The case against tactical voting and protest votes

16th April, 2015 7:02 am

We’re only a few weeks from the general election. Tonight is the challengers debate. So we’re going to have to have a serious conversation about so-called “tactical voting” and “protest voting”. In particular, we’re going to have to talk about why it’s a bad idea.

Really, it shouldn’t be necessary to have this conversation, because we’ve been here before oh so very recently. In 2010, groups such as Compass (and a few senior Labour figures too – lest we forget) encouraged people to vote Lib Dem to stop the Tories in many marginals, only for the Lib Dems to walk hand-in-hand into the Rose Garden and through the Aye lobby in favour of the Bedroom Tax, NHS reorganisation, trebling tuition fees and any other policy this government have introduced that you might not like – take your chuffing pick. Now despite the fact that it was argued that in most cases “tactical voting” meant more votes for Labour, many were unconvinced, and some who – like me – were campaigning for Labour against the Lib Dems found it ludicrously unhelpful, especially when “Cleggmania” arrived.


And yet here we are again. This election one suggestion is that Labour and Green voters should “vote swap” ahead of election day. It’s a tacit acceptance that voting Green in all but one seat is an utterly fruitless endeavour (if we’re honest). By voting Green rather than Labour – in almost every conceivable circumstance, including (by the way) in Brighton Pavillion – there’s more chance of a Tory or Lib Dem MP being elected on May 7th. Now you can complain about the electoral system if you like – I’d like to change it myself, actually – but it’s the one we still (after a boring referendum) have.

If you want proof that trying to be tactical about your voting plans is foolhardy – take a look at this piece from George Monbiot in yesterday’s Guardian. He lists 16 seats where voting Green could help the Tories – yet omits the four seats from an Ashcroft poll published only a day earlier where Green vote is equal or greater to the Tory lead over Labour. If potential Labour supporters voted Green in those seats out of a misplaced sense of tactics or protest, then those seats will have Tory MPs in a month’s time.

By this point, some of you will be grumpily suggesting that this is a typical majoritarian brutalism from a Labour supporter.

Stop. Right. There.

No-one is more tired than me of the constant “only Labour can beat the Tories” refrain parotted by Labour politicians. Politics should at least attempt to inspire people to vote, not beat them over the head with their own lack of choice. Labour should be explaining that – as I believe – they are the party that has the best ideas for running the country, the right experience to implement those ideas and the drive to see it through. I want you to be inspired to vote Labour, excited to vote Labour and enthusiastic about doing so – not because of some brutalist vote x or get y manoeuvre. The only time I want to hear “only Labour” from Miliband in tonight’s TV debate is that Labour’s the only party you should vote for, because – united, with a policy platform and the Tories on the run – it’s not just the best placed party to beat the Tories, it’s the best party full stop.

So please don’t take this as an expression of that base, narrow and unappealing “only Labour” argument.


There had to be a but.

This election looks like it’s going to be pretty damn close. We’re not talking about expressions of discontent here, we’re talking about who gets to run the country – a choice between two starkly differing visions. It’s easy to claim that all major parties are the same, but no-one who’s read both manifestos could realistically say that. And in that messy, complex period of days or even weeks after May 7th, seats will matter. But so will the “popular vote”. If the Tories lose on seats but “win” even by a hairs breadth on total votes cast, you can bet your bottom dollar David Cameron will see it as his chance to cling to the Downing Street doorframe. (It’s a bad argument for Cameron to make – Labour won the popular vote in 1951 and lost the election, but then the Tories had a majority in the Commons, it’s near impossible for Miliband to have a majority of MPs and lose the popular vote this time).

This isn’t going to be one of those elections where it doesn’t matter if you vote in a safe seat or not. It matters. I live in a relatively safe Tory seat – but when talking about the popular vote, my vote will matter as much as any vote in the most marginal or marginals.

Now if you’re broadly on the left, and you seriously think that it doesn’t matter whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister, that it really doesn’t matter whether the Tories or Labour are the largest party after May 7th – and it doesn’t matter who wins the popular vote – then I’m sorry the Labour Party has failed to convince you, and although I disagree, you should probably go and vote for someone else.

Of course – everybody should vote for whoever they want, and neither I nor anyone else can or should tell you otherwise. That’s the wonder of democracy.

But if you have a preference in this election and you choose to vote tactically for a party you don’t support, or use your vote as a protest. Well on May 8th, and whatever comes after, you may live to regret that. Ask anyone who voted Lib Dem through protest or tactics in 2010. They’ll tell you just how that feels…

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