The UK General Election is here at last. Thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we’ve had plenty of time to prepare. Years of informal campaigning have provided us with numerous opportunities to assess the character and aspirations of each of the parties. Yet with just a few hours left, plenty of people are still “undecided”. Why? Is it so hard to choose?
Well, yes, and so it should be. Choosing a government in a representative democracy means choosing where railways will be built, which schools will be renovated, what environmental laws will be passed, who will be Minister for Skills and Equalities, when analogue radio signals will be switched off, and a thousand other non-trivial issues. A responsible voter might perhaps feel obligated to study the different parties’ various positions on all these issues, weight them for importance, and then calculate a net score that revealed which party most deserved their vote.
Of course, this is deeply unrealistic. For some voters, the choice really might come down to nothing more substantial than which school a party leader attended, or whether their teeth “look funny”. Despite all the time we’ve had to consider our options, despite the wealth of information and commentary available, despite the deadly seriousness of a national election, we humans seem largely incapable of basing this vital decision on more than a handful of factors. Politicians know this and they exacerbate the problem by feeding us binary choices:
Only two people can be prime minister – do you really want to let Ed Miliband into Downing Street?
There’s only one party that can control immigration, because only one party wants to leave the EU.
A vote for the SNP is a vote to keep David Cameron in Number 10.
It’s a choice between a proven long-term economic plan or more chaos from the party that gave us the financial crisis.
The Tories want to privatise the NHS; Labour will protect it.
Only a strong Liberal Democrat coalition partner can restrain a spendthrift Labour government or a brutal Tory government.
Only one party is able to deliver a referendum on Europe.
Let Labour into power, propped up by the SNP, and the security and integrity of the United Kingdom is in jeopardy.
These are the kinds of arguments political parties deploy most of the time. They know that our short attention spans, our impatient media and our culture of cynicism make more reasoned, complex and nuanced debate ineffective. So although we will be voting on a many-hued constellation of different issues, events and personalities, our political realities have been whittled down to the banal and simplistic choice between black and white.
Or possibly white and black.
Depending on which school you went to.