How to Vote?

After over a dozen years living in the United Kingdom, I took the sober decision to become a British subject (a photograph of the queen witnessed the concluding ceremony of the process) as well as an American citizen.

My main motivation was the hope that dual citizenship will give me the right to continue to live in either country in the future with my now-extensive network of friends and family both sides of the Atlantic, no matter the vagaries of international relations or how immigration law might change.

Yet another important outcome of my decision is that I now have the right to vote for those who govern the society where I live, work and am raising my children. In just two weeks, I will vote for the first time this side of the pond. (Actually the second time, but few would look at the decidedly minimalist European elections last May as significant, so I’ll count that as merely a practice round.)

So here’s my question, how do I vote?

I don’t mean the mechanics of it. Surely it’s simpler than in America, where there were weeks of debate about hanging chads in 2000, when no one knew what a chad was in the first place. (As opposed to Chad, which I do know is a country in Africa.)

Nor do I mean simply who do I vote for. Rather, how do I know I am voting for the governance I want when my individual vote, even if successful, i.e. whoever I decide to vote for is actually elected, seems to have such an indirect relationship to what happens in Government.

I wrote a blog back in October that highlighted how surprised I was to discover over time the true extent of centralised tax and spend powers in the UK compared to how such things operate in the USA: I find myself similarly baffled by the electoral system here, that is both parliamentary and first-past-the-post.

There is plenty of party politics in the States, but when I vote, I vote for people, not party. The variation within parties can be vast, making any expectations of ‘towing the party line’ much less certain. Therefore, I have sometimes voted for candidates from two different political parties on the same ballot but running for different offices, because they are more compromising than an extreme candidate from either party who may be the only other choice. I have also at times voted tactically for people representing different political parties because I wanted different parts or influences of Government to balance (or cancel) each other out. Sometimes it simply makes the most sense to vote for someone with the most ability and desire to represent the more particular interests of their local constituency, no matter their party allegiance. All these choices about how to vote are possible because the link between your vote and the politician elected (or not) is a direct one.

Yet in Britain, the connections are, if not more tenuous, then certainly more circuitous. Here, each returned MP is not only an elected representative in themselves, but also an indirect vote for their leader to become prime minister. Here, I’m supposed to align my views with manifestos, no matter what I think of the candidate I’m offered or whether they are likely to be good for the local constituency. (In fact, some MPs represent places where they have never lived previously.) Meanwhile, as a coalition or a minority administration is likely this time around, I know I won’t actually get the manifesto I vote for no matter which party wins the most seats. And yet, neither is there any proportional representation, so a protest vote for a smaller party might well be a vote wasted.

I know what my views on various policies are and I know I live in a safe Tory seat, so what are my tactics? How do I vote? Well, I don’t actually have an answer to that yet. Maybe I’ll take the lead from my nearest and dearest and wait until I’m at the polls to decide. Don’t they explain ‘how to vote’ on little signs when you get there?

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