So, I wrote what quickly became my most popular blog post ever last week.
It was basically a big rant against the idea of tactical voting. In particular, I was pissed off by the Conservative Party’s claims that voting for the Liberal Democrats in the forthcoming general election would be somehow dangerous and irresponsible, because it would lead to the horrors of a hung parliament, and so we’d all be better off voting tactically for the Tories.
This would ensure that a nice and stable government would be voted into power, with only the minor quibble that it’s full of people we actively didn’t want to elect into office.
People seemed to agree with my basic point: if you want the Lib Dems (or your local Lib Dem candidate) to win, then vote for them. Don’t be scared out of voting for someone who you think is worth it because of what other people say will happen as a result of democracy occurring.
Voting Conservative, because you’re angry with Labour is like sawing your balls off because your trousers are too tight.
I thought this was rather good – but a lot of the same people who re-tweeted this, and seemed to agree with its sentiment, were also sharing links to articles offering advice on how best to vote tactically against the Conservatives.
The line of thinking I’m about to pursue may be familiar if you were following me on Twitter earlier today, but isn’t there something of a double standard there? To continue the analogy, it seems like basing your vote on who has the best chance against the Conservatives would be like realising your trousers are too tight, and deciding to go nude from the waist down, to make absolutely certain that everyone can see your intact testicles.
I’m not sure that analogy works, on reflection, but if you really want to spend precious minutes of your own life determining which political party is represented by which part of the anatomy and stringing together the logic of my strained metaphor, you go right ahead.
Anyway. Tactical voting is still something I’m really not comfortable with, in either direction. Maybe it’s naïve, and the simple mathematics of this particular situation do merit a non-idealistic approach, but if the Liberal Democrats have proved anything over the last few decades, it’s that the idea of having to vote tactically for whoever has “the best chance” can cause an entire country to completely lose track of what it actually wants. John Cleese was pointing this out in 1997, and yet the Lib Dems are only just now starting to be taken seriously by the 49% of the country who want to vote for them.
Oh yes, I remember now that I had a point. Let me try something. For all I know, this is all covered in the first half-hour of any Political Science 101 course, but I’ve been reasoning it out myself from an initial state of ignorance and apathy, so give me some credit.
A lot of the rhetoric around this (or any) election makes it sound like I personally have the ultimate power to cause horrific damage or wonderful good. A great deal of importance is attributed to my vote. “Vote Clegg, Get [Someone Else You're Not Meant To Like]“, and so forth. But actually, if I vote Clegg, I’m still going to get whoever I get.
Almost no vote cast in the history of ballot boxes has ever actually “made a difference”, if that one vote is taken in isolation, and the concept of making a difference is considered in the narrow scope of “Someone else would have won if you’d voted differently”. A margin of a single vote is almost unheard of in any election of any substantial size. But clearly this isn’t the most useful way to think about things.
You’re not going to single-handedly destroy the environment and send Mother Nature into an apocalyptic hot flash if you take two plastic bags home from the store to help carry your week’s supply of bottled water. The important thing to be addressed isn’t this one action of one person, it’s the general group approach taken by society as a whole. If millions of people do the same thing, then that’s actually significant.
Similarly, the only way it makes sense to consider what strategy people should use to vote is to consider the effect of such a strategy being taken up by an entire group. And this is where I think the very simple technique of “Vote for someone you want to win” holds up rather well, when considering the odds of achieving something actually democratic.
Yes, it’s true that some Lib Dem voters would prefer a Labour win to a Tory one, and although the Conservatives are winning in their constituency, Labour could still take it if given a boost by some Lib Dem supporters voting tactically. Again, no one voter is going to sway things, so you’d have to advise all Lib Dem voters in this area to vote Labour. And this might seem appealing, but it’s insidious and liable to screw things over down the line.
Say the Conservatives start with 40% of voters on their side, Labour have 35%, and the Lib Dems have 20%. The Lib Dems realise they don’t have a chance, but could force a Labour win, which would be preferable to letting the Conservatives take it. So, 55% of the electorate vote Labour, of whom 20% do so grudgingly.
What this does is make this constituency look like a very comfortably safe seat for Labour, which will only reinforce the idea among Lib Dems that they don’t have a chance, and need to keep voting tactically to keep the Tories out. But next time around, liberal sentiment might have grown, and maybe Lib Dem supporters now make up 35% of the populace, while the other two parties have slipped down to 30% each. The Lib Dems could win if everyone voted honestly – but Labour had such a strong majority last time, and the Conservatives were close behind… it’s probably not worth risking a Tory takeover, so better keep playing it safe and make sure the Labour guy stays in, right?
This is exactly the trap the Lib Dems have been stuck in for longer than I’ve been alive, and the best chance I can see of escaping it is to encourage a universal strategy of voting honestly, for someone you think is worth it. It’s hard to find any argument that there’s something undemocratic about that.
Well, except that the whole First Past the Post system is still profoundly broken. But that’s a whole
I do have things to talk about that aren’t politics, honest. I’ll get to them soon. Election’s on Thursday, so probably by the weekend I’ll be back to normal.