Sometimes it’s who you don’t vote for that counts

As many Fistful readers will be aware, it’s widely expected that there’ll be a General Election in the UK this May. Of course, because of the way our system works, no one can say for definite when it will be until the Prime Minister actually goes to the Queen and requests that she dissolve Parliament but all the signs on the Magic Political 8-Ball point to an election on 05/05/05 (for once, a date we can all agree on regardless of how you order days, months and years).

The UK remains the only country in the EU to use the First Past The Post electoral system which means that, thanks to the vagaries of the system, we can have electoral results that seem somewhat odd to an external observer. Since 1945, no party has won more than 50% of the national vote (the Conservatives came closest in 1955 and 1959) but only one election – in the February election of 1974 – has seen neither of the two main parties (Conservatives and Labour) achieve a majority of the seats in Parliament.

Despite pressure from other parties, and some of their own MPs, neither of the two main parties supports any change in the electoral system at present. However, in recent years, there’s been a surge in the use of tactical voting in order to affect the result in individual constituencies. While it existed before, it became most prominent after 1992, when the Liberal Democrats and Labour pulled off several by-election victories over the Conservatives, with voters moving en masse to the party with the best chance of victory in that constituency. It then came into play on a national scale in the 1997 election with the Conservatives losing many more seats than they would have expected to on a uniform swing, thanks to voters targeting their votes more efficiently.

Tactical voting also came into play in the 2001 election, but with the added presence of the Internet as a factor. Several vote swap websites – inspired by similar sites in the US for Nader and Gore voters – came into existence, allowing voters in one constituency to ‘trade’ their vote with someone in another. For instance, a Liberal Democrat voter in a seat where Labour were challenging for victory would agree to vote Labour, in exchange for a Labour voter in a seat where the Liberals were challenging voting for them. Thus, each party would receive the same total number of votes nationally, but the votes would – theoretically, at least – be applied more efficiently.

Because very few seats changed hands in that election – only 21 out of 641 seats in mainland UK – it’s debatable whether the vote swaps had any effect, but a precedent was set for the use of the internet in this way.

In advance of this year’s election, several new tactical voting sites have come into existence, each hoping to have an effect on the way people vote and trying to make people’s votes more efficient. So far we have:

So Now Who Do We Vote For? is aimed at ‘disillusioned Labour voters’ who want to move the party back towards the Left. It’s targeting specifically ‘New Labour’ MPs (those most supportive of Tony Blair) and urging them to vote for the most effective party of the broader left in various constituencies, while also encouraging people to continue supporting left-wing ‘Old Labour’ MPs. It comes from .

Strategic Voter is aiming to create a hung Parliament – one where no party has an overall majority – and is recommending people target their votes to that end.

The ironically titled Backing Blair has been the most controversial of the three in that it seeks specifically to remove Tony Blair from office by targeting all Labour MPs – regardless of their stance on the issues – and urging people to vote for whichever party is best placed to defeat Labour in a particular seat.

The problem is, of course, that these different approaches mean that the three sites can end up advising different courses of action in the same seat – see this post on Perfect for an example. It’ll be interesting to watch these sites as they develop over the run-up to the predicted election date and to see if they end up coming into any sort of agreement over strategy, or if their disagreements end up crippling any effectiveness they do have. Time will tell…

One thought on “Sometimes it’s who you don’t vote for that counts

  1. It’s only one metric, but on the “So now who do we vote for” site, of nearly 1000 people voting, 30% claim to be voting for Respect at the next election, followed by 25% Green. This is not, I might tentatively suggest, a reasonable strategy for defeating Blairite MPs… I can’t say I was encouraged by this.

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