The unbearable daftness of tactical voting

At about this time in every general election there occurs a curious little ritual. After condemning the Labour Party for being insufficiently radical over the previous four or five years, Polly Toynbee in the Guardian calls on people to put on their nose pegs and vote Labour after all. This is supposed to be necessary to keep the Tories out. Sure enough, this last week, out came the nose pegs yet again as, for the fourth election in a row, Toynbee wheeled out her increasingly threadbare plea.

Run over by the Labour juggernaut?
Run over by the Labour juggernaut?

This time, more specifically, she called on Green Party voters in Tory-Labour marginals not to vote Green but to cast their vote for Labour. This may be a slight improvement on a blanket call to everyone to vote Labour but is still deeply flawed. The call to vote tactically is just plain wrong for five main reasons.

First it’s extremely conservative. In two ways. How will we ever get a reformed voting system if we continue to vote for our second choice and allow Labour a majority? As in 2001, 2005 and 2010 we’re again urged to don nose pegs by the metropolitan liberal chaterrati. But doing so in 2001 and 2005 did not bring the much-needed reforms. Why should they do so now? It’s conservative in a second way too. Perhaps because voters on the left are more aware of the electoral context, they seem more prone to fall for the tactical voting scam than voters on the right.

Allowing the far right to rack up votes that aren’t balanced on the left would be a big mistake and brings us to the second reason why tactical voting is an error. It’s illogical. While it may make sense to vote tactically in the short term to stop the Tories, it hardly makes sense in the long-term. In a first past the post system if you can’t get seats then get votes. The more votes there are for the Greens, MK, TUSC or whatever, the more likely a Labour government would have to take their views into account rather than go on patronising/ignoring them.

It’s also important in the long-term to position your party in second place to have a chance of winning next time around. If you always vote tactically this can never happen. In fact, if voters had always voted tactically, then of course Labour would never have displaced the Liberals as the main opposition to the Tories.

Third, for most voters tactical voting is meaningless. There’s only around 100 or so constituencies, out of 632 in Britain, where tactical voting makes sense even in its own short-term terms. In most of southern England with its massive Tory majorities and in most of urban, northern England, with its equally massive Labour majorities, tactical voting makes no difference at all.

Fourth, it’s often a wasted vote. We rejected the explicit alternative vote, but parliamentarians still insist we have to exercise it informally. If we vote for anything but Labour/Conservative we’re told we’re in reality voting for the Tories/Labour and not for whatever we’re actually voting for. Which seems to make the simple business of casting a vote unduly complicated. In the absence of a proper proportional system it’s far easier to vote for our first preference, especially as every extra vote for that preference makes it less likely views you agree with can be ignored (again) after the election is over.

And where are we supposed to draw the line? We have marginal seats in Cornwall, but here a vote for Labour makes it more likely the Tories win. So here, appeals to Green and MK voters to vote tactically to stop the Tories logically means voting Lib Dem. Are Labour supporters calling on us to vote Lib Dem here then? Even the Guardianistas are now drawing the line at a vote for the discredited Tory-lite Lib Dems, who loyally supported the austerity budgets of the coalition government. Moreover, when two of our three Lib Dem MPs were indistinguishable from the Tories in supporting NHS ‘reform’ and the Devonwalling of our historic border, there seems little point in voting Lib Dem. From an MK perspective in particular, the party will only be able to break through over the dead body of the Liberal Democrats. Voting for them just to stop the Tories getting in is perverse in the extreme.

Finally, the call led by the Guardianistas for Greens, socialists and minority nationalists to vote Labour in Tory-Labour marginals is breathtakingly arrogant. Labour politicians are still living in the 1950s and dreaming of a two-party system. They seem to think they have some sort of God-given right to demand the support of progressives, despite embracing destructive neo-liberal policies since the 1990s.

In fact, there were two simple things Labour could have done to encourage the tactical voting it now belatedly calls for. In France the Socialist Party usually gives the Greens and Communists a free run in a few constituencies even though in most seats they compete against each other. This could also happen here. Labour could have stood aside and given the Greens a free run in Brighton Pavilion, Norwich South and Bristol West. If they’d done so, their calls for tactical voting would have some moral credibility.

But what did they do? On the contrary, they made Caroline Lucas’s seat one of their targets. And last year when they suddenly got frightened about a possible Green surge they set up a unit to ‘deal with’ the ‘threat’ from the Greens. With this record their calls for Greens to vote for them are a brazen cheek.

The other simple thing Labour could do to encourage tactical voting for them would be to promise the first act of a Labour Government would be to introduce a genuine PR voting system. If they did that progressives could consider voting for them once. Although Labour’s small problem might be that they’d never vote for them again afterwards.

[PS: In the unlikely event of anyone considering voting for Ukip reading this, just replace Labour with Conservative and Green/MK/socialist with Ukip/BNP]

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