On Elections

How people elect parliaments

UK Election 2017 – Tactical voting costs British voters choice – but will it work?

It’s not a real choice when you’re forced to change your mind.

Some media observers of tomorrow’s UK elections are estimating that as many as a third of British voters will cope with their voting system by literally changing who they say should represent them in Parliament.

The Electoral Reform Society predicts a more modest, but still remarkable, 20% will do so.

The very idea of being ‘represented’ seems to be failing when people want one person or party to stand up for them politically, but find it necessary to hand over their vote to someone else.

They are doing it, of course, because the UK’s electoral system combines in one mechanism the selection of parliamentary representatives with the one means that citizens have to endorse – or block – one of the major political parties from securing absolute power as the executive government.

The 20% of voters thought to be preparing to ‘vote tactically’ are acting to do the latter.

Many are voting this way to ‘stop the Tories’. But some Conservative voters will be doing the same thing, such as those in Scotland who wish to kill off talk of independence.

At some place around the nation, some supporters of every party will be faced with a tactical voting decision.

Supporters of all minor parties – such as the Greens – face this choice in almost every circumstance. With a vote base of below 5%, there is no way of securing 5% of the representation.

Many Green supporters will be tempted to vote for the candidate of the Labour party or of the Liberal Democrats as their only means of – maybe – blocking the renewal of a Conservative government. In doing so, they lose their chance for real representation in Parliament.

In over a dozen seats the Green party has even felt the need to simplify the decision, but withdrawing their candidate altogether.

Labour generally does not return this favour, although they have obliged in the case of the single current Greens member of Parliament Caroline Lucas, previously elected in Brighton. (Correction: it was the Liberal Democrats, not Labour, who withdrew their candidate in Brighton Pavilion to assist Lucas. Labour did not pull out of any contests.)

Supporters of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) theoretically face the same challenge, although since UKIP has largely achieved it’s historic ‘project’ over the past few years, the party’s supporters seem to be gravitating away naturally.

The main force of tactical voting applies in the dozens of seats where the combined supporters of the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties outnumber those of the Conservatives, but where the Conservative candidate can win a plurality.

The 2017 election has seen a well-organised flourish of advocacy groups – including Tactical2017, businesswoman Gina Miller’s Best for Britain anti-Brexit movement, campaign group Progressive Alliance and even the Guardian newspaper – are providing online tools to make recommendations to voters who oppose the Conservative government’s re-election.

A similar, but smaller and less coordinated, phenomenon is occurring in Scotland. Those who oppose the pro-independence direction of the Scottish National Party, which won a wildly disproportional 56 of 59 seats in Scotland in 2015, need to choose the best chance among a Labour or a Conservative (or in a few cases a Liberal Democrat) to boost up as the leading challenger.

The differences between these other parties makes coordinating such tactical voting politically awkward, but many Scottish opponents of the SNP will work it out for themselves.

Will all these voting recommendations work? Who knows, and in any case it will never be possible to definitively determine to what extent they had an impact.

That tactical voting is needed is an indictment on the electoral system being used.

The same problem applies in Canada, which also has an unusual three-major-party political dynamic in most of the nation.

It will never be possible to know whether the estimate that 20% of voters will resort tactical voting was right. The national aggregate party totals after the election will be largely useless, since Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters switching in different constituencies will cancel each other out in such aggregate tallies.

It may be possible to measure the impact of the anti-Conservative tactical vote campaigns – which have transparently published their recommendations online – by comparing swings in those seats to seats where no recommendation was emphasized.

But since many of these seats ware also the high-contested marginal seats where campaigning and party spending are much higher, it will be hard to know what impact the campaigns had.

And as those undertaking tactical voting campaigns would no doubt agree, the entire exercise should never have been necessary in the first place.


UK election previews – Post #5 of 6

Post#1: Polling and predictions

Post#2: Who’s going to show up?

Post#3: The battleground regions in today’s elections

Post#4: Far from equal: most British have little say over government

Post#6: Who gets represented in British Parliaments?


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