Where Your Vote Barely Matters

John Lanchester · 500 Safe Seats, 150 Marginals

When you get in the groove of talking about the general election, it’s easy to forget that for a lot of people it’s barely taking place at all. Of the 650 Parliamentary seats, not more than about 150 are truly in play. If you’re living in the other 500, your vote barely matters. A few hundred yards up the road from where I’m writing and I’d be in Battersea, a Labour-held marginal which is one of the Tories’ top targets. About 300 yards the other way and I’d be in Streatham, a once-safe Labour seat which is now 75th on the Lib Dem target list. It would be in play if Labour had a total meltdown, and Clegg paid a campaign visit there a couple of days ago. Labour activists talk about it as a marginal seat, which not so long ago they didn’t do. About a mile in a different direction and I’d be in Tooting, which is an important marginal because it is the Tories 112th target seat. That’s significant because if the Tories win Tooting it means they are right on the cusp of power: Tooting would need a 6.09 per cent swing and the national figure the Tories are aiming for is 6.8 per cent.

Instead, I’m in none of the above: Vauxhall, which is a rock-solid Labour seat whose MP, Kate Hoey, is further insulated from the distant-second Lib Dems by having voted against both the Iraq war and foundation hospitals. She also voted against the ban on fox-hunting, which shows she’s no slave to party orthodoxy. But she has a lead of 24.5 per cent over the Lib Dem, so there’s no point at all in voting here, other than to confirm her in her walkover or to help bump up the Lib Dem vote as a form of protest. (The Tories? Forget it.) It is crazily arbitrary that one’s vote should vary so much in value depending on whether you live a few minutes walk in one direction or another, and just because we’ve all got used to it doesn’t make it any less grotesque.

Of these various constituency battles, Tooting is probably the most interesting. The sitting MP is Sadiq Khan, the first ever Muslim to attend the Cabinet (he’s minister for transport, which means he goes to Cabinet when transport is discussed) and also the man who caused a furore when it emerged he was bugged interviewing a constituent, Babar Ahmad, in Woodhill Prison. I know Wikipedia isn’t a source and all that, but check this out:

Babar Ahmad was first arrested at his Tooting home on 2 December 2003 by UK anti-terrorist police of 1 Unit 1 Area Territorial Support Group based at the high security Paddington Green Police Station. By the time he arrived in the custody suite of the police station, he had sustained at least 73 injuries, all later documented by both police and independent doctors, as well as in photographic and video evidence.

He filed a formal complaint that was supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). He complained that officers had beaten him with fists and knees, stamped on his bare feet with boots, rubbed metal handcuffs on his forearm bones, sexually abused him, mocked the Islamic faith by placing him into the Muslim prayer position and taunting, ‘Where is your God now?!’, and applied life-threatening neck holds to him until he felt he was about to die.

On 10 September 2004, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to prosecute any of the police officers involved in the attack. However, on 17 January 2005 the IPCC declared that PC Roderick James-Bowen (born 1971) would face internal police disciplinary procedures over the assault.

On 13 April 2005 PC James-Bowen was cleared at a Police Misconduct Tribunal held at Woolwich Crown Court. Metropolitan Police Commander Andre Baker, the President of the Tribunal, stated that PC James-Bowen should be ‘commended, not castigated... for his great bravery’ in arresting Babar Ahmad.

On 18 March 2009, Babar Ahmad was awarded £60,000 compensation at the High Court in London after the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson admitted that he had been the victim of a ‘serious, gratuitous and prolonged attack.’

On 26 March 2009, Mayor of London Boris Johnson announced an inquiry into the Babar Ahmad case with external judicial oversight by retired judge Sir Geoffrey Grigson, to report back to the Metropolitan Police Authority.

On 3 November 2009, following his acquittal in a separate racial abuse trial, 42-year old PC Mark Jones of 1 Area TSG was named as being involved with the attack on Babar Ahmad. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, announced that he was taking the case ‘very seriously’ whilst considering whether to prosecute PC Jones and the other officers involved in the assault on Babar Ahmad.

Ahmad has been in prison since 4 August 2004, following a grand jury indictment in the USA. Khan presented to Charles Clarke, then Home Secretary, a petition of 18,000 signatures arguing that Ahmad should be tried in the UK rather than extradited to the USA. It had no effect. Ahmad lost his subsequent appeal in the High Court and is awaiting a verdict of the European court of human rights.

Khan is seen as a good MP, I’m told by locals, and would normally be a shoe-in for re-election, but the tide is running hard against Labour and there is another factor. London local elections are being held on the same day as the general election, and Wandsworth council is by general consent well run by the local Tories. It has, over the years, had a lot of help and money to achieve its status as the Tories’ ‘flagship council’. Voters ticking the Tory box in the council election might well be tempted to tick it in the general election too, and in a tight contest that might do for Khan. This goes to further make the point that this election is so full of local factors and three-way mini-contests that it difficult to read or predict.

