Opinion

No, it isn't middle-class to vote for third-party or independent candidates in the general election

What most of us want is a government that materially changes life for the better – it's not naive to vote for that

Image: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

There’s a joke that goes, Schrödinger is driving along when he is pulled over by a police officer. The officer becomes suspicious when Schrödinger starts talking about quantum entanglement. He asks to see inside the boot of Schrödinger’s car. Schrödinger obliges and opens the boot, at which the officer exclaims: “Oh my God! Did you know there’s a dead cat in your boot?” Schrödinger replies: “Well, I do now.”

The party manifestos have now all landed, and it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed. Labour in particular has managed to deliver a manifesto where, despite the car boot being wide open, it’s not quite clear if the cat is dead. While there are some good policies in there, such as abolishing Section 21 evictions (something the Conservatives have been committed to since 2019, but have failed to deliver), much of the Labour manifesto consists of vague promises to resolve social issues, without concrete policies on which they can be held to account. On the issue of homelessness, Labour pledges to work “with mayors and councils across the country, to put Britain back on track to ending homelessness”. Which is a far cry from a Housing First policy; abolishing the need for a local connection to access housing support; or indeed any concrete policy that might be commensurate to the scale of the problem. Likewise, Labour pledges to “support” children in foster care, without spelling out what exactly this support would consist of, or putting a monetary value on it.

Where concrete policies are to be found, some are actively harmful. On migrants rights, Labour pledges to “fast track” the removal of asylum seekers whose applications have been denied, despite the fact over half of all appeals to these decisions are successful. On so-called “antisocial behaviour”, Labour pledges to introduce new “Respect Orders”, which would “ban persistent adult offenders from town centres”. A policy which will invariably impact rough sleepers and those with mental health issues the most.

Then again, the cat in the boot of Rishi Sunak’s car is most certainly dead. And so the argument goes that it is imperative we vote Labour as the lesser of two evils. It’s an argument familiar to anyone who has studied A-level politics. And I’m not unsympathetic to the case for tactical voting, (though I am extremely sceptical of politicians who use it as their first line of defence against criticism). But some have taken this to its logical extreme, arguing it is a middle-class luxury for anyone on the left to not vote for Keir Starmer.

The rationale for this goes that, after 14 years of Tory governance, there are people in this country who desperately need change. That there are people whose very lives depend upon the policies enacted by the next government. And that therefore the imagined middle-class voter should vote not with their conscience, but with a view to securing these people’s immediate material interests. I am sympathetic to this view.

What I don’t see is how any of the concrete policies Labour have committed to will support these people. Homeless people, asylum seekers and children in the foster care system, all live at the sharpest edge of society. Yet the Labour manifesto has little to offer them. Disabled people too have suffered greatly under successive Conservative governments. Yet while Labour commits to generating “a proper plan to support disabled people to work”, their manifesto also states there will be “consequences for those who do not fulfil their obligations” to do so. And it’s hard to interpret this as anything other than a continuation of the Conservatives’ cruel sanctions regime.

There is also a strong stench of ad-hominem to these attacks. Politicians and commentators who love to juggle rocks inside their glass houses, have been quick to point out that many of the most prominent supporters of third party and independent left-wing candidates are middle class – or, quite frankly, posh. This is true. But it’s a bit like pointing out that most creatures that swim in the Pacific Ocean are fish. Most creatures who swim in all oceans are fish. And most prominent political commentators of all parties and none, are drawn from an incredibly narrow slither of society. Pointing this out is not a replacement to actually engaging with their arguments. And across society, it is not just middle-class pundits who are being drawn to independent and third-party candidates. Despite Labour’s projected landslide, polling data shows that the Conservatives and Labour’s combined share of the vote is set to be the lowest since 1918.

In a sane world, Labour candidates and their supporters would ask why voters are being drawn to these alternatives. What policies are being offered that make us want to cast our ballots for independent and third-party candidates, even when these candidates have little prospect of actually being elected? Is it Housing First? Rent controls? An end to the two-child benefit cap? Are our concerns about the environment? Or our right to protest, which is increasingly under threat?

For many, myself included, Labour’s failure to commit to the end of arms sales to Israel as it continues to perpetuate genocide against the people of Gaza, is a deal-breaker. And no amount of chastisement for the supposed immaturity of my position is going to change that.

If Labour candidates and their supporters are truly concerned about losing votes to independent and third-party candidates, they’d do well to consider adopting some of these candidates’ policies – or pushing their party to adopt them. You might want to call this “a compromise”; something I hear is all the rage among sensible politically-informed adults. The scandal is not that voters want something different, but that our current system gives Labour little motivation to listen to what voters actually want.

Ultimately, what most of us want is a government that materially changes life for the better. Whether our concern is for our own lives, or for the lives of those more vulnerable than ourselves. It is not a middle-class luxury to vote for this. To vote for concrete, well-defined policies from candidates we trust to deliver them. And it is not naive or childish to want something more than a Schrödinger’s manifesto of vague gestures, and truly nasty policies.

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