Tactical or tactless? Some arguments against blanket tactical voting

As the prospect of a huge Tory majority looms, calls for ‘tactical’ voting become ever shriller. Those who insist on their right to vote for a party that has no realistic chance of unseating the noxious Conservatives are pilloried. At times the calls for ‘tactical’ voting verge on the hysterical. One Independent candidate in Aylesbury has even had a cup of tea thrown at him by someone who shouted ‘stop splitting the vote’. That’s just not cricket, old chap! So here’s what’s likely to be an unpopular blog as I put forward some arguments against ‘tactical’ voting.

Of course, not voting for someone we prefer and instead voting for someone we don’t really prefer in order to stop someone we like even less is inevitable in an antiquated voting system where only a minority of votes count. Ever since the emergence of a three party system in the early twentieth century calls to ‘keep the Tory out’ have been an endemic feature of British elections. On the other hand, anyone has the right to vote for a candidate who best reflects their views and principles. It may be old-fashioned but that’s actually supposed to be the point of a ‘representative democracy’.

There are four major problems with adopting a universal strategy of ‘tactical’ voting to keep the Tories out. First, and most important, it’s fundamentally conservative (with a small c). Second, it’s difficult to distinguish between calls to vote tactically that stem from a genuine desire to stop the Tory and cynical calls to vote ‘tactically’ rolled out by bigger parties to protect their status. Third, it’s only employed in a negative fashion, voting against something rather than for something. Fourth, it’s used in a short term way rather than considered as a long-term strategy. Let’s consider these in turn.

1. Tactical voting is a basically conservative strategy because it maintains the status quo. If all non-Tories had always voted ‘tactically’ then the Liberals would never have been dislodged. Had voters in the early twentieth century voted ‘tactically’ the Labour Party would have been stillborn.

2. Because of its inbuilt advantage for established parties, tactical voting is a very useful ploy that enables Labour and the Lib Dems to ward off emerging challengers that might siphon off their votes. This is no principled anti-Tory stance but a cynical tool used by those who arrogantly presume they have some god-given right to all the votes that aren’t Tory.

Ah, fond memories. Stephen Gilbert and friend. Spot the difference – choice of footwear?

Take Stephen Gilbert, Lib Dem MP for St Austell & Newquay from 2010 to 2015 and candidate again this time. On his return to the fray he was quick to assert that ‘in Cornwall a vote for Labour, the Greens, or Mebyon Kernow helps the Conservatives‘. But these identical words were also used by him in 2015, even though he was the one who’d spent the previous five years helping the Conservatives as a loyal supporter of the coalition government. His voting record then was indistinguishable from Cornwall’s Tory MPs. Anyone seduced into voting for Gilbert was merely stifling the arrival of better alternative and progressive options for the voters of mid-Cornwall.

3. If we vote ‘tactically’ we’re in danger of saying that issues we might deem important can be shelved for the next four or five years. For example, for those who realise that dangerous climate change is the most critical issue facing the planet, then voting Lib Dem or Labour just to keep out the Tory seems of secondary importance. Instead, they have to put their principles first and vote for the candidate or party they think is most likely to push for real action on their core concerns. Even if not elected, the stronger the vote for someone close to those core concerns, the more likely it is that the tweeedledum/dee parties will take notice. Such voters cannot afford the luxury of voting tactically.

4. Finally, if we want to vote tactically then why stop at short-term, knee-jerk thinking? Some long-term calculations might suggest different conclusions. For instance, from a Cornish nationalist perspective, is propping up the Liberal Democrats the most sensible option? For at least half a century the Lib Dems have been the soft option for those seeking Cornish devolution. Yet in that half century the Cornish Lib Dems haven’t been able to convince the rest of their party to respect Cornish rights, as was seen in the devonwall vote. While a few individual Liberal Democrats may be worth supporting, the party as a whole has for too long taken the votes of Cornish patriots for granted. Their rhetoric has accompanied painfully slow progress, while their propensity for policy cock-ups has verged on the disastrous. For example, unitary local government badly undermined the case for a Cornish Assembly. Moreover, given their abject failure to confront the ongoing suburbanisation of Cornwall, if we sit around and wait for the Lib Dems to deliver there may be no recognisably distinct Cornish Cornwall left to fight for.

The Lib Dems lie like some giant sloth sprawled across the path to Cornish self-government. For MK or a future Cornish nationalist party to succeed, it will have to replace the Lib Dems, not prop it up. Ceding the ground to the Lib Dems only leads to the withering away of alternatives, as has happened in St Ives. In what was once its strongest district, MK in St Ives is almost defunct. The same now seems to be happening to the Greens. Only over the dead body of the Lib Dems will a more forceful pro-Cornish party emerge. So the logic for a Cornish nationalist might be to vote tactically against the Lib Dems, not for them.

Clearly, in our electoral system, with its built in ‘wasted’ votes, a proportion of voters will always vote for the lesser evil. However, they need to approach this decision case by case rather than apply it in a mindlessly blanket fashion. When is it really worth subjugating principles to a short-term negative tactic? Sometimes it might be, sometimes not. It depends on the candidates and the possibility of success.

There’s one scenario however when tactical voting would most definitely be worthwhile. For those who feel so strongly about ‘wasted’ votes, the remedy is simple. Make proportional representation and the reform of the voting system an absolute priority. When the non-Tory parties agree to make PR the central plank of their campaign then it’ll be worth voting tactically. But is there any sign of this?


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