibly manage to waste extra borrowed funds, and that even cutting expenditure by 3% in real terms had such a catastrophic effect on aggregate demand that it prolonged the recession. Further, the cuts fell on totally the wrong people; welfare recipients have been squeezed far harder than was necessary. The negative effect on growth of taxing high earners was exaggerated – they could have paid more without worsening the recession.
You see the coalition’s botched attempts at restructuring benefits, provision of some NHS functions and education as indicative of a total failure to understand how best to structure the state, and worry that they will try again and make things worse.
You are a public sector worker, and believe that you add value to society greater than that which the government believes, and worry that you may lose your job. You think government is at least in part supposed to provide jobs for you and your friends. You think that as people become richer their rights decrease, and so eventually property should be confiscated and redistributed, and you believe you know at exactly what threshold doing that is optimal (since clearly you want to keep your wealth) taking into account its negative effect on the rest of available wealth.
You are very glad that the UK did not take more military action in Syria than it did, as you think it would have made it even worse than it is. While your hatred of gay people is irrational, given that you have it, it makes sense to vote against the government that brought these people the same right to marry that you have (I’m assuming you’re straight here, as a gay-bashing gay is the very definition of irrational).
So there you go. You’re welcome. So go vote! Or don’t. Up to you.