“I think the Conservatives are going to pinch it,” said Frank. He took a swig from his pint.
“You’ve got to be joking! Those guys couldn’t organise the proverbial piss-up! UKIP’s going steal their vote and they’ll all disappear up their own backsides. Good night and good riddance to the lot of them,” said John. He stared into the bottom of his empty glass, anger in his eyes.
“What do you reckon, Mo?” asked Frank.
Mo was on his third Coca-Cola. “Pleased you asked, man. I think the Liberals will win with a big majority.”
John’s eyes flashed at him. “Only kidding,” Mo conceded. “Cool down, man. You know we share the faith. Don’t worry; Labour will win.”
The muscles in John’s neck relaxed.
“And Michael: do you deign to share your views with us?” asked Frank.
Mike had his eye on the bar: the mousy barmaid with the big breasts clearly wasn’t fazed by the ogling and heckling the two guys on the bar-stools were subjecting her to.
“Me?” he asked. “I’m trying to work out whether I should ask Sandra for a date.”
“Be serious!” shouted John, banging his empty glass on the table.
“I am being serious. I reckon I have a better chance than those two clowns.”
“Don’t you care about the election?” asked Mo.
“I couldn’t care less. I loathe polling day. Who’s for another pint?”
Frank lifted his glass in assent and Mo made a theatrical gesture to his stomach: “apple juice this time please. You can have too much of a good thing.”
But John was rising unsteadily to his feet. “I’m going to vote. You can bloody-well get me one later.”
Mike came back with the drinks. The pub was crowded and the group had a little more elbow room now that John had left.
“I guess you two have already voted,” said Frank: “that is, assuming they allow you to vote, Mo?” His taunt was rewarded with a sharp dig in the ribs: Mo was as British born and bred as he was. Third generation and proud of it, as he often reminded them.
“I went down after work,” said Mo. “We need to bear the standard for the cause. I voted Labour: always have, always will. My Dad’s the same and his Dad before that”.
“Mike?” asked Frank.
Mike toyed with a beer mat then looked first at Mo and then at Frank.
“I never vote,” he said.
There was a moment of incredulous silence.
“Do you mean just this time around or literally, never?” asked Frank. Mike merely looked at him over his specs; he knew his statement couldn’t have been clearer.
“Don’t you care who wins?”
“Oh, I have a view about who should be in power,” said Mike.
“And?” prompted Frank.
“The point is, I could be quite wrong. Just say again, Mo: what’s the basis of your decision on how to vote?” asked Mike.
“It’s about loyalty,” said Mo, spilling some of his apple juice in an extravagant gesture to the cause. “Labour stands for the working man. For the rights of you and me!”
“And what does that mean in practice?” asked Mike. “Over the last 20 years they’ve changed their stance radically. Half the time they’ve been more right wing than the Tories. I have no idea any more what they stand for. Tony Blair was careful to bend his policies to keep on the right side of the media. Brown just wanted power but had no idea what to do with it. Milliband? Oh Please. In the end, what evidence do we have that Labour are a better bet for the working man? I’m disappointed in you, Mo. You’re a university graduate and you vote on the basis of family history. ‘Working man’ my foot!”
“Now there speaks a true Conservative!” said Frank. “A man after my own heart. The Tories have had it tough but that’s only because of the mess Brown and his cronies left us in.”
“I didn’t say I favoured the Conservatives,” replied Mike, quietly. “The reason I don’t vote is because I don’t know enough about it. I honestly believe it would be downright irresponsible if I were to vote.”
“Come off it, man!” said Mo. “You’re one of the most educated people in the country! You’ve got two degrees! If you don’t think you know enough to vote what about the ordinary man in the street?”
“My point exactly,” said Mike. “None of us should be voting. Unless, of course, you’ve spent your whole life getting to understand every nuance of economic policy, international relations, the efficacy of prisons, defence, the long-term impact of redistributing wealth, dealing with the homeless and all the rest of it.”
“So you don’t believe in democracy?”
“Oh, I’m a passionate believer in democracy. I just don’t think it’s right for people to vote.”
All of them smiled.
“Explain!” demanded Frank.
“Well. Most people vote with a totally inadequate understanding of how politics work or which politicians are best equipped to deliver. Personally I think the ability to create and maintain stability is probably the single most important consideration – but I could be wrong. And I haven’t the least idea which party would do this the best. Alright, OK,” he added. to staunch Frank’s impending protest. “I have my own opinion, but I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to vote on the strength of my hunch.”
The barmaid arrived with a plate of chicken wings.
“Thanks, Sandra,” said Mike. “I thought we could do with a bit of solid sustenance to offset the humbug we’ve been indulging in.”
“You’re just trying to distract us, man!” objected Mo, grabbing a paper napkin and digging in to the hot pile. “If everyone thought like you then we’d have anarchy. Revolution! Despots ruling the world!” He rolled his eyes dramatically. “These wings are great. Thanks, man.”
Mike put down the bone he’d been sucking. “That’s the irony I wrestle with. I think I’d explain it like this: I think people should have the right to vote, but I don’t they should vote. Not under normal circumstances, anyhow. Looking back over my lifetime, I couldn’t honestly say whether we’ve done better under the Conservatives or under Labour, once you’ve stripped out all the outside factors. I think it’s the right to vote that matters. The politicians need to know that if they act high-handedly, they’ll be ousted.”
“I think you’re nuts,” offered Frank. “I vote conservative because I think their ideas on the economy are sound. More sound than Labour. I look closely at what they do and I like what I see. I watch the news every single day.”
“You’re wrong, man,” countered Mo. “The economy is in a mess but that’s not because of Labour. They were just the victims of global recession. And the Conservatives had done a lousy job of clearing it up.”
“Rubbish. You’ve got to recognise….” started Frank.
“So,” said Mike, with a decisive gesture to dampen the developing flames. “You two both have your convictions, and if I knew enough about politics I bet I could argue against both of you. But I don’t. None of us do. What do we get from politicians? Sound bites intended to appeal to the base emotions: gross simplifications. World dynamics are just too complicated for mere mortals to understand. In the end, who gets to rule is often decided by the so-called swing voters, the waverers – the ones who don’t know how they’re going to vote until the pen is in their hand in the polling booth. It’s mad! It’s wrong! What basis is that for deciding on government?”
“I knew you were cranky,” said Mo. “But now I know see you’re downright dangerous. Everyone has a duty to vote. In some countries it’s law!”
Mike had drained his pint and was reaching for his coat.
“And where might you be going at this hour?” asked Frank. “The night is young. And Mo is itching to buy the next round…”
“I’m off to the polling booth,” muttered Mike.
“I should bloody-well think so, man!” said Mo.
“So, at this eleventh hour you’ve decided for whom you will cast your vote?” asked Frank.
“No.” Mike folded his specs into his pocket and stood, ready to go. “I’m not just kidding around. I’m finally facing up to how strongly I feel about this and I’m going to do something about it. The polling booth is open for another two hours. I can live with your convictions even if I can’t share them. But what I can’t allow is the right of the undecided – that is, the very least informed or convinced – to choose how we should be governed. If I can persuade just half a dozen waverers not to vote, then I’ll have done our democratic community a service.”
“Come off it Mike – stay and have another drink,” said Frank.
“Good night,” said Mike. And he was gone.