Saturday, November 01, 2008

Changing one's political affiliation

Seeing as I haven't said a word yet about the upcoming general election here in New Zealand, I suppose I really should - seeing as it's now exactly a week away.

I know who I'm voting for - I always know who I'm voting for. I don't really understand how anyone can be undecided - but then that's because politics is intrinsically a part of me, and something that I cannot separate from who I am. I know most people don't give politics that level of importance in their lives, which is why I suppose they are sometimes able to switch from voting "left" to voting "right" or vice versa - something that I can't imagine doing.

Having said that, I do understand how you might change party affiliation if your party undergoes a transformation so drastic that you feel it no longer represents your beliefs and ideals.

An example for me would be Old Labour vs New Labour in the UK.

For all the years I was living in the UK and old enough to vote, I voted Labour. They were my party, the party that most closely reflected my views. I was proud to vote for them, although I was never on the winning side. Like many ex-Poms, I eventually became utterly demoralised by 17 years of Thatcher destroying what (at that time) was still my country. God I hated that woman.

I was travelling in the US when Thatcher was ousted as leader of the Conservative Party. It was Thanksgiving Day, and we certainly gave serious thanks that day!

A year and a half later I was travelling in New Zealand as the 1992 general election took place back in the UK, and did not vote, but I felt sure (as did most other people) that it was Labour's turn again at last, and that John Major's Conservative party would not prevail. Except that the unthinkable happened. Labour lost, the Conservatives won, and no-one could believe what had just happened.

I vividly remember sitting on the deck of Abracadabra, the 2-person yacht I was preparing to crew to New Caledonia. I was reviewing the election results in the international edition of The Daily Telegraph, practically weeping with frustration at Labour's inability to win the race. It was the day that Old Labour died, and it was also the day that I "resigned" from being English:

"If the British people are so bloody stupid that they vote that lot in again, then they deserve everything they get, and I shall no longer consider myself to be English. That's it - I quit."

Fast-forward 5 years to May 1997. I had by that time become a (very proud) New Zealander, but I still watched every minute of the UK election on TV, having taken the day off work just so I could follow the results as they unfolded. It was such an amazing day. All the baddies lost their seats, all the goodies won theirs, and Tony Blair led a triumphant New Labour into power with the most seats the party's ever held. Awesome!

The honeymoon, however, was short. Maybe a year? Maybe 18 months? I don't really remember how long it was until I saw the cracks beginning to show, but I do know that I increasingly began to feel (albeit from a distance) that Blair's policies, and those of New Labour, no longer matched my political beliefs in the way that Old Labour had.

The final straw for me was Blair's friendship with Bush and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The day that 8 million of us around the world marched against the upcoming war, I remember knowing in my heart that neither Blair nor Bush gave a shit about what we thought, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that they would invade Iraq, and that nothing we could do or say would stop them.

Had I bothered to vote in the UK elections that followed the 1997 triumph, I would not have voted Labour. They had become too right-wing. They had left me. I would have chosen instead to vote for the Liberal Democrats, the only major UK party which opposed the war on Iraq.

But I'm a Kiwi now - have been for 16 years - and so I vote in New Zealand elections. I sometimes miss the energy and commitment of the British people when it comes to politics. It's not nearly as intense here, and for someone who cut her teeth on the never-ending political debates in the local British pub (and everywhere else), I find the laid-back Kiwi attitude to politics a trifle lacklustre at times. What I do appreciate, though, is MMP.

With MMP (Mixed Member Proportional representation), you get two votes - a party vote and an electorate vote.

The national percentage of party votes that each party gets will determine the number of Parliamentary seats they are given (out of a total of 120 seats). Any party that receives at least 5% of the national party vote is guaranteed at least 6 seats in Parliament. If your party gets less than 5% of the party vote, you don't get any seats at all - unless at least one of your representatives wins in an electorate.

With your electorate vote you vote for a local MP. The outcome of the electorate vote is decided using the First Past the Post (FPP) method - whoever wins the most votes in an electorate wins the seat.

When I first came to New Zealand we were using the traditional FPP method of electing our Parliament, so in my first NZ election in 1993 I voted Labour. National won the election (but only just). Damn!

The 1996 election was the first in which we had MMP, and so my options were somewhat broader. The beauty of MMP is that smaller parties are infinitely more likely to get seats in Parliament than they are under FPP - because you only have to reach 5% of the total party vote.

In 1996 I voted Labour/Labour, which was somewhat of a bummer because National won the majority of the party votes and the odious Richard Prebble from ACT won my local seat of Wellington Central.

*sigh* I had been voting since 1983 and I had yet to vote for the winning party.

In 1999 I changed my vote. The Green Party had been formed in 1995, and at last here was a party with which I was in agreement virtually 100% of the time. Wow. This was a unique experience, as even with Old Labour back in the UK there had been occasions where my party and I disagreed.

I voted Green/Labour in 1999, in the hope that my Green party vote would help the Greens get to 5%, with my Labour electoral vote hopefully defeating Mr Prebble in Wellington Central. At last - after so many years of not getting to vote for a winner - both my votes came up trumps!

We got rid of Prebble in Welli Central, and after a nail-biting couple of weeks while the special votes were counted, it was announced that the Greens had reached 5.16% - and our co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons had also won her electorate seat in the Coromandel. Hooray!

I've voted that way ever since. I know that my electorate vote would not prevail if I voted Green in Welli Central - although we are the Greenest electorate in the country (I think we got 19% of the party vote last time) - so I vote Labour in order to help keep the National guy out - but I am very proud indeed to vote Green with my party vote. We're looking OK in the polls at the moment - we're on 7.5%, so I hope that either stays constant or increases in the next week. We shall see.

I don't imagine I will change my party affiliation again. When I left Labour in the UK it was because the party as a whole had moved further right than I was comfortable with, and I could no longer support them. Had there been MMP in the UK I would have chosen to vote Green, but with FPP they didn't stand a chance, so, had I remained in the UK, I would have voted Lib Dem as a reasonable alternative.

When I switched from Labour to Green in NZ, it was once again because the brand-new Green Party represented my strong left-wing views better than Labour did - and with MMP I knew my vote had a chance of making a difference.

I remember once sitting in a pub in England debating politics with a group of friends. I was probably around 20 years old at the time. An older guy somehow became involved in our discussion, and very condescendingly told me that "Everyone's left-wing when they're young and idealistic. When you're older and wiser you'll move to the right - just like everyone else does. You'll see sense in time."

I indignantly told him that I was left-wing then, and that I would remain left-wing all my life, because, to me, the policies, ideals and beliefs of the political Left are the only ones that make sense. They are the policies, ideals and beliefs that I share, and about which I care very deeply. I told him I "saw sense" then, and I would "see sense" all my life - and that I would always view life through the eyes of a left-wing idealist.

If you're reading this, Mr-condescending-right-wing-non-idealist older-dude - see? I was right (or perhaps that should be left). On the two occasions I have changed parties it's been either because my party left me (by moving right), or because a better alternative presented itself. Left-wing is where I belong, and left-wing is where I'll stay. Hooray!

If you're not entirely sure who to vote for in the upcoming New Zealand election, perhaps you'd like to try the Pundit Election Quiz. It's modelled on the award-winning US version, and is a very quick and easy way of determining which party most represents your views. Choose which issues you most care about, respond to a series of statements, and find out which party is best for you and why.

I'll give you three guesses which party came closest to matching mine...

Don't forget to vote!

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