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Some Arguments Against Tactical Voting

May 12, 2017

I have some concerns about the popular tendency to vote tactically. Let’s define a tactical vote as one which is cast, not for the party/candidate that the voter believes would be the best, but for another candidate, in the hope of influencing the outcome in a certain way (e.g. trying to prevent the candidate of a party you dislike from winning).

 

To clarify, I readily accept that there are certain situations in which one should vote tactically (e.g. Germany 1933). But I am not convinced that there are many situations where it is the best choice, nor am I convinced that it is appropriate to vote tactically in the upcoming election.

 
Here are my arguments. If you’re only going to read one, go for 1: it’s probably the most important and convincing.

 
1) It is a Mistake to Think That “Seats Won” is the only Factor Relevant to Party Influence

 
A popular defence of tactical voting is the idea that, although it might ideally be better to vote for the candidate you think would be best, we have to decide based on the practical consequences. The fact is, one might say, we need the influence of the Tories must be reduced, or we must at least attempt to reduce it, any way possible and as much as possible. This means that the majority of non-Tory voters,if not all, should vote tactically, to try to reduce the number of Tory MPs as much as possible.

 
I think the assumption being made here is clear enough: the primary question we must consider when deciding who to vote for is, e.g., “which choice is most likely to lead to the defeat of the Tories in this seat at this election?”.

 
Now of course, this is an important question to bear in mind, but it would be a grave mistake to think that seat-winning is the only factor affecting party influence. This is evident from the influence and success of UKIP in the last several years.

 
Why and how did UKIP wield so much influence, despite having just 1 MP!?

 
a) They won a lot of votes.

 
b) They attracted a significant number of votes in various regions, in pretty much all areas of England. (Unlike e.g. the Greens, whose support is mostly confined to certain very atypical areas like Brighton).

 
c) They attracted a significant number of votes not only in traditionally Conservative areas, but also in areas traditionally loyal to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. (Again, unlike e.g. the Greens).

 
The result of this has been that all the major parties started to worry about losing votes to UKIP. The fear was not necessarily just that UKIP would win those seats, but that traditionally loyal voters would defect to UKIP, increasing the incumbent party’s vulnerability to other rivals.

 
This fear from the major parties presumably at least partly explains some broad, but major strategic decisions made in the last several years by the leadership of the major parties:

 
i) The decision to hold the EU referendum.

 
ii) Ed Miliband’s suprisingly conservative stance on migration and various social issues. (viz. the influence of so-called “Blue Labour” figures such as Glasman during Miliband’s leadership).

 
iii) Corbyn avoiding taking a strong stance during the EU referendum campaign and Brexit.

 
iv) The Liberal Democrats, despite being ostensibly the most internationalist and Europhile party, still using patriotic/nationalist rhetoric and still conforming, to some degree, to nationalist policies such as denying immigrants from claiming benefits as soon as they move to the UK.

 
v) May’s tough stance on Brexit i.e. refusal to entertain “soft Brexit”, and her move to nationalist and right-wing policies in various other areas.

 
If you accept that fear of UKIP was the primary influence behind these major decisions, which I think is plausible, you have to accept that parties don’t need seats to wield great political power. As the chess grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch said, “the threat is stronger than the execution”.

 
What if all those millions of UKIP voters had reasoned that UKIP candidates stood little to no chance of winning the seats in which they stood, and hence voted for their second favourites instead? British political history would look very different. If you wanted Brexit to happen pre-2016, voting UKIP was the best way to make that happen even though most UKIP candidates had no chance of becoming MPs.

 
That being said, why not conclude that the best way to increase the chances of progressive policies being implemented in the near-to-medium-term future is to vote for whatever party is pressing for such policies most strongly, whichever party you believe that is?

 
Imagine the following scenario. The Liberal Democrats start to significantly increase their number of votes (unlikely, I know), not only in areas where they have traditionally done well, but also in areas traditionally loyal to Conservative and Labour. However, they don’t win any more seats than usual. Despite this, the latter two parties start worrying about haemorrhaging votes to the Lib Dems, and hence start to moderate their stance on immigration and Brexit.

 
(You need not agree that the Lib Dems have the best policies on those issues to see the point. I would also encourage Labour sympathisers in traditionally Conservative vs. Lib Dem seats to vote Labour for parallel reasons).

