Only three parties (the Nigel Farage Party, Labour, and Change UK) managed to get leaflets to this part of the world before I posted back my vote yesterday, although another two (UKIP and Plaid) dropped through the door after I returned from the Post Office. For this election at least, though, it was an easy choice to make, with or without leaflets – Jill Evans has been an excellent voice for Wales in the EU, and Plaid are clearly the best-placed pro second vote party.
All the leaflets received to date have been less than inspirational, however. Neither UKIP nor the Nigel Farage party made any effort at all to explain why Brexit is a good idea, both preferring to play on the betrayal narrative. And neither made any effort to pretend that the election has anything at all to do with Wales – neither naming the candidates nor using a word of Welsh. Change UK’s solitary concession to the fact that the leaflet was being distributed in Wales was to use 11 words of Welsh – and spell three of those incorrectly. For all of those parties, Wales is merely part of the electoral battleground where English differences are played out. Labour’s leaflet was bilingual, chwarae teg(although after this week’s news, I was half expecting that it might have been in Gaelic), and asked me to “back Labour’s plan to bring people back together”, without really telling me what that plan was.
It also told me that the election was a chance to “tell the Tories you are fed up with their divisive austerity policies and incompetent UK government”. It’s the tired, worn-out, old ‘send a message’ argument, which was also the burden of the headline on Plaid’s leaflet, urging me to “send a message to Westminster that Carmarthenshire has had enough of this Brexit shambles”. It’s a line of argument that I have long considered counter-productive, not least because it’s asking me to vote for candidates from one party because they’re not members of another party rather than because of what they stand for themselves. Telling me that my vote for party A will be considered as a rebuff for party B is essentially negative rather than positive.
It’s also meaningless. As we saw from the analysis of the English local elections earlier this month, the votes of millions of people cast for a variety of reasons do not easily distil into a single clear message, and pretending that they do is failing to understand – or even attempt to understand – the motivations of the electors. Theresa May has been lampooned for claiming that the message of the local elections, when people turned massively against the two main pro-Brexit parties, was that MPs should get on with delivering Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s initial response was very similar. In May’s case, and considering only those who might otherwise have turned out to vote Conservative, she might just be right. In Corbyn’s case, it is at least possible that frustration with Labour’s lack of clarity over Brexit might have played at least as big a role. Nor is it clear to me that people swinging towards the traditional ‘third party’, the Lib Dems, as has happened so often in the past, is a ringing endorsement of that party’s position on Brexit, as that party’s leaders have claimed.
People vote for all sorts of reasons, not all of which necessarily have anything to do with either the parties or their policies, and trying to interpret the aggregate actions of millions as a clear ‘message’ that ‘the people’ want X is a fool’s errand. I remember in one council election which I won, one elderly couple told me that they were going to vote for me because ‘Labour and the Tories gave away the Empire’. Were they typical of the mass, or outliers? I strongly suspect the latter – I certainly didn’t take away the ‘message’ from that election that Plaid should support the reconquest of Africa – but on a sample of one, who can be certain? What I did learn from that is that it would have been a mistake to interpret the election victory as a clear message that the electorate of the ward wanted independence, because there was a much more complex interplay of forces at work.
When I vote, I don’t want to send anybody a message, particularly one which most of them are either not going to understand or else will wilfully misinterpret. Just tell me what you’re for.