Well, the results are in. Campaigners campaigned, and voters voted. But not all was well.
Because the elephant in the room in this by-election was the absence of something that should be a given in any 21st century: real voter choice.
That’s because three parties – UKIP, the Conservatives and the Greens – took the decision to stand aside to turn this into a two-horse race, in this case between the Independent Zac Goldsmith and the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Olney. As we wrote in October, it’s an invidious position to be in:
“No party really wants to stand aside. And why should they? Voters deserve a choice, and pacts along the lines of ‘I’ll step aside here if you step aside there’ can come across as stitch-ups to voters.
“Whether you’re a senior party figure – or even just a supporter – you want your party’s vote to be high. You want to stand everywhere. And you want to stand out as unique, not a watered-down or beefed-up variation of another party.”
Of course, once the campaign kicks into gear, this idea falls by the way-side. But it does mean that in all the excitement of the Richmond by-election, one thing has gone missing – voters’ ability to vote for who they genuinely want to win.
It’s in large part because of our broken electoral system that people in Richmond had a seriously limited slate of candidates to choose from. Many felt forced to vote for candidates who were not their first choice, understandably putting tactics above the expression of their democratic will. It should be obvious that in this day and age – with voters ‘shopping around’ more than ever before, no one should feel forced to choose between head and heart.
The Greens, Conservatives and UKIP’s decision to stand aside is one that no party should have to make. More than that, it’s a denial of democracy on the part of FPTP. The fact that this happened on both the left and the right shows that the sorry state of our electoral system hurts everyone across the political spectrum.
It’s time to be honest with ourselves: tactical voting is a scourge on our democracy. This is what happens when a two-party voting system collides with the reality of modern politics. It leaves both voters and parties worse off.
With a more proportional system for national elections, and Alternative Vote for by-elections, the problem is massively reduced. You don’t have to ‘hold your nose’ when you vote – you give your first preference to the party you actually support, and if they don’t have enough support to win, your vote is moved to your second choice. It’s not hard. No more accusations of parties being ‘spoilers’ and handing the seat to x, y or z.
It’s time we put paid to the awkward and unnecessary debates about ‘spoiler’ candidates. The way to do that is to have a voting system where it’s always possible for voters to vote for their preferred party. That, surely, is not such a radical idea.