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Monday, December 9, 2019

How to think about politics #3 - who should you vote for?

This is posted four days before the 2019 UK General Election. 

In the end, all elections boil down to one question; one question which we all need to think about and we all need to answer; one question which, answered millions of times over, determines our future; one question which matters more than any other.

Who should you vote for?

How should you answer that question? Even if you’re not yet of voting age, it is worth thinking about, as one day you will be.

There are actually many different ways of answering the question - and I’m not talking here about the different parties and candidates on offer. I’m talking about different reasons for making your choice. You can debate which is the most important reason (and at the end of this post there are debate motions to help you make that choice).

So, who should you vote for? Here are some different ways of making up your mind.


1. Vote for the person

This is, technically, what everyone does under the UK system. When you get your poll card you will see it refers to ‘Election of a Member of Parliament for the [name] constituency.’ You are voting for a person to represent where you live in Parliament. This is actually how Parliament started out, back in the eighteenth century, as a group of individuals (albeit all male, and all of a certain class); it was only later that they started to group into parties.

Nowadays, most candidates represent one party or another, and the name of this party will be printed on the ballot paper. However, some still stand as individuals, sometimes protesting about a particular local issue (for example a hospital closure), or in rebellion against their party if they have been expelled from it / have resigned from it (for example the Conservatives who were expelled from the party by Boris Johnson for voting against his Brexit legislation). 

This election of an individual is often held up as one of the advantages of the single member constituency system that operates in the UK. There is one identifiable person who represents your interests. A disadvantage, though, is that a lot of people (in some constituencies most people) will not have voted for that person. 

It is certainly the case that the personal merits or otherwise of an MP or candidate can, and perhaps should, be a factor. Some people will vote for a candidate whose party they dislike because she / he is ‘a good MP’. An MP who takes a genuine interest in their constituency and lobbies on its behalf to the people in power can be a real boon; one who is lazy or corrupt leaves the area unprotected. Good MPs also do a lot of unnoticed, unsung work under the radar for individuals in need. The character of the person who would represent you in Parliament is an important consideration.

2. Vote for the leader

This is more common, and how elections are mostly framed; who do you want to be the next Prime Minister? 

Unlike (for example) France or the US where there is a direct vote to elect the President, we don’t in fact elect our Prime Minister. We elect our MPs, who usually belong to parties. The leader of the largest party in the House of Commons is then asked by the Queen (not by us) to become Prime Minister. So we only elect the Prime Minister indirectly.

None the less, the character and qualifications of the leaders of the parties most likely to form the government is important. That person will be making decisions which will determine our future, so it is worth looking at them, their integrity, their skill at making decisions, their strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

3. Vote for the party

There was a time, in the mid twentieth century, when political parties were virtually hereditary. If you were middle class, you were Conservative. If you were working class, you were Labour. If you were middle class and you were looking for a husband or a wife, you joined the Young Conservatives. If you were working class and you wanted a drink, you went to the Labour Club. You got the occasional middle class professional who felt guilty about their privileges who voted Labour, and the occasional working class person who wanted to better themselves who voted Conservative, but they were outliers. 

These days it is all much more fluid, and people are more likely to see political parties as being like supermarkets or broadband providers; they are happy to shop around for the best deal, switching between the different options freely. 

That said, there is still a strong sense of identity around being the kind of person who votes Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat etc. You may feel (and feeling is more important than is usually acknowledged in politics) that you are that kind of person, that this is your tribe and you want to identify with it. 

There is another factor. The quality of the government that is formed after an election will be determined as much by the quality of the party that forms it as by its leader. Parties have characters as much as leaders, and these are worth considering. So, for example, there are many members of the British Jewish community who are strongly in favour of Labour policies, but cannot bring themselves to vote Labour because of what they perceive as an anti-semitic culture in the party; some British Muslims feel the same way about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.

4. Vote for the policies

This is the conscientious option. If you are a really dedicated citizen, you will trawl meticulously through the manifestos, the publications which say what a party would do if it was returned to power, weighing up the pros and cons of this policy against that policy. If you have less time (or inclination) you can look at a summary like this one from the BBC, or use  an app which asks you questions and then matches you to the party closest to your views like this one

It seems the most rational approach. After all, politicians are elected to govern, and governing means doing things - so what would they actually do? And which is / are the best thing(s) to do? 

There are complications, though. No government fulfils 100% of its manifesto. The proposed actions may prove impractical; events may interfere; the government may change its mind; it may decide a particular policy is not a priority. A manifesto is not a legally enforceable document like a contract in a business deal. So then questions of character, about the leader or the candidate or the party, come back into play.

