So who do we vote for now?
At the start of the campaign the Liberal Democrats were the least worst of the three main parties. On the 5th of May they are now by far the best of the three main parties, having run a campaign which has at least somewhat attempted to be positive, without succumbing to the stranglehold of the centre-right on so much social policy. They have consistently stood against not just Labour's continued assault on civil liberties, but also their authoritarian stance on law and order, in contrast to the Tories, who continue to fight with Labour on who can be the tougher on crime. While many of their policies are far from perfect, epitomised by their caution on Trident, their failure to give fully fledged support to continued immigration and the give-away to the middle classes which is their lifting of the income tax threshold to £10,000, the positives hugely outweigh the negatives.
We shouldn't, while praising the Liberal Democrats, understate the achievements of Labour over the past 13 years. They took an underfunded and often demoralised public sector and flooded it with cash, for both better and worse. Schools and hospitals in many areas are unrecognisable from 1997, for the chief reason that so many have either been rebuilt or upgraded. Waiting lists have become almost a thing of the past, and while results in education have not increased by anywhere near enough, it's impossible to argue that we've moved backwards. Yet the public sector investment has come at a huge price: Labour's complete capitulation to the financial sector, the Faustian pact between the two funding Labour's public spending increases while the City was allowed to all but govern itself. As with all such pacts, it has ended with Labour caught in its own trap: forced into cutting its beloved state sector while letting the sector which caused the crash off with almost no conditions. The combination of Labour's complete enslavement to neo-liberalism, along with a social authoritarianism that at one point threatened to give the police the unbelievable power of detaining someone accused of terrorist offences for an incredible 90 days are just two reasons to reject them this time. Many more were provided by George Monbiot yesterday, and a further two were in the papers just today: the attempt to hold the hearings into the claims made by former Guantanamo detainees in secret, and the proposed deportation of Bita Ghaedi, thankfully for now postponed.
It would be equally remiss to dismiss the Conservatives completely out of hand. David Cameron has taken a party that was beginning to think it would never govern again and took it as far it's been possible to take it. While much of the change has to be put down to the passing of time itself, the Conservatives are an entirely different proposition from they were in 1997. This was especially illustrated by the campaign which the party led against Ben Bradshaw in that year, denouncing him as "bent Ben"; the party now, despite Chris Grayling and bed and breakfasts, has at least two potential MPs who are in civil partnerships and most probably more. The Labour attacks on the Conservatives and how they'll take us back to the 80s ring increasingly hollow for the reason that Cameron has reconciled so much of his party to what is essentially a New Labour agenda; indeed, on civil liberties the party is clearly to the left of the Labour party. As Simon Jenkins argued today, to present a Cameron government as a reactionary throwback is silly. By the same token however, Cameron has not ditched Thatcherism any more than New Labour did, and has not even begun to take the party back to its "One Nation" days when there was almost a social democratic consensus between both Labour and the Conservatives.
While Cameron has since attempted to ditch most of his Blairite overtones, his new Tories remain a party that is determined, regardless of the economic situation, to impose their own ideology, most nakedly on education. The "free schools" policy, about to be ditched in Sweden because of its deficiencies will not just even further dilute the amount of available funding to existing schools but also create even more division in a system where shared experiences are so fundamentally important to later life. It remains dedicated to raising the inheritance tax threshold to what will essentially be £2 million, just when such revenue is so desperately needed. They want to recognise marriage in the tax system even when society has moved on. They've spent much of the last 5 years decrying the state of British society, claiming it to be broken, yet at the same time continue to espouse the liberal values that have made this country what it is today. They want to tear up the Human Rights Act, one of New Labour's greatest achievements, for no other reason than to suck up to tabloid newspapers. They are dedicated to the same casual social authoritarianism that has created the largest ever prison population this country has ever seen. At a time when we desperately need new ideas, the only thing they have to offer is the "big society", a hastily cobbled together but unexplained policy, based around the most questionable of contemporary behavioural economic thinking and the fatuous Red Tory agenda. The party, while it has unquestionably improved, remains obsessed with the past and a bygone, halcyon period, whether it be the 50s or the 80s, which never existed except in their minds.
We shouldn't pretend that the Liberal Democrats are anything approaching a perfect combination of Labour's best motives with the Tory emphasis on individual freedom. They are, as the Guardian's excellent leader at the weekend pointed out, an almost exclusively middle-class party, whose credentials on tackling poverty have not even begun to be proven. They are an unhappy compromise of a party, containing both social democrats and free market libertarians, neither of whom are happy with the parties they would otherwise associate themselves with. It is however that melding which is now the better option, building on Labour's 13 years by not slashing the state to the extent to which the Tories will, while dismantling Labour's burgeoning surveillance apparatus. It is the best possible mainstream option on offer in 2010.
The problem with the above is that we have an electoral system which doesn't just force us into having to vote against the party we most want kept out, but that it also in some circumstances doesn't even let us vote for the second least worst option. In numerous seats across the country the Liberal Democrats are a distant third, including in my own. A vote for them in such circumstances is an utter waste. Tactical voting, while wonderful in theory, doesn't just involve us having to potentially hold our noses, but in some cases having to put a bag over our heads to hide our shame. The most realistic possible outcome from tomorrow's vote is a hung parliament, yet to achieve even that we have to do the equivalent of cutting off our noses to spite our face.
In a lot of cases, this means voting for a Labour candidate and a Labour party that has become everything we loathe, and most of us simply won't be able to stomach it. It's different if we can at least rationalise it on the basis that the person we're actually voting for was a decent MP and at least voted against Labour's worst excesses: in 2005 I voted Labour in an effort to keep out the Tory, and because he had abstained on the Iraq war vote (to his eternal regret) and voted against the worst of Labour's anti-terror laws. The Conservative won. This time round I have no reason whatsoever to vote for the Labour candidate, even if he seems a reasonable sort and supports voting reform. First past the post however means that I can either do the same thing all over again, or waste my vote with the Greens, as there is absolutely no point whatsoever voting for the Liberal Democrats when they have as much chance of winning as the Greens do. This reflects somewhat what may well happen if the Lib Dems do form a coalition and get PR through: destroy their own chances for the greater good.
I can't then wholeheartedly endorse tactical voting, as even though I'm fairly sure it will be the Greens that get my x, I might eat the tens of thousands of words written here and end up with the heaviest heart in the world voting Labour once again. Here then is my suggestion on how to vote, in the simplest possible terms: where the Greens can win, vote Green. Where Respect can win, and that probably just means Salma Yaqoob, although Galloway and their candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow might yet triumph, vote Respect. Where the Liberal Democrats can win, vote Liberal Democrat. Where any of the above can't win, just make sure you vote, whichever way you decide is best. And let's hope for just that.