 
I conclude that tactical voting is not obviously the best way to use your vote in terms of the likely political influence of your vote. In fact, as the hypothetical scenario of UKIP sympathisers voting tactically shows, tactical voting may destroy the possibility of the ideals you believe in being put into practice.

 
2) Tactical Voting on a Mass Scale Obfuscates what the Electorate Actually Wants

 
If lots of people vote tactically, i.e. vote for parties that they do not really believe are the best, we end up with governments and oppositions that, to at least some extent, ipso facto do not genuinely reflect and campaign for the ideals that people want and believe in.

 
Parties use elections to gauge which policies and proposals are popular, which is an important part of how they decide to govern, if elected, or how they decide to campaign and hold the government to account, if they become the opposition. Since I do not believe in restrictions in immigration, I want to vote for a party that agrees. If I give my vote to a party that disagrees – which may nevertheless be a justified choice – I still cannot ignore my partial complicity in the immigration policies that I tacitly endorsed by giving that party my vote.

 
When tactical voting happens on a large scale (i.e. hundreds of thousands of voters), the gap between the outcome of what an election legitimizes, and what people actually want to legitimize, is magnified. If democracy is supposed to be about getting the government to rule in accordance with the wishes of “the people”, tactical voting hence causes a significant problem for democracy, by obstructing the links needed to make that happen.

 
3) Tactical Voting and Ideological Reflection

 
Part of the point of democracy, at least in the views of some of its scholars and defenders, is to encourage the populace to think about their political views and to learn more about political issues. Now, we are all busy and we have limited time to think about politics – that may be a shame, but it is just how it is. At election time, many of us are usually stimulated a bit more to spend time considering the facts, as well as our own views. This is a good thing.

 
I think there is a potential negative relationship between tactical voting and this process of political self-reflection. If I resolve to vote tactically, the choice is usually very simple: I want to keep the Tories out, this is a traditionally Tory vs. Labour seat, so I will vote Labour. This is so nice and easy that we might not make as much effort to research what other parties are saying, whether we really prefer Labour policies to e.g. Lib Dem or Green policies. If we resolved to vote only on the basis of ideological preference, we would by contrast have a great incentive to scrutinize our own beliefs, the facts, and the options in much more detail. Again, this seems like a good thing.

 
(Of course, many tactical voters are very self-reflective, knowledgeable, etc. But this doesn’t detract from the point that, generally speaking, we might be more reflective, questioning, investigative etc. if we didn’t vote tactically – or at least maybe some people would improve in this regard if they didn’t vote tactically).

 

4) Is the Point of Voting Influence?

 
This is my most tentative point, but I question whether the whole point of voting is to try to wield influence. Political scientists can prove to you that a single vote, or even a modest number of votes (hundreds), is statistically very, very unlikely to swing the outcome of the result of any particular constituency. (This is not to say that smaller numbers of votes don’t influence politics at all; see point 1). But it does raise the question whether there are reasons to vote other than influence. I think there are at least two:

 
i) Maintaining the institutions of democracy. Obviously, democracy can’t continue unless people vote, and low turnout levels threaten democracy for reasons relating to my point 2, above. So part of the reason to vote is that if you believe democracy ought to be sustained, by voting you are doing your bit to keep the house in order (or at least standing). So our reason to vote might not just be about influence, which would remove the motivation for voting tactically.

 
ii) Self-Expression. I think there might be some inherent worth in exercising the opportunity to go and express your political views to the world, no matter how crazy or unusual they are. If that seems silly, consider what it must be like to live in a society where there is neither democracy nor freedom of expression. That this is important to people would also account for the frustration often felt by those who feel they have views which are not represented by any of the parties – going back to my immigration example, I find it really annoying that I can’t support a party which is, to my mind, genuinely non-nationalist. I gather eurosceptics had a parallel frustration before the existence of UKIP. If you agree there might be something inherently therapeutic about expressing yourself in the political realm by voting, you should really consider voting for the party closest to your personal beliefs.

 

Although I have these arguments against tactical voting, I’m open-minded and am not 100% convinced I shouldn’t vote tactically at this election. Why? As I said above, tactical voting might be essential in certain cases. Maybe this election – the Brexit election – is one where some tactical voting needs to be done, at least in certain constituencies. What I hope to have shown is that tactical voting comes with a lot of serious problems, and the decision to vote tactically should not be made lightly. Anyway, thoughts on this or related issues very much welcome.

