‘Progressive alliances’ shouldn’t be necessary: they’re product of a broken voting system

Posted on the 8th May 2017

There’s a lot of talk about June 8th being the ‘tactical voting’ election. This past couple of weeks we’ve seen the latest symptom: parties doing the tactical voting on behalf of the electorate – weeks before polling day.

‘Holding your nose’ has long been a feature under Westminster’s broken first past the post system – opting for the ‘lesser evil’ to stop the greater one from getting in. It’s a particularly negative way of framing democracy – and it’s one that becomes more prevalent the more parties enter the game, and the more voters spread support across those parties.

What it creates – this time being no exception – is a weird system of guesswork: people deciding who to vote for based on where the polls sit at one particular moment, rather than who they really back, or following nationally-set voting guides – some of which may be biased one way or another, or based on uncertain methodologies. It’s hard to see how ranking candidates preferentially, as in a fair voting system, is ‘complicated’ when faced with this.

Because of course it’s actually impossible for voters faced with a three, four or five-way marginal to be dead sure of their tactics. What it creates is a lottery election: too many people vote tactically, or even vote tactically in different ways (like, say, if they looked at differing polls), and their main opponent could slip through the net. It’s a game of football – where everyone is half-blindfolded.

All this has added significance when a snap poll demands parties step into campaigning mode with little preparation – and limited groundwork or a clear lay of the land.

This time is slightly different. In some places, voters won’t get shot at being tactical in the first place: in several seats, parties have responded to a broken voting system by withdrawing from the contest altogether. And it’s an understandable response to give one left- or right-leaning candidate a better chance.

It means voters can in theory vote tactically with more precision. But in reality, it means more people voting for their second or third-choice party. And it denies voters the choice of candidates and parties they deserve.

There is a randomness to which places will see deals being made. Brighton Pavilion is one example – the Lib Dems are standing down there in return for the Greens standing down in Kemptown. Yet Labour rejected a similar deal for the Isle of Wight, despite Greens standing down for Labour’s Rupa Huq in London. And all the main left of centre parties – Lib Dems included – are running in Bristol West, where the Greens are challenging the Conservatives.

It becomes a mess, a total gamble as to whether you’ll have a real choice of candidates next month. There’s little rhyme or reason – it’s a bizarre cocktail of national parties weighing in, local parties getting/not getting their way, and the negotiations between all of those parties and levels.

Let’s be clear. No party should ever have to stand aside in a democracy. Voters should be able to vote for their preferred party. Instead, parties are struggling to act logically in a very illogical system.

There’s nothing logical about a two-party system trying to operate in a multi-party era. It’s like trying to squeeze triangles, circles and every other shape through a tiny square hole. With a greater number of parties vying for seats – whether that’s UKIP, the Greens or a seemingly resurgent Lib Dems, winner-takes-all becomes even more chaotic. And, as a result, disproportionate and alienating.

There’s no doubt about it. Parties are in a terrible bind, with activists dissuaded from engaging with voters (whether that’s because they’re in a safe seat, or have to stand down in a marginal) – effectively punishing citizens for where they live.

‘Progressive alliances’ and a surge in tactical voting are the latest symptom of an out-of-date voting system for Westminster. They have apparently become regrettable necessities under the current system.

But it doesn’t have to be. In Scotland on Thursday, voters had the option to rank candidates standing for local office based on their preferences. If their first choice didn’t muster enough support, their second choice was counted instead. This was the third time voters there had used proportional voting for electing councillors, through the Single Transferable Vote. And once again, candidates had an incentive to campaign right across local communities, in contrast with England and Wales where many voters will have been left out in the cold.

All voters deserve a political system, like in Scotland, where there’s no need to second-guess other voters – and where the drive for parties to stand aside for fear of splitting the vote is totally eliminated.

It’s time to replace Westminster’s out-of-date voting system. Let this be the last postcode-lottery election voters – and parties – have to figure out.

First published in the New Statesman

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