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The UK election will be messy, but for the first time I feel like my vote counts

A pedestrian passes street art depicting Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
Reuters/Toby Melville
A taste of real democracy?
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Britain’s election season is grinding towards its grand finale on May 7th, and the Malcolm X Centre, an inner-city community hall in Bristol in the southwest of England, was packed on a recent Monday night. The four main contenders for this constituency’s seat in parliament were attending a hustings, a staple of British electoral politics in which candidates take questions in front of an audience, town hall-style.  

A mural on the wall above the podium depicted Malcolm X and other civil rights activists set in a map of Africa and a huge, green eye. As the incumbent Liberal Democrat member of parliament and three of his rivals from the Conservative, Green and Labour parties began answering questions, the audience became rowdy. There were heckles, interruptions, and long impassioned questions that often met with loud applause. Eventually the meeting, which had run over time, ended abruptly after someone packed a hand-dryer with toilet paper and turned it on, causing a small fire in the restroom and the building’s evacuation.

The candidates agreed that the meeting was more volatile than usual, and they’re in a good position to judge: They’ve been attending live debates night after night for weeks. Bristol West is a swing seat, one of many nationwide that could change hands in this election. Polls can’t say if it will fall to the incumbent Lib Dems, to Labour, or to the Greens. (Yes, this is one of the seats the party could conceivably win this year.)

It’s all so different this election

Throughout my voting life, I’ve known two things. First, exercising the right to vote was important. And second, since I’ve always lived in “safe” seats, that my vote almost certainly wouldn’t affect the outcome of any general election. Many people in the UK will recognize the peculiar impotence of effective disenfranchisement. Bristol South, just across the river Avon, has been won by Labour at every election since 1929.

Now I live in a place that could swing one of three ways. And it’s far from the only place that’s happening. Traditional voting blocs are fragmenting, and the population is rebelling against a first-past-the-post electoral system designed to support two large, opposing parties and deliver one of them decisively to power. Smaller political parties once written off as single issue, or relegated to perpetual minority status, now have a shot at taking some seats and—in a government where no party has a large majority—influencing policy. Politics in the UK is getting more intense, and messier.

In Bristol, and in Norwich on the other side of the country, the popularity of the Green Party has soared. In eastern England’s deprived coastal communities, the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), could conceivably win seats that more mainstream parties have grown accustomed to swapping amongst themselves. North of the border, the Scottish National Party looks set to wipe the floor with most its opponents.

Many people are still deciding who to vote for. They’ve been accustomed to using votes tactically, in Britain’s winner-takes-all elections, to stop any candidate they hate from taking power; or inured to the sense that their vote is wasted. Now, there’s more of a pull to vote for what they believe in.

“This election is probably the one where I’ve come across more people who are agonizing more than they have before,” said Stephen Williams, who has served two terms as Liberal Democrat MP in Bristol West and is seeking a third. The indecision isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he says. When he entered politics 30 years ago most Brits self-identified as Labour or Conservative die-hards. Today, identities are becoming more nuanced.

Heated debate

Williams clearly wasn’t enjoying the atmosphere at the Malcolm X, where he was often shouted down by—he said afterwards—Green supporters who outnumbered other people in the audience to form an unrepresentative and aggressive throng. At one point he used the mic to attack the Greens’ “fuzzy, warm-words nonsense”, and its fundraising methods.

The Green Party has made huge gains in membership over the last 12 months, arguably propelling it from fringe organization with only one area of expertise—the environment—to a genuine contender in more than one seat.

Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire, meanwhile, is also a strong contender. After years of Conservative dominance, a Labour candidate won the seat in 1997 and 2001, before being toppled by the Liberal Democrats in 2005. For anyone who wants to see a change of government away from the current Conservative and Lib Dem coalition, there is a “good, clear choice,” to vote for her as “the frontrunner,” Debbonaire says.

But for many, such clarity is a thing of the past.

Heart vs. head

The last national elections in 2010 resulted in the first coalition government since World War II, an early indication that the UK’s political landscape might be shifting, and the two major parties less major. The failure, in many eyes, of the Lib Dems to secure support for its most important policies or prevent changes they had promised to block has fragmented the vote still further.

Joe Twyman, head of political and social research for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at polling firm YouGov says that with polls showing a very tight race, people in swing constituencies will often face two choices: Vote for a party they may actively dislike, but which has a chance of winning. Or vote for a party they like but which is less likely to win, thereby splitting the leftist or rightist vote and paving the way to victory for the other side.  For example, a vote for right-leaning UKIP rather than the mainstream Conservatives might open the door to a win for the left-leaning Labour party, he explained.

The political parties are well aware of the problem. David Cameron has warned repeatedly against right-leaning voters opting for UKIP, urging them to think tactically, while Labour’s Ed Miliband has been vociferous in his opposition to the leftist Scottish National Party, which is set to take a swathe of formerly-safe Labour seats in Scotland.

Yet many would like to see an end to tactical voting. One pillar of Lib Dem policy has long been reform of the voting system to move away from first-past-the-post. (A referendum on the issue was held in 2011. The issue was poorly explained and vigorously campaigned against by the ruling Conservative party. Ultimately, it was voted down by the public.)

The smaller parties, too, have an interest in people voting from the heart.

“The trouble is that tactical voting will just repeat the mistakes of the past,” said Darren Hall of the Bristol Greens, sitting in the sun outside a shop the party recently opened as a campaign office on Gloucester Road, a long parade of independent stores selling food, flowers, clothes and furniture. “At some point we have to shift it, into voting for what you believe in.”

This election is essentially a battle over how to think about democracy. On the one hand is the old system, where one of two parties almost invariably won, and voters aligned themselves strongly with one or other of them. The alternative is a far more multifarious system more typical of the UK’s European neighbors, where coalition is often a necessity of government.

And so yes, the UK’s machinations could be framed as a quintessential first-world problem, or as a real debate over the way enfranchisement should be managed. But as the rise of the smaller parties in this election shows, for an increasing number of voters it’s a matter of expressing what they believe in—and will now have to decide how best to achieve.

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