Why tactical voting is a terrible idea

In a departure from my usual focus on my PhD in astrophysics, I wanted to write down my thoughts on tactical voting. Please note that I’m not a political commentator, nor was I ever trained in politics. This is my opinion, based on my new and strong engagement in politics over the last few years. My arguments focus on Green supporters voting tactically for Labour, but could just as easily apply to similar situations across the political spectrum.

Part of my political awakening was my involvement in the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Part of my political awakening was my involvement in the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Anyone I’ve ever spoken to about tactical voting agrees that it’s a shame that people feel the need to vote tactically. This, I think, transcribes into a relatively uniform agreement that our current electoral system in the UK is not fit for purpose. A system that sees some parties gain 5 times less seats than they win votes (e.g. Greens), and others gain twice as many seats as votes (e.g. DUP), can’t be right, can it? Many will say “Oh but you can’t have proportional representation – then you lose the local representative – an MP who can express your local views”. What utter rubbish. If you think your local MP represents you and your fellow constituents over their party whip, you’re sadly misguided. They represent their party, and if they want to keep their job, they’ll follow the party line, regardless of what’s best for their constituency.

Anyway, so long as people keep voting tactically, we’ve very little chance of seeing anyone other than David Cameron or Ed Miliband as PM after 7th May. Both of them have ruled out electoral reform, which means we’re stuck with the current system for the foreseeable future. What to do then? The answer is to vote for whoever you believe represents your values the most. The answer is certainly not to be coerced into sticking with the two and a half main parties, who have broadened their policies to encompass as much of the electorate as possible. This is how New Labour won in 1997. Unless of course they somehow still represent you, in which case, vote away! The trouble is that whilst Labour and the Conservatives still occupy different spaces on the political spectrum, and do have different policies in a many areas, they have become so broad in their ideals that they can’t fully represent anyone. A true socialist couldn’t stomach Ed Balls’ planned austerity cuts, nor could a neo-liberal centrist sit calmly and listen to Glenda Jackson’s rousing anti-Thatcherism speeches.

So why are so many people still stuck with voting Labour or Tory, or sometimes Lib Dem to “soften the blow”? Because people fear that voting any other way would let the other side back in. How ghastly it would be to see the ‘enemy’ in power! Much better to have our team in charge, even if we don’t quite agree on everything, or many things in fact. And even if we really would like to see an entirely different team have a chance. We can’t risk upsetting the status quo; the to-ing and fro-ing, school yard politics of blue vs red. That’s how it’s always been and now’s not the time to try and change it. The enemy might get in! Yes, another Tory government would be bad news for many vulnerable people. A Labour government would be a moderate relief, for a fixed period. Then in another 5 or 10 years the right-wing ideology will take over again, and screw over the lower classes. We go in circles, with permanent and extended suffering. We need to break that cycle, and now feels like the best time in recent history to start on the road to progress. If not now, when?

I say it’s time for a change. I’ll be voting Green. I’ll not be voting Green because I think they’ll win – that’s not the point of voting (it’s not betting on a horse race). I’ll not be voting Green to keep the Tories, or the Lib Dems, or Labour out of government – that’s not the point of voting. I’ll not be voting Green because they’re the least worst of the options, but because in my opinion they’re by far the best option. There’s absolutely no way my voice could get confused with any other voice. I want Green policies enacted, so I’ll vote for them. If I vote Labour my voice will be confused with those who vote Labour to keep the Tories out, and those who vote Labour to keep the Lib Dems out, and those who vote Labour because they always have done, and those who vote Labour because their parents did, and even those who vote Labour because they genuinely agree with most of their policies. How could anyone possibly know what I want?

We don’t live in a democracy. We live in a pseudo-democracy in which we’re told there’s only really two options, but neither of them are great or much different from each other. Well, yes, you could vote for a different party, “but they won’t win!” If there’s one political tactic that I hate above anything else, it’s the concept of telling people not to vote for who they believe in, because they won’t win. Of course they won’t win if you don’t vote for them, but if everybody voted, and everybody voted for who they truly supported, imagine what would happen! People say “a Green vote is a wasted vote”, but I think a vote for anything other than what you believe in is a wasted vote. The biggest flaw here is that one’s “chance of winning” is entirely skewed by the previous election, by the amount of money spent in the constituency, and by the media spin. If people voted for policies, Greens would have the best chance of winning in most constituencies. So why are we stuck with Tory or New Labour? Because that’s what the Tories and Labour want you to think.