Finally, anyone wanting to wind themselves up should read this piece by Johann Hari about another Tory ‘flagship’, the London Borough of Hammersmith:

I walk the borough for days, trying to find what Cameron celebrates about this council – until, at the tip of the borough, I find a large grassy metaphor for Conservative priorities that seems so crude that I wonder whether it could have been secretly designed by the Socialist Workers Party cartoonist and plonked in my path. Hurlingham Park was a big vibrant patch of green where kids from the local estates could play, and run on one of the few professional running tracks in the country, in a setting so classically beautiful it was used in the film Chariots of Fire. But then the Conservatives were elected. They handed the park over to a large international polo consortium that has ripped out the running track and shut the park down for a month every year – so rich people can watch polo for hundreds of pounds a day.


  • 5 May 2010 at 4:21pm
    Chris Larkin says:
    Being registered to vote in Vauxhall as well i must admit it is very difficult not to share that sense of voter insignificance . Even taking into account the tide of unpopularity currently surging against Labour throughout the country, there is no doubt that Kate Hoey will win the seat by some considerable margin. While i have no problem with this per se i cannot help but feel that had i been living down the road in Battersea this would at least have lent some sense of gravity to the situation when visiting the polling booth tomorrow. Having said this; and having also read Johann Hari's article earlier today i am actually just grateful that i am not one of many people who do not seem to meet Conservative priorities and are currently sleeping on "rotting mattresses by Hammersmith Bridge". If only those people who's vote really needed to count, actually did so.

  • 5 May 2010 at 5:03pm
    pinhut says:
    That there are any safe Labour seats considering cases such as that cited above is a travesty.

    For my sins, I grew up in Tamworth, which had a crooked Tory, David Lightbown as its MP (since time immemorial). His majority regularly topped 30,000. When the fates interceded and Lightbown passed away, his wretched wife took the seat.

    I then moved to Totnes where I could listen to the arrogant Tory, Mr Sheen, of "I have 500 trees in my garden" fame. This guy would win from the Lib Dems with crushing majorities.

    I am 37 and I have never cast a vote in a parliamentary election that had any genuine chance of producing a change.

  • 5 May 2010 at 5:05pm
    pinhut says:
    As an afterthought, considering that Labour has been wholly unresponsive to the public wish to not enter the war with Iraq, and to the public's demand for withdrawal from Afghanistan (which has topped 78% in recent polls) and has also flouted UK and international law, perhaps this blog post's title should be amended to

    "The UK - Where you vote does not matter"

    and have done with it.

  • 5 May 2010 at 6:47pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Even when your favourite party has a fair chance of winning your constituency that's no guarantee you aren't voting for a total wanker as an MP; for example as someone who's always voted Labour in the past, I wouldn't in a million years vote for a woman who supports foxhunting. I can't understand why Labour & Tory supporters who feel voiceless don't just vote Libdem. At least in that case they're adding to the Libdem total quantity of votes. Britain is going to have proportional representation in the end, so people might as well get used to it.

    • 6 May 2010 at 12:35am
      pinhut says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      But isn't the idea that a 'fairer system' exists a nonsense?

      To know what is fairer, the outcome required needs to be decided beforehand.

      Personally, I would believe it to be fairer if the two main parties were liquidated and any internal ideological debate that they may be having went on in the open between clearly identified factions, and the public accustomed themselves to a kaleidoscopic view of politics. But I say this would be 'fairer' because the outcome I desire is for more small parties to exist and for the binary of Labour and Conservatives, that serves both of them beautifully, to be dissolved. On that view, I do not see forming a trinity as any sort of answer.

      Fairness, finally, means nothing but advocating a system that suits one's prejudices.

  • 5 May 2010 at 10:01pm
    A. Sinclair says:
    Khan a shoe-in or a shoo-in?

  • 6 May 2010 at 7:00am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    No, it doesn't. Actually, it's exactly the opposite. The big advantage of PR is in the result, not just the way the election is conducted. The House of Commons has a wide range of parties represented, so why shouldn't the cabinet? Where I live, the woman who's the equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is way to the left of the PM and from a different party. You'd never get a situation in Norway where the country was run for years and years by the same old bunch of like-minded party faithfuls -- well okay, you would, but it's less frequent. Not every time, like in Britain.

    • 6 May 2010 at 8:34pm
      pinhut says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      It's not exactly the opposite (presuming you are replying to my point on 'fairness').

      For example, what if the Tories have a majority of English MPs after tonight, but are denied an outright majority by Welsh and Scottish MPs. Is that fair?

      Fairness is misleading. Every system contains its own injustices, you yourself have stated that "The big advantage of PR is in the result, not just the way the election is conducted. The House of Commons has a wide range of parties represented, so why shouldn’t the cabinet?"

      That's not an advantage, that is your desired outcome, a wider range of parties represented in Cabinet.

      You basically reiterate the logic of my point while arguing that I am completely wrong. Thanks.

  • 6 May 2010 at 1:25pm
    marshmallow says:
    I am stuck in the same situation in Islington North. Jeremy Corbyn is an excellent local MP , too left wing for New Labour, but a vote for him is a vote for Brown. The LibDem candidate is a gurning child if his literature is to bebelieved. And - as you say John - Tories? Forget it.

    Is a Green vote a wasted vote?

    • 6 May 2010 at 2:27pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ marshmallow
      I've been voting Green pretty solidly since 1997, but I'm thinking of retu[r]ning to the faith of my fathers this time, despite my candidate being a pretty awful Blairite. Every Labour MP elected is one less MP available for a Tory/Liberal coalition.

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