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2 Comments
  1. Finn, I really enjoyed this read but just have a couple of points/counter-points.

    Firstly, it’s really important to remember that the UKIP phenomenon was, in part, due to the fact that you couldn’t vote UKIP in 2010 and so going from 0 votes to 4 million was bound to turn some heads, presumably because parties were worried about what would have happened in 2020 if the EU referendum had not been offered to the country. Their pressure came from the polling data, which forced the referendum into the Tory manifesto. With the Libdems being such an established 3rd party, I’m not sure that getting 4 million votes total would make the conservatives feel on edge. The SNP managed to get their referendum with only 500,000 votes in 2010 for westminster MPs. The LD meanwhile, had to get 7 million votes in 2010 in order to get their (AV) referendum, so there is perhaps an argument that had the election not been a snap one, a new centrist party could show that there is an appetite for those policies and then turn heads in the two main parties to bring it back towards the centre (even if they only got 10% of the vote share/4m votes).

    Secondly, I think depending on the sense of scale at which you look at the efficacy of tactical voting, you can draw different results. There is no doubt that the Tory majority at the last election was so slim that the “36% of votes -> 51% of the seats -> 100% of the power” could have been halted by just a handful of tactical votes, leading to a coalition government. Not since 1931 has a party won a genuine majority in the national vote share – any majority government that is formed from a minority of voters is bound to have a tough time of things, and I think that had we produced two coalitions in a row, then there would clearly be an appetite for changing the system to a place where it more closely resembles European systems (such as the Dutch) – a genuine majority there can form a majority government.

    With Mrs May polling at 50% in a couple of polls this week, it would be her right to form a majority government with that, and in all honesty I don’t think there is much of a functional difference between (tentatively) a 100 seat majority in the absence of tactical voting and a 50 seat majority in the presence of it in terms of legislative power. This lead in the polls is simply because the right have figured out that if you all get behind a single party, then you can nominally be in power for the next 10 years. If they end up with a 100 seat majority, then they can essentially stick their fingers in their ears and sing “la la la” because they will not feel the pressure of any slim LibDem resurgence. Perhaps tactical voting leading to a 50 seat majority would still leave the conservatives comfortable enough to ignore all opposition, as is Theresa May’s clear ambition in this election.

    Therefore, since a coalition (of any variety) seems to be impossible given the current polls, I will be voting for a party that puts electoral reform as one of its central tenets – I was not old enough to vote in 2011, but I certainly would vote YES on any alternative to our current system. I am lucky enough that this is the same direction as a “tactical” vote in my new (safe Tory) constituency of Wiltshire North, and so I don’t have to resolve this conflict personally this time around.

    • Hi James,

      Thanks for your comments!

      UKIP did get almost 1 million votes in 2010, so to some extent their influence built up gradually over time. However, you’re surely right to suggest that not all parties are going to have equal success without seats as UKIP enjoyed. That UKIP were so strongly focused on one issue which many people strongly agreed with them on definitely helped their cause. As my uncle pointed out to me, a vote for the Lib Dems has less clear meaning and partly for that reason I agree that a new party could potentially be the most effective way of incentivising the Conservatives to move back towards the centre on issues like Brexit and immigration.

      I think it’d be crucial for any new party to clearly distinguish itself ideologically from status-quo parties, and I think the best way to do that would be for its core principle to be internationalism. As I mention in the article, Labour and the Lib Dems both appeal to the national interest to back up their views and policies about Brexit & immigration. There is a clear difference between that type of argument and one which says “I support immigration not just because it’s good for Britain, but because it’s good for immigrants and for humanity in general”. A party which only made the latter kind of argument would be like an anti-UKIP which could potentially get centrist parties to reconsider their position on these issues.

      With your second point, I am almost completely in agreement with you, but I still think that the pattern I identify in section 1 holds generally: parties always need to and will worry if their rivals start to do better, because even if that doesn’t threaten their current majority it may well threaten their future ones. (The early Labour Party’s influence on the Liberals is a case in point). I do, however, accept that in tight elections, tactical voting makes more sense, so you have to pay close attention to the specific situation.

      Also, I agree electoral form is hugely important. Reading the 2010 GE Wiki page just now made me remember how badly the Lib Dems got robbed that year. So many votes, so few MPs!

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