Nerves in the polling booth: why I love voting

Posted: May 7, 2015 in politics and ideas
Tags: , , , ,

Kevin Bridges had a great joke during the indyref, where he imagined parents fretting about their kids indulging in ‘underage voting’.

I was up for a bit of that. I couldn’t wait to vote, and I have loved election day ever since.

I was sitting my Standard Grades in 1997 when Blair won. I had to get up early for an Art and Design exam the morning after the election so I couldn’t even stay up for the exit poll, far less the Portillo moment. I was desperate to vote Labour that year, and begged my mum to let me use her vote. In the end it was clear that it was being cast for the same candidate either way, so I eventually let that one go.

It was the same for the devolution referendum later that year: emotional pleading with my parents followed by the realisation that we were all in agreement on the need for a Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers.

Maybe my parents had more political savvy than I had realised…

But it was the 1999 Scottish Parliament election that really got to me. I was 17 and a half and about to start a Politics degree. You can probably imagine how annoying I was in those days – even worse than I am now.

I somehow convinced myself that the whole country should support something called the Humanist Party. I set about persuading my mum to give them her second vote.

“Yes son, of course I voted for the Humanist Party, cough cough…”

Thank goodness for the secret ballot, eh?

***

I love the ritual of voting. I’m not opposed to introducing some measure of online voting, but I would be sorry if we ever abandoned the present format entirely. The walk to the polling station is the very essence of a General Election, for me. I always feel strangely nervous on the way there. Upon arrival I have to stop myself from asking the polling clerks loads of inane questions about the turnout. In the polling booth I get even more nervous, panicking that I’m going to accidentally support the BNP candidate or something. And afterwards I always feel ecstatically happy, and wish I could do it all again.

***

My sympathies on election day are with the polling clerks. I served as a polling clerk for the 2005 General Election, and it was the longest day of my life. I was paired with a remarkably unfriendly council worker who made no attempt at conversation at any stage in the fifteen hours the polls were open. We barely saw a voter between 9am and 5pm. It was a tough billing, alleviated only by the sudden appearance at our table of a very, very well-known Scottish author. That’s the way to meet your heroes – find out where they live and persuade the local authority to give you a polling clerk gig in their ward. I’m not sure the fifteen hours of silence and boredom are worth it for a moment with David Beckham, but each to their own.

***

The only time my vote has ‘mattered’, in the sense of being in any way decisive, was in the 2003 and 2007 Scottish elections when my SSP and then Green second votes contributed to the election of list MSPs. Every other vote has been cast in the certain knowledge of the constituency outcome.

But not this year. I live in Glasgow South and the SNP candidate is expected to take the seat on a huge swing from Labour. However the circumstances of this election are such that all votes count in a way that they usually don’t.

It looks likely that the Conservatives will win the most seats in the Commons, but be some way off a majority. And unless something surprising happens with the Lib Dems, it seems as though Miliband will be more likely to command the confidence of the House, in plausibly-deniable league with other, smaller parties. Now, there is much talk of legitimacy in the press, and dark warnings that Cameron will seek to cling to Number 10 even if he can’t command confidence. But imagine if the Tories win the most seats, and the most popular votes, but without being able to win a confidence motion. And imagine Labour have fewer seats and fewer overall votes, yet Miliband can win a confidence motion. Is the electorate ready for that? Really? And should it be?

In my view, the safest of the likely outcomes from this election will be the Tories winning the most seats, and Labour winning the most votes. Even though neither seats nor overall votes matter in terms of the letter of the electoral law, the spirit of parliamentary legitimacy surely requires some level of popular mandate. As such, if both of the major parties have something going for them – either a plurality of seats or a plurality of votes – then they can each begin negotiations with other parties on the basis of some degree of perceived legitimacy. After that it’s down to realpolitik, and we will end up with a government that the electorate can accept, however reluctantly.

That’s why Labour supporters facing a near-wipeout across Scotland should still turn out to vote. Every Labour vote strengthens Miliband ahead of the parliamentary arm-wrestling to come – and makes it more likely that we preserve some degree of good faith on both sides of the House. If Cameron has the most seats and the most votes, but can’t do anything in Parliament, there will be a legitimacy crisis. And just because you would expect the right wing press to howl with outrage, they’d still have a case.

***

I’ve never thought harder about any election than I have about this one. This is also the first election campaign during which I’ve changed my mind about how to vote. Here I am, 33 years old and a first-time floating voter – albeit one who refuses to vote on the basis of my nationality.

Tonight, my polling booth nerves will be worse than ever.

Oh, and in a curious echo of 1997, I’m on an interview panel tomorrow morning so I won’t be able to stay up for the results.

I’ll get myself organised for the re-run in October…

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