When millions feel unable to vote for their favourite candidate, something is seriously wrong

Megan Collins, former Student Placement

Posted on the 6th March 2020

Three months after the election, yet more evidence of Westminster’s dysfunction is coming to light.

Tactical voting is going up

Previously unreleased YouGov data for the ERS has revealed that almost a third of voters (32%) said they voted tactically in the 2019 general election, up from around one in five two years earlier. This means that more and more voters feel they have to vote for the ‘lesser evil’ rather than the party they actually want to.

The reason? Westminster’s First Past the Post electoral system. The UK remains the only democracy in Europe who continues to elect MPs in this way. As a one-party-takes-all system, FPTP systematically ignores the views of many of voters, and turns politics in most seats to a two-horse race between the big parties.

Regionally, tactical voting is at its highest in London, the north of England, the south east and south west of England, all with around a third of voters saying they cast a tactical vote. As a result, Westminster’s system doesn’t just lead to warped representation, it skews our political debate in favour of who ‘can win here’ – rather than who voters want to support.

Worryingly for the future of UK democracy, the YouGov data shows that younger people were more likely to say that they voted tactically than other age groups, with 35 percent of under 25s opting to vote this way. But it wasn’t just younger voters – 30 percent of over 65s also said they voted tactically.

As a young voter myself, while I find this figure concerning, I am not shocked. 2019 was only the second time I had been eligible to vote, and I would be the first to admit that considerations of which party was more likely to win influenced my vote both times. Many of friends at university, both politics and non-politics students, have also said that they voted tactically.

“It makes me feel like my vote is pretty pointless, as in every instance it has been wasted”, said one voter who opted to support the Liberal Democrats mainly to stop the Conservatives winning. Whilst there were many who voted for this reason in this election, tactical voting is not party-specific, with many votes cast for all parties being done so tactically.  I know many other students who said that they voted for one of the Labour and Conservative parties even though the policies of small parties such as the Greens appealed to them most.

As reported by the ERS, the polling by YouGov found that tactical voting was slightly higher among those who had voted Labour or Liberal Democrat (36% and 39% respectively), but still at 30% for those who voted Conservative.

[bctt tweet=”In 2019, tactical voting was slightly higher among those who had voted Labour or Liberal Democrat (36% and 39% respectively), but still at 30% for those who voted Conservative.” username=”electoralreform”]

Indeed, while tactical voting may lead to support for a range of different parties, the feelings of disillusionment and distrust are widespread across many voters, making them feel their voice is consistently ignored in a toxic, divisive political system that benefits the already powerful. This comes after the ERS reported that 71% of votes cast in 2019 did not count towards the actual result.

Electoral pacts are the flip side of the same coin

But Westminster’s voting system doesn’t just change how we vote, it changes how parties behave too. The broken FPTP system means that elections are frequently fought on pacts around one policy. This was shown by the Brexit Party’s decision to not stand in any seat that the Conservatives had won in 2017 – half of all the seats in Britain – in order to boost the pro-Brexit vote.

It also explains the more limited agreement between the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Plaid Cymru that only one would stand in 60 seats in England and Wales in order to secure a ‘People’s Vote’ on the EU. When the voting system makes a party stands down in a seat to create an artificially binary choice, voters lose the chance to debate and vote based on a wide range of issues. When parties try to game the system at election time it is the voters who end up being short-changed.

It’s time that Westminster caught up with other modern democracies and ended the practice of voters having to ‘hold their nose’ at the ballot box. At the ERS, we believe that the only way to ensure voters get real choice and a clear voice is through introducing a proportional voting system (such as the Single Transferable Vote), where people can rank candidates by preference rather than see their vote go to waste.

As Dr Jess Garland, Director of Research and Policy at the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“Rather than a system based on voting against candidates you dislike, it’s time to move to one which values voting positively and reflects a range of voices. No more talk of ‘splitting the vote’ – there’s a better way of running elections today which allows real choice.”

A third of voters should not have to leave their preferred choice of party at the door of polling stations. It is time that the UK overhauled its broken electoral system in favour of a fairer, proportional one truly representative of the public and reverse the increasing trends towards polarisation and distrust.

Megan Collins is a placement student at the ERS from the University of Nottingham. 

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