What pains me almost as much is the concept that your voting location can dictate how you vote. If you live in a marginal seat, it’s much harder to vote for a smaller party, than in a safe seat. Why should your neighbours politics affect yours? They shouldn’t, but they do. How can that be considered democratic?

What about the idea that your vote doesn’t affect the outcome? That’s a valid point too. Even the closest constituency battles in 2010 had over 40 votes between them. Unless you’re planning on convincing everybody you work with, catch the bus with, and live near to, to vote with you and in the same way, then your vote really doesn’t make a huge difference to the election of your MP. It does however, make a difference to the total numbers from across the country, and every vote for minor parties is counted and noted. When the Tories see votes slipping over to UKIP, they follow right-wards with their policies. Exactly the same happens with Labour when they see surges in support for the Greens, or TUSC. Only weeks after slagging off Green education policies as “madness”, Labour’s spokesperson for education announced new policies that sounded suspiciously similar to what the Greens were proposing. So, show your support for what you believe, and it might happen anyway even if that party isn’t in power.

What about when your vote does make a difference to the election of your MP? Let’s say you pulled out all the stops, and managed to convince every single person you know in your constituency to vote with you. If you elected another Labour MP, even a progressive, positive, great Labour MP, would you be proud? You’ve added another to a list of around 300. You might even have swayed the balance of power in government, though most likely this swing will be counter-acted in some other constituency. In any case you’re unlikely to be any closer to the kind of government you actually truly want. But just imagine the difference it would make if you’d elected another Green MP, or Plaid Cymru, or even UKIP, if you’re so inclined. The difference in the House of Commons, and the overall governance of the UK, would be really notable.

And even if you pulled out all the stops, and didn’t see your favourite candidate elected. Have you lost? Is this election the end of politics for you, your family and your future? Hell no it isn’t. Every vote counts, and sadly with this broken system, future elections depend massively on previous election results. We’ve seen how it affected the TV debates, and how it affects major and minor party status. It affects whether constituencies are considered marginal, or safe, and thus it affects how much money and effort is spent on winning your vote, and listening to your voice. If your party comes second, you lost, but you’re certainly in a better position for the future than if you’d come last. Yes it’s unlikely that the Green Party will win this election out right, but that won’t stop me voting for them, campaigning for them, and urging others to vote, regardless of whether or not we’ll win. In the absence of electoral reform, we have to play the long game. We need to reconcile short term suffering with long term ambitions, otherwise we’ll be in ever deeper trouble. (This is the same message we plug as environmentalists – what good is a strong economy today if tomorrow looks like the apocalypse?)

The cheapest and easiest attack on voting for a smaller party is that in the current climate, the danger is to let the enemy into power. Particularly in 2015, the prospect of a hung parliament brings together all sorts of arguments for tactical voting. For example: if you want to see Greens in government, you should elect Labour MPs, as Labour are more likely to deal with the Greens than the Tories would be. This sounds valid at first, but it doesn’t work if there aren’t any Green MPs to do a deal with! In any case it shows a short-sighted take on the problem. We need to focus on the future of politics, not this and only this upcoming election.

If you agree that tactical voting is an unfortunate consequence of a broken system, then please don’t perpetuate it. If you agree that the voting system needs major reform, then please, don’t vote for a party that isn’t offering it. I’d love to see a system in which you could vote for who you truly supported, without fear of who you hated most being elected instead. I’d love to see a system where second and third preferences were accounted for. I’d love to see a system that returned a representative number of MPs to parliament based on the number of votes cast. How do we get there? We must campaign with a united voice for electoral reform, but we must also vote for what we want, and expose the injustice of the current system.

Democracy doesn’t work unless people are engaged, and vote for what they want. Don’t make the tactical error.

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22 thoughts on “Why tactical voting is a terrible idea

  1. Pingback: SNP Tactical Voting … by Labour? « Better Nation

  2. Good article.

    One small point- you mentioned the DUP as a party benefiting from the present system. They will likely get nine MPs and other NI Unionists only one or two. But the trend is towards more Unionist co-operation (they have pacts in four seats this time), and in any case because NI is so small the benefit is dwarfed by that to the Labour and Tory parties in England.

