Normally I vote LibDem; the only exception has been when I voted for Ken Livingstone as an independent candidate for London mayor (having previously voted against the idea of an elected mayor), and in hindsight I regret that. For this election, I felt that I should at least attempt to make an informed choice, so I tried to gather some details on the different candidates. This turned out to be remarkably difficult.
My first stop was the BBC website. However, despite claiming to offer an indepth guide to "every council, every election", all they really had was a list of constituencies.
I then tried Croydon council website. They have a Statement of Persons Nominated, which sounded encouraging. However, this just turned out to be a long list of names/parties, so it basically just said "For each ward there are 3 Conservative candidates, 3 Labour candidates, 3 LibDem candidates, and a few others". Again, this isn't amazingly useful, unless you assume that everyone will vote along standard party lines based on national policies.
What I'm really looking for is some information about the individual candidates who are standing. For instance, what kind of track record do they have? Are they new to local government, or do they have a lot of experience? Do they have any significant achievements, or goals? Will they just toe the standard party line on all issues, or do they have any particular preferences of their own?
In a national election, I'd typically get this kind of information from flyers through the door, or possibly canvassing. In a local election, I suppose it's reasonable for the parties to keep their costs down. So, perhaps they'll make use of the internet instead, by putting this information on their website.
Going to the LibDem website, they publish their manifesto for all English local elections in 2006 (one size fits all, apparently). Incidentally, every manifesto I saw was in pdf format, so they lose points for that. In fairness, I have just found a site for Croydon LibDems, which lists their candidates. However, it still doesn't tell me anything about those particular people beyond their names.
In the past, one thing that's appealed to me about the LibDems is that they're quite positive. Typical election campaigns would go like this:
Conservative: "Don't vote Labour!"
Labour: "Don't vote Conservative!"
LibDem: "Do vote for us!"
In that situation, I figure that I can make everyone happy by voting LibDem.
However, in this case the LibDems seem to be falling into the same trap, by basically saying "They suck, we rock" and not giving specifics. Typical quote: "And where Labour and Conservatives have let people down, we’re delivering. Better services, better value for money, and better accountability." It sounds nice, but it also sounds like a line that could come from any political party, if you had an [Insert name of opposition here] template.
Then looking at their manifesto, they say: "It's time to scrap Council Tax and replace it with a fair tax based on ability to pay." Ok, a fair system sounds better than an unfair system. However, I suspect that different people will have different ideas of what counts as fair, and in most cases it will boil down to "Other people should pay more and I should pay less". I've had a look elsewhere on their site, and found another document about Local Income Tax. The line that caught my attention was: "The Inland Revenue, however, will provide information to the local authority about the size of the income tax base of the area so that the LIT rate can be calculated." So, that seems to be saying that they don't actually know what the rates would be. What I'd like to do is plug my details into a webpage calculator, so that it could say "You are currently paying £X, and under the new system you'd pay £Y", but they can't do that yet, so it really boils down to "Ok, we don't actually have a plan as such, but if we're elected then we'll figure something out, honest!" This does not inspire confidence.
Meanwhile, there's been a certain amount of publicity about the BNP recently, to the extent that the three big parties all seem to be allied against them. There isn't a BNP candidate where I live, and I wouldn't vote for them anyway, but I was sufficiently curious to take a look at their manifesto. Again, it's a pdf, and they've managed to screw up the page sequence (I think it's intended to be printed out and folded into a booklet), so that doesn't create a good impression.
Digressing slightly, there was an article about this on the BBC website recently, where a LibDem councillor said: "It wouldn't make a difference to immigration if the BNP took every single seat, so what's the point of voting for them because that's all they stand for? They don't stand for anything else." This seemed like a pretty good point, and it reminded me of one complaint against Ken Livingstone's campaign (he promised to legalise gay marriage despite the fact that the mayor doesn't have the authority to do that). I imagined a hypothetical discussion between me and a BNP canvasser that would go like this:
Me: "Ok, I can see why you want to get seats in parliament, so that you can change immigration laws. And I can see why it would boost your party's credibility to win some local elections, thus making it more likely that you'd get some MPs. But in the short term, I need the people who win the local elections to actually handle local matters. Looking back at meetings from the last year, they've debated things like school dinners - do you have a policy on these?"
BNP guy: "Well, um, no."
Me: "Then kindly go away and stop wasting my time."
So, with that in mind, I figured that their manifesto would provide some brief entertainment; I could pick holes in it to make myself feel better. However, as it turned out, I was actually quite impressed by it. For instance, on page 10 (page 3 on my screen), they do actually have specific policies about school dinners: "Canteen-style school catering will be phased out and replaced by one choice of meal for all pupils, eaten in staff-supervised sittings which all pupils must attend." To reiterate, I don't agree with most of their policies, and their leaders seem like thugs, but I do think they deserve credit for actually stating their policies clearly, rather than waffling on with weasel words. Aside from anything else, if the other parties are worried about losing voters, they need to understand what is attracting those voters. It's a similar principle to the Plain English Campaign - get to the point! I'm probably not going to agree 100% with any party, but I'd like to be able to make the trade-offs for myself, e.g. "I prefer the LibDem policy on education but the Conservative policy on crime." If all the parties just sit around saying "We'll make things better", that doesn't give me anything to go on.
So, this really pokes two holes in the LibDem statement:
a) They're relying on misinformation. If they say "Don't vote BNP because they're a bunch of bigots", that's fair enough. If they say "Don't vote for them because they don't have any other policies", that's incorrect, so they're either misinformed (and therefore lazy/incompetent) or they're deliberately lying to me (which isn't a good way to attract my vote).
b) They're suggesting that it's pointless to vote in local elections about national policies, but I think this is a bit hypocritical, since the LibDems are basically doing the same thing themselves (relying on people voting along national party lines).
Inertia is good enough for this election, i.e. I'm still intending to vote LibDem tomorrow, but they would be unwise to rely on that as a long-term strategy (at least in my case). The way I see it, I'm predisposed to vote for them, and I'm willing to make an effort to find out about their policies/candidates, and I'm still getting fed up; I don't expect to be spoon-fed, but realistically I doubt that many people would even go this far.
Continuing the theme of poor websites, I had a look at:
That claims that there aren't any elections for my postcode in 2006, even though I got a polling card through the post!
Regarding the voting process itself, there have been posters up that say "What takes 2 minutes and lasts 4 years?" Actually, I think it's more like 45 minutes, when I factor in travelling time and queuing; significantly longer if I count research time too. As an IT guy, I see the security problems in trying to set up online voting, but as a voter I think it would be much more convenient.
Now I just need to find my polling card; I saw it recently, so I think I'm probably using it as a bookmark somewhere...