Last week I wrote about tactical voting at the 2019 General Election, after the ERS revealed that almost a third of voters did not feel they were able to vote for the party they actually supported – instead settling for the ‘lesser evil’.
The logic of this is unsurprising. The First Past the Post system used by the UK to elect our MPs constrains voters into selecting the party most likely to win the seat for fear of their vote being ‘wasted’. Indeed, a recent report from the ERS found that as many as 71% of votes did not count in the 2019 General Election – further fuelling the idea that that only a few votes are worth the trip to the ballot (or post) box.
The Brexit pacts of 2019
This winner-takes-all system has long encouraged voters to hold their nose at the ballot box. But as a recent paper by election expert Jonathon Mellon has outlined, this became particularly relevant in 2019, where the EU referendum provided a backdrop for tactical voting based on Leave/Remain standpoints.
Facilitating this rise in tactical voting were the two electoral pacts formed in 2019 – Unite to Remain, and the Brexit Party’s decision to stand down in Conservative-held seats. As noted last week, these electoral pacts are two sides of the same coin. Not only are voters having to change their behaviour in response to this broken electoral system, but parties are too. The end result of this system-imposed scheming? Less choice for voters.
However, Mellon’s research has found little evidence to suggest that either of the pacts had ‘material impact on the result’. For the Brexit party, for example, so many of its supporters had defected to the Conservative party that standing down candidates in these areas did not appear to have a significant impact.
On the other side, Mellon finds that there are no constituencies where a Unite to Remain candidate won by a smaller margin than the combined 2017 share of the parties that stood down – in other words, where the pact was likely to be decisive in electing a Remain MP.
This is because supporters of the parties making up this pact – the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Plaid Cymru – were as likely to prefer the Conservative party as the pact parties. If Labour had joined this pact, Mellon argues it would likely have made little or no difference to how many seats Labour won – only putting it marginally closer to government by reducing the total number of Conservative seats.
Getting around an absurd voting system
Let’s be clear: voters aren’t to blame for trying to get around an absurd voting system – one that is built for two parties and penalises choice. When pacts are valued above policies in influencing people’s decisions, it is no wonder politics is so polarised.
To make matters worse, tactical voting is never guaranteed to work. Not only are voters having to ‘hold their nose’ at the ballot box, but they’re also having to cover their eyes. Voting tactically means is the kind of electoral gambling forced on people by Westminster’s broken voting system.
One of the many consequences of this failing system is that when only one party stands in a seat, the issues we care about are easy to ignore.
The way to avoid these awful throws of the dice at elections? Moving to a fair, proportional voting system where you can rank candidates by preference.
As 2019 showed once again, creating an artificial binary choice in elections means that voters simply continue to go unrepresented in Westminster. This increases voter disillusionment and distrust in the political system.
It is no wonder that people are fed up with a toxic, divisive political system that benefits the already powerful. It is time that Britain caught up with other modern democracies to create a fairer system where all voices were heard.
Thankfully, local elections in Scotland and all elections in Ireland show there’s an alternative. The Single Transferable Vote means voters don’t have to opt for the ‘lesser evil’ every election.
Let’s work towards a political system that isn’t built on second-guessing other voters about ‘who can win here’ and what’s a ‘wasted vote’. Instead, we can ensure it’s policies and principles that matter – every time.
Sign our petition for a fair voting system for Westminster