  3. Your arguments are the same as those who said ‘lets try a third option’ in 1983, 1987 and 1992. It was the centre left being split between Labour and the Alliance (later Libdems) that let 3 Conservative governments and cemented Thatcherism into British political and economic life – with terrible consequences. If the centre-left splits again now we will head for another 15 or so years of Conservative government which will push the ‘centre’ of British politics even further right.

  4. It made me think: how did Labour get into power from the end of the 19th century. I think there are two major reasons, firstly Labour could latch on to a mass movement of workers at the end of the 19th century. Secondly, Labour (or rather the LRC as it was called then) was able to tactically coordinate with the Liberals in key seats in 1906. “In the 1906 election, the LRC won 29 seats—helped by a secret 1903 pact between Ramsay MacDonald and Liberal Chief Whip Herbert Gladstone that aimed to avoid splitting the opposition vote between Labour and Liberal candidates in the interest of removing the Conservatives from office.”

    So, it seems like Labour’s first step into parliament was helped by tactical voting.

    The logical equivalent today would be to work out which seats would be the most likely Green wins according to people’s stated policy preferences and then for minority voters in those seats to give up their votes in order to represent a serious opposition on voting day. At a party level this, I’m sure, would be illegal, but at a genuine grass-roots level I think it can’t be legislated against. The consequence is that labour voters and liberal voters would be the ones mostly likely to have to give up their preferences in order to unseat Tories (on the assumption that Green policies are closer to Liberal and Labour).

    It’s worth reading this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Labour_Party_(UK)

    • This kind of electioneering strategy may work, but doesn’t feel moral or democratic. Mainly because the Lib Dems, Labour and Greens have such different policies and ideals, that they cannot form viable pacts. People need to be able to vote for what they want, not something vaguely closer to what they want than another option. In addition I expect there’s very little chance that Labour or Lib Dems would ever offer up seats to Green protest votes – the response would always be “we need to win it for ourselves” – just look at Brighton Pavilion.

      • I would argue that democratic simply means it’s subject to the will of the people. It doesn’t mean that everyone should vote for personal self-interest. If it’s possible to subvert first-past-the-post to more accurately reflect voter ideals wouldn’t that make the voting more democratic?

        Would Labour voters be willing to sacrifice votes in one area to gain others elsewhere? Or would they be willing to sacrifice votes in one area in order to weaken the opposition? I think that can be argued as moral behaviour, since it’s moral to pursue a purpose for a greater good even at your own expense.

      • I suppose it depends on what people really want. What do we mean by ‘Labour voters’? New Labour supporters? Neo-liberal left-leaning people? Socialists? Trade Unionists?
        In any case, we’re subconsciously entering a short-term viewpoint. In the long term, every vote for genuinely left policies is a pull to the left. Every vote for Labour, I’m sad to say, is a pull to the centre.

    • It’s an interesting idea, based one two potentially flawed assumptions:
      1. Most Green voters would rather see a Labour govt than a Tory one (probably true, but a lot of Green supporters would be very unhappy with either)
      2. Most Labour voters would be willing to vote Green if they thought it wouldn’t make a difference to the election of their MP.
      It’s also interesting that the site doesn’t mention the Lib Dems, who are probably politically slightly closer to the Greens than Labour. I’m lucky enough to live in a Green target seat, so I won’t be using it. It also relies on a lot of trust with strangers, so is very open to abuse, but it’s does a good job of highlighting the ridiculousness of first past the post!

      • Hi, I have put my self down to participate – if I here back from a labour voter who is willing to vote green in a constituency where greens have a good chance I will vote labour – I haven’t had reply – I think I will e mail thd people who are running it … cheers

  5. Excellent stuff. Surely people who see the need for radical change in our limping and sick system (unless you’re wealthy) are fed up of prostituting their beliefs in order “to keep out” the Tories. Time for the long overdue shakeup of a “peaceful revolution”.

  6. But my vote has not returned a member of parliament that I have voted in decades. The system needs to change so we can feel our vote matters. I do not want to be represented by a tory. He ( always a he) doesn’t represent me. I live in Kensington and Chelsea.

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