Tomorrow I vote. And it's not easy. I thought it would be made easier by the Citizens UK General Election Assembly on Monday night (declaration of interest: I helped organize it) which was, in the words of the Archbishop of Westminster last night, "the most interesting moment of the election and far better television that the three formal debates".
Citizens UK is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, and the home of community organizing in the UK.
The fact that all three candidates appeared at our assembly of 2,500 people days before the election, and agreed to recognize civil society by appearing at future assemblies, has left me relaxed about the outcome. Civil society is the winner tomorrow.
But I'm not sure it made it easier to decide how to vote.
We had six asks, which in their way reflect Catholic social teaching: to give civil society a place at the table of the governance of the nation; to extend the living wage, to end the detention of children in immigration centres, to cap usurious interests, to make available land for affordable private homes and to introduce a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants. You can see how they responded here.
The Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, appears best placed to give civil society the political recognition it needs to shape the market and the state -- a key demand of Catholic social teaching, as I argue in my book Faithful Citizens. Cameron's advocacy of the 'Big Society' may well be the single biggest shift in British politics for years, one that is recognisable from Caritas in veritate and the Catholic bishops of England and Wales' pre-election document. We need to escape the tired binary of unfettered markets and an ever-expanding state to pick up the pieces. The Big Society seems to be it.
Yet if you saw the prime minister, Gordon Brown on Monday night -- his speech to us has become a YouTube hit, scoring 60,000 hits and galvanising the Labor Party base -- it's hard not to feel some regret at his departure. His fiery commitment to overcoming the lot of the poor was on vivid display; that kind of passion and commitment are all too rare in politics.
In short, the Conservatives seem to have the process right, but Labor in many respects the better program.
And what of Nick Clegg, the Liberal-Democrat leader whose unforeseen bounce has turned this election, unusually, into a three-horse race? He has slipped back into third place, but could poll enough votes to influence the formation of government. On immigration -- an issue reflected in two of our agenda aims -- he is by the far the best, and the most courageous. And if, as the Guardian newspaper is saying, you believe that it's time to reform an electoral system which fails to translate percentage support into parliamentary seats, then a vote for the Lib-Dems makes that more likely.
Life issues? Unlike the US, abortion, assisted death and embryology do not fall easily inside party platforms. Cameron is personally in favor of bringing down the upper limit on abortion by two weeks -- but so are individual MPs in all parties. The Liberal-Democrats are traditionally the more secular party, but Labor under Brown has moved in a markedly secularist direction under pressure from gay rights groups whose notion of equality effectively chases faith from the public square. Under Brown, no conscience vote was allowed on the fertilization and embryology bill; and he has let Catholic adoption agencies go to the wall. But niether Cameron nor Clegg have objected. On balance, I think I will trust the Conservatives more than Labor when these issues come before Parliament; their record suggests they would allow conscience votes on these issues.
Should we look at the leaders' own faith? Brown is low church, Cameron liberal Anglican, and Clegg atheist -- but married to a Spanish Catholic woman, with whom he goes to Mass. But there was not a lot between them when, in one of the leaders' debates, they were asked about the papal visit in October.
There are other considerations, of course. The economic platforms of both Labor and Conservative have merit; what this election campaign has exposed is how empty the state's coffers are, and we can expect swingeing cuts under either Brown or Cameron. The prophetic voice on the economy has been the Liberal-Democrats' Vince Cable, who foresaw the crash of 2008.
Like most British voters in safe seats -- my constituency has never failed to return a Conservative MP, and tomorrow will be no exception -- I must think of how my vote can be made to count.
Or perhaps I will think back on Monday night, and ask myself who, at a visceral level, I would like to see in No. 10. Clegg was effective and very engaging -- but there was too much grandstanding. I'm looking for a prime minister who will listen.
Brown's cabinet seems tired and technocratic. Cameron's has talent and is ready to go. It's time for a change -- time for a new generation. Mine, in fact. When Cameron was in our offices only a few weeks ago, I realised, talking to him, that we're the same age. Maybe that will swing it for me.
Or maybe the gruff, passionate, hapless but strangely endearing prime minister I saw on Monday night deserves a few more years following his own mandate (having taken over from Blair, he has never been voted for).
One thing's for sure: this is not an easy decision -- and there's no better time to pray for guidance.