Some time ago I decided to stop following the news on the grounds that I would be better informed if I didn’t. This has worked very well and now even though I have only the vaguest notion of what is going on I feel I have a better grip on current affairs than I did when I was a news junkie.
But despite this, some things drift into my consciousness. For example I gather that the nihilistic dandy Russell Brand has been advocating that people shouldn’t vote. This initially shocked me a little, because I have always regarded voting as a civic duty. I always deliberate carefully on which candidate I should support. I am basically a socialist and so generally vote for the Labour party. But I have voted for all three parties at various times, and have cast votes for the Greens as well.
Have I been wasting my time?
My political viewpoint has not changed much over the years. I support a mixed economy where I expect the government to have an overall plan for where we are going and what sort of society we should become. But I don’t believe in excessive state intervention in the economy, particularly at the small scale. That seems best left to competition and the free market. Growing up in the seventies these views were extremely moderate. But since then the political centre of gravity has drifted way to the right. I now find myself, without even trying, to be moderately extreme.
So it looks like the war of ideas is more decisive than the war for votes. The Conservative party over the last 40 years has had a respectable track record at pulling in the punters, but a far from spectacular one. Labour’s showing has been patchier, but has had enough highs to offset the lows. But conservative ideas, in particular neoliberal ones, have made all the running. Today if you suggest the monopolistic prices charged by privatised energy companies should be capped you risk being accused of being Stalin.
So given that the agenda has been shifted, does it make any difference if you vote or not? I guess Mr Brand is right. As no party is presenting what I want to vote for any more, maybe it is time to stay at home. Now more than ever all politicians seem to be the same type of Oxbridge graduate who all went to the same lectures and picked up the same basic ideas. It is perhaps obvious they are all selling the same basic sausage. The only grounds for choosing between them would seem to be economic competence. It has always seemed to me that Labour has generally done a better job of running the shop than the Tories. But is this assumption actually true? I had never really looked at the numbers.
This seemed like a daunting task. I would have to dig out a pile of economic data and plot some graphs. But luckily it turned out somebody had already put exactly what I wanted on Wikipedia. And here it is.
Comparing per capita income in the four big economies of western Europe since 1970 was exactly what I needed. What does it show? Basically I wasn’t too far off, though I think I have exaggerated in my mind some of the events my life has been a witness to. Just as I remember it, the early Thatcher government was an unmitigated disaster – the biggest disaster in the UK’s post 1945 economic history. My perception of her government as uniquely incompetent is born out by the numbers. As was obvious from trips abroad at the time, we were getting poorer while comparable countries were doing fine. By comparison the much maligned 1970s appear much as I remember them. Everyone was getting steadily better off despite all the doom and gloom in the papers.
The other big event was the notorious events surrounding the pound’s unedifying expulsion from the exchange rate mechanism. This time, although Britain came off worse there was an effect in our peers as well. While the ERM recession was similar in scale to the Thatcher one, it at least wasn’t entirely home grown. Since then the economy, largely but not exclusively under Labour, has done pretty well until the international credit crisis of 2008. And although this crisis certainly started while Labour were in power, it was no worse here than anywhere else and was obviously not a UK only phenomena as the Thatcher recession had been.
So, overall, it seems like voting is not a complete waste of time. An exceptionally bad prime minister like Thatcher can do a lot of damage, and it is worth turning out to avoid another one. But the converse does not seem to be true. There is no sign of any politician, British, French, German or Italian who can give a sustained boost to the economy over which they preside.
So I am going to carry on voting. I will also carry on supporting Labour, but with the caveat that they need to look competent. I don’t see anything about the Labour party that makes it impossible for them to select an individual as harmful as Thatcher. I will continue to hold a grudge against the Tories for not getting rid of Thatcher quickly enough for my liking- though I haven’t forgotten that they did ditch her in the end. I still don’t like them, but they will do at a pinch if there really is no alternative. If you took Thatcher out of their data set their track record would be roughly the same as Labour’s.
But I have switched my idea of a civic duty from turning out to cast my vote. Trying to get the agenda back to more social responsibility seems like the thing a good citizen should be doing to me now. Thanks to Russell Brand for helping me achieve some clarity.