Today is election day, and agony. I was brought up to treat the ballot as sacramental. That stubby pencil on its greasy string was democracy’s Excalibur, the magic sword that tamed the game of thrones, and won power for the people. If we dared ask my father how he voted, he would say men had fought and died for the secrecy of the ballot. He would not fail them.
At such times I envy the tribalists. I was one once. For the duration of the campaign, I became “we”. On election day we stopped arguing and prevaricating, and turned ourselves into a collective barmy army. We knew how we would vote, and the only pain lay in finding consolation for sometimes troubled consciences. Some of us would talk loftily about “reluctance” and “holding our nose”. That nose was made of toffee. There is no box on the ballot for half-votes.
Instead I now wander the electoral desert and see only the ruined citadels and burned-out villages of ancient wars. Where are the tribal leaders of old, who suddenly seem like giants? Their erstwhile followers are vagrant refugees, their dissolved loyalties so much drifting tumbleweed, caught by this or that passing wind. We can all do the politics of detestation and ridicule. But the ballot demands a yes. We must submit to the pain of choice.
The tribes are indeed fallen. In the 1950s, the Labour and Conservative parties could rely on fielding 4 million members between them. At elections they consumed some 90% of the vote. Now their membership is barely 700,000 and their vote share at the last election was below 70%. Turnouts have declined from over 80% in the 1950s to nearer 60% today.
Much debate surrounds what this means. I sense it reflects a decline in traditional loyalty, rather than an actual loss of interest in politics. Those who do vote may be less committed, but I believe they are better informed, more thoughtful and more sceptical than ever. This makes them more promiscuous in their voting choice, which means unreliable. That includes me.