"I'm not voting, no way. They're all the same. None of them make me feel they have a vision," a young woman in her early 20s was saying loudly to her friend. Standing on the platform waiting for a late tube home from the office after the leaders' debate, I couldn't let it pass – possibly a sign of incipient mad-woman-on-the-underground disorder, but these are fraught times. "Of course you should use your vote! There is always a better and a worse. Mrs Thatcher's cuts in the 1980s caused a lost generation of young unemployed. Whoever wins, we're in for a bad time, but Cameron says he will cut deeper and faster. Your vote matters." We talked, but she was unconvinced. She wasn't apathetic, but her vote was too precious to give to anyone less than perfect. There is a lot of this about, and not only among the idealistic young: a precious vote can only be bestowed on a worthy prince – though their prince may never come.
Outside a snack cabin in Westminster North, a group of council workers in high-visibility jackets queued for tea and bacon buns. Some were tree-cutters, others gardeners, and they were approached by Labour MP Karen Buck, defending a perilous 3,000 majority. But they weren't keen to vote Labour again. Not BNP, but they were wavering, despite jobs like theirs undoubtedly in the line of fire for cuts. They were not indifferent, but unwilling to part with their votes to anyone falling short of their respect. I have noted this "precious vote" syndrome up and down the country, with so many people cut adrift from party loyalty. But in the rough and tumble of everyday politics, princes are a rare commodity.
Wherever you visit, there are plentiful monuments to Labour: in this area 12 children's centres, three academies, another newly rebuilt school, a polyclinic. A previously besieged council estate was now pristine, the proof in perfect flowerbeds no one had trampled: will they revert in the cuts to come? Reasons to keep Conservatism at bay abound, but Gordon Brown has been a woeful advocate.
To precious voters, "Vote for the least worst" or "Vote to keep the enemy out" is a hard argument to win, though our electoral system demands it. There is no doubt that Nick Clegg has come closest to taking the precious vote, with a passion and conviction that outflanks Brown in radicalism on many issues.
But unless the opinion polls were to rocket him into overtaking Cameron by miles, the brutal electoral arithmetic remains the same as ever: voting for your first choice will often let in your worst nightmare. Don't vote Labour in seats where the Lib Dems best challenge Cameron. Don't vote Lib Dem in marginals where Labour best beats Cameron's Ashcroft-funded insurgency. Cynical, unprincipled and unsatisfying, that's the way it is for now.
The Lib Dems are arch-realists after decades surfing a system that conspires to keep a third party out: their leaflets are always devoted to the tactical vote in each seat. Now the prize is within their grasp – the chance to force a referendum on electoral reform. But since Cameron rules it out, only a Lib Dem-Labour coalition can deliver it.
A very senior Lib Dem this week expressed his anxiety to me that wobbly Labour voters may go Lib Dem in places they couldn't possibly win, accidentally gifting those seats to the Tories. If Cameron wins his overall majority, all chance of electoral reform is lost for years to come. Just as Labour needs Clegg to hold off Tories in their winnable seats, so the Lib Dems need the Labour vote to hold up and withstand a Tory assault.
High principle, sentimentality and simple naivety could be a grave peril to the Lib Dems, too. If precious voters choose regardless of consequence they could wake up to the result they most deplore. What kind of conscience is it that says, "I don't care what happens. I have clean hands, I voted with conviction regardless of the outcome"? Many don't understand the wicked ways of the voting system, but those who do should know better.
Compass members, a largely Labour grouping, have just voted to urge Labour people to vote Lib Dem where Lib Dems are the main anti-Tory contender: it could have them evicted from the party. Last time I wrote imploring centre-left people to vote tactically, there was an avalanche of web outrage from the precious tendency repelled by voting Labour (though also, I suspect, from anonymous Tories). But it's no use getting angry with the messenger for telling it the way it is. Get angry with the voting system.
Who is to blame? Yes, it is the knuckle-head Labour tribalists who blocked Tony Blair's attempt to bring in proportional representation. Blame that formidable array of dinosaurs – Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, Jack Straw, John Prescott and most unions. Now – so late – Labour would trade PR for a coalition with the Lib Dems. People have good reasons to deny their vote to Labour, but why should pro-Iraq war, pro-rich, anti-reform Cameron be the beneficiary?
There is plenty of blame to go around: blame the pusillanimous Labour cabinet that failed to eject Gordon Brown when a better (and pro-PR) leader could have beaten Cameron. Blame yourself if you have not been actively campaigning for reform to give your vote its due weight. Blame all those scaremongers warning that coalition governments are too weak to take tough decisions, when the opposite is the case: high credit countries such as Germany and Scandinavia are multi-party while "strong" one-party governments – Britain, Spain and Greece – are not great advertisements for monopoly economic management .
The election result is almost certain to be the greatest mismatch yet between votes cast and seats won. If so, next Saturday at 2pm, after the election, an instant-response protest is planned in Parliament Square by a score of democracy groups demanding proportional representation and pressing Nick Clegg to accept nothing less. If everything hangs in the balance then reform can still be won.
But if Cameron has won his majority, this event will be a mournful wake. The sound and fury will signify nothing: winner takes all, however huge the majority that voted against him. Your vote is indeed precious, so use it tactically to win reform so that you never need vote tactically again.
Source: Polly Toynbee @ The Guardian