We should be scrutinising candidates and policies. Instead the talk is of tactical voting and electoral pacts. Brexit has thrown the deficiencies of our voting system into sharp relief, but this must be the last general election fought under first past the post, writes Ian Simpson (Electoral Reform Society). Introducing the single transferable vote would mean voters would feel free to vote for the party they want to win.
Judging by the first week of the general election campaign, it seems likely that the remaining month will see a lot of focus on ‘tactical’ issues. We’ve already seen electoral pacts, or parties standing down in some seats, on both sides of the Brexit debate, alongside a major focus on the need (or not) for tactical voting – with one in four expected to opt for a second or third choice party this election, according to BMG polling for the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).
These are not the kinds of things that should be the focus of a general election campaign. Instead, voters should surely be scrutinising the positions of the parties on the issues they care about and assessing the parties’ leadership teams. Voters should also always be free to choose the candidate or party they most prefer, from the widest possible range of parties and independent candidates.
However, under First Past the Post (FPTP), discussions about electoral pacts and tactical voting are always likely to feature strongly, squeezing the space for debates about the future of the country and narrowing the options presented to voters. The Brexit division that has split the country since 2016 is making talk of pacts and tactical voting more prevalent than ever.
This is because on both sides of the Brexit argument there is a fear that if ‘the other side’ is more successful in coalescing voters behind a particular party in particular seats, then their ‘side’ will lose the election. On the Leave side, Nigel Farage has announced that the Brexit Party will not stand in the 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017.
On the ‘Remain’ side of the debate, an agreement has been reached between the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru to only stand one candidate in 60 seats. The Liberal Democrat candidate in Beaconsfield has also announced they are standing down in favour of Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative who is standing as a pro-Remain independent, while the Green candidate in Chingford and Woodford Green has announced their decision to stand down in order to boost Labour’s chances of unseating Iain Duncan Smith. In Northern Ireland, the SDLP and Sinn Fein have each stood down in three seats, in order to try to boost the prospects of each other’s candidates (and potentially other pro-Remain candidates) in these seats.
It is a sad indictment of our system when any political party or candidate decides that the best course of action is to withdraw from certain areas, denying their supporters the chance to vote for their first choice party.
The bigger story on the Remain side of the Brexit divide is probably tactical voting – the idea that people vote for a party that is not their first choice, on the basis that the party is better placed to beat a party which that voter actively dislikes. Polling evidence suggests that Remain voters are more split in their voting intention than Leave voters are, which has driven the creation of tactical voting websites. These sites use data in order to offer pro-Remain voters a recommendation on which ‘pro-Remain’ candidate in their seat is best placed to win.
Although this is in many ways an understandable reaction to the iniquities of our voting system, it does present problems. Firstly, there are different data that can be used when producing a tactical voting recommendation – usually either the result in the constituency at the last general election, more recent polling data for the constituency, or a combination of these. This can mean different recommendations for the same seat, potentially confusing voters. It also means there is a danger that rather than arguing about who has the best policies, parties become embroiled in arguments about which of them is best placed to beat another party in a particular seat. Perhaps most importantly, it ignores the fact that voters may want to base their vote on a number of different issues, not just Brexit.
The BMG polling for the ERS suggests that around a quarter of voters are planning to vote tactically in the upcoming general election. It seems bizarre that we are using a system where millions of people feel unable to vote for the party they would most like to see win the election.
There is a simple solution that would remove the need for any talk of electoral pacts or tactical voting from our general elections: a switch to the preferential Single Transferable Vote (STV), a proportional system, used in Ireland for nearly a century. With STV, if a party obtains a reasonable level of support in an area, they are much more likely to receive representation than under FPTP, where there is an ever-present danger of getting as much as a third of the vote (or more) without any reward to show for it under our winner-takes-all system.
STV enables a basic democratic principle: you should feel able to vote for the person or party you support. People could vote for their first-choice candidate safe in the knowledge that if that candidate was not elected, they would still be able to influence the outcome via their second and subsequent choices. The parties would not need to consider pacts or be so focused on cementing themselves as the ‘realistic alternative’ in a particular seat.
If we want our future general elections to have more focus on the issues of the day and the visions of the various parties and less on electoral pacts and tactical voting, then this has to be the last general election held under FPTP.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.
Ian Simpson is a Research Officer at the Electoral Reform Society.