I have become aware that sometime during the last decade I have become a ‘floating voter‘. Prior to this I had always identified myself with one or other of the main parties, either Labour or the S.N.P., and cast my vote loyally for their local candidates. I was aware that floating voters were always looked on with a degree of derision; as poor fellows lacking any political philosophy and being politically un-engaged. The quote below, by Ann Coulter the right-of-centre political commentator pretty much sums up the common impression.
“Swing voters are more appropriately known as the ‘idiot voters’ because they have no set of philosophical principles. By the age of fourteen, you’re either a Conservative or a Liberal if you have an IQ above a toaster.“
However, despite this statement being witty , is it accurate and reasonable ? Taking first the idea that floating, or swing, voters do not have a political philosophy; is this really likely to be the case ? If one has a well developed sense of political principles then it is quite unlikely that these will line up neatly with those of a single political party. While my desire for people to have the ability to determine their future might tally nicely with the SNP’s plans for and independence referendum but not with the Labour Party’s opposition. My internationalism may find favour with those pursuing worldwide class solidarity in the Labour Party but would jar with the nationalism of the SNP. My recognition of the importance of freedom of speech might be welcomed in the Conservative Party but cause consternation to those in left leaning parties who place greater emphasis on the dangers of “hate speech”. However, if I have well developed opinions I am going to have to drop some of these and compromise if I want to be a loyal party voter (though I suppose I could establish my own party !). If I have political principles I am going to have to weigh these up against the offerings of the political parties at any given time, as priorities and situations change, and decide which party looks the best recipient of my vote at that time. In short, if I am principled I’d be better being a floating voter.
I remember when I was active in political campaigning how little respect the parties had for their loyal voter. Their votes were “in the bag”, all that we needed to do was “get the vote out“, in some of our more certain constituencies we’d joke that we could put a red, or yellow, rosette on a dog and it would win handsomely. In essence we knew that these votes were loyalty votes, unthinking votes, knee jerk votes that we didn’t have to work for as they were not forged out of discussion or principle but because “I’ve always been Labour/SNP” or they were voting “like my father and his father before him”.Even when parties acted against their best interests (Labour has neglected the fate of the white working class, the SNP has ignored the best interests of the youth in Scotland, and the Conservatives are ignoring the economic havoc they are about unleash on the business community) the loyal voters keep coming back. Like store loyalty cards, even though you can get a better deal elsewhere, it coaxes you back to the same old fare.
Secondly there is the idea of intelligence, that floating voters are in someway a bit more dumb than those who have made up their mind. For the reasons above this is unlikely, but there is a further reason. The world constantly changes, the challenges we face differ, and our priorities need to change to match this. Intelligence comprises recognising change and adapting to it, changing our responses and dealing with it. It is stupidity to continue to try the same approach no matter what the problem. The old adage that when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail comes to mind. Consider the problem facing loyal Labour voters, their conference has just jubilantly proposed harsh measures which will undoubtedly worry large businesses (they know this because they have started to plan for a run on the pound should they win). Now this is quiet understandable in the light of their general principles but, with Brexit just around the corner when everyone’s main priority will be to maintain business in the UK and try and avoid its flight to Europe, the smart labour voter might recognise priorities have changed (at least temporarily) and feel that they need to put their vote elsewhere – it would be the intelligent thing to do.
Indeed, being a floating voter requires more intelligence and more involvement. Voting on party lines means you are leaving the decisions to others, you are abrogating your democratic duty to consider the arguments and make a choice. It is more work being a floating voter but you can feel better knowing that your vote was actually a considered one and is more likely to have had an effect on the outcome (Floating votes are disproportionately important in election results). Our system with its reliance on political parties damages our democracy. The tendency of political parties to try and develop these “loyal voters” has lead to increasing pork-barrel politics with the right trying to expand its power by promising tax relief or advantage to its crony capitalist friends, or the left promising increased benefits in the welfare state to bribe its followers to keep in line. All of this concentrates political power and influence into a small number of hands, it reduces the choices we are given and influence of our opinions, and it weakens the flexibility and efficacy of our subsequent government.