5. Vote tactically

In theory, you vote for the party you want to win. But the electoral system in the UK, whereby we vote in constituencies to elect an MP, makes it more complicated. If you live in a strongly Conservative constituency and support Labour, there is almost no chance of a Labour candidate being elected; so voting Labour will be a waste of time, and will only make it more likely that the Conservative candidate will beat his or her nearer rival, for example the Liberal Democrats, thereby making a Conservative government more likely. The same applies in reverse if you live in a strongly Labour constituency and support the Conservatives.

This situation leads many people to vote tactically. It means not voting for the party or candidate they most favour, but in a way that is most likely to lead to the outcome they want: for example, avoiding a Conservative government; avoiding a Labour government; stopping Brexit; ensuring Brexit happens. So, for example, a Labour supporter might vote for the Liberal Democrats to ‘keep the Tories out’, a Conservative supporter might do the same to ‘keep Labour out’. In the current election, where (at the time of writing) the most likely outcomes seem to be either a majority Conservative government which will deliver Brexit, or a hung parliament which may run a second referendum, many people are voting tactically on Brexit, rather than for the party whose polices they most support: Conservative if they want Brexit, whoever is most likely to beat the Conservatives in their constituency if they want to stop Brexit. There are websites such as this one where you can ‘swop’ your vote with someone in another constituency to maximise its value.

Tactical voting can require some complicated calculations and quite a bit of second guessing. Some people think it is a bit sneaky and dishonest, a kind of lying, and that you should say what you really think with your vote. Other people say it is simply common sense. It can be used as a powerful argument for the need to change the voting system to one where all votes count equally.

6. Vote with your conscience

You might just want to do what is right.

For some people, this will mean prioritising a particular issue which is important to them. So a devout Catholic might refuse to vote for anyone who supported abortion; another voter might refuse to vote for candidates who have not unequivocally supported gay rights. 

Or, you could interpret this more widely, and calculate which outcome to the election would do the most good to the most people, and cast your vote in a way that is most likely to achieve that outcome. This may require some guesswork and some compromise.

7. Vote for yourself 

Alternatively, you could be totally selfish.

You could calculate which outcome to the election is most likely to benefit you personally, financially or otherwise, and cast your vote in a way that is most likely to achieve that outcome. This too will require guesswork.




I’ve given you some advice on how to think about who to vote for.

I’m not going to tell you who to vote for in the UK General Election on December 12th, 2019.

I will tell you this, though. If you can vote, vote. It makes a difference.




Possible motions to go with this post:

1. This house would abolish political parties.
2. This house would introduce multi-member constituencies.
3. This house would vote tactically.
4. This house would introduce proportional representation.
5. This house would make voting compulsory.
6. This house would vote Labour / Conservative / Liberal Democrat etc. 

7. This house would introduce annual elections.
8. This house would make election manifestos legally binding.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Tricks of the trade #2 - Chiasmus, Dialysis and Enargia

Three more rhetorical devices this week, to add spice to your speeches ...

Chiasmus (balancing two inverted clauses)

A more sophisticated form of antithesis, in which you repeat a clause while reversing its terms, making it clear by the contrast, as in antithesis, that your version is better than your opponents’. Probably the most famous example is from President Kennedy’s inauguration speech in 1961: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ So, for example, in a debate on banning homophobic speech, you could say (for the opposition): ‘Let us not seek to protect tolerance through the practice of intolerance; rather, let us fight intolerance through the practice of tolerance.’

Dialysis (setting out two equally unacceptable alternatives)

This device seeks to show that whatever follows from your opponent’s proposal, it will not be good, by giving two possible outcomes, both of which are bad. For example: ‘If we make homophobic speech illegal, either homophobes will continue to abuse gay people openly, presenting themselves as martyrs for free speech, or they will do so anonymously on social media, with even greater venom; either way, homophobia will thrive.’

Enargia (painting a picture)


This is when you describe a place or situation, either imagined or real, so vividly that the audience can see it. It can be very emotionally powerful. For example, arguing for making homophobic speech illegal: ‘Harry comes home, goes up to his bedroom, and switches on his phone. On it are forty-seven messages, each one insulting him for being gay. He looks out of the window. He can see his brother playing football in the garden with a gang of other boys. He can hear his sister in the next room laughing on the phone to her best friend. They have friends, they are happy, but everyone hates Harry, because he is gay. Tears come into his eyes. He picks up his old, battered teddy bear, whose ear is nearly falling off, and clutches it to him for comfort. The phone beeps. He knows it will be another abusive message, but still he reaches for the phone, his hand shaking …’