Tactical Voting: Is It Worth the Effort?

There’s been quite a lot of talk amongst left-leaning voters about the possibility of a Progressive Alliance. This Alliance would comprise MPs from Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP, and it would come about through a perfectly synchronised operation of tactical voting.

It does seem a rather unlikely coalition – could it possibly work out in practice? Corbyn, Sturgeon, Farron and Lucas all around the same table? – but at least there would be fewer Conservative MPs in the House of Commons, and any effort to reduce the Conservatives’ majority seems like a good idea to me.

More importantly, though: how significant, how effective, could this project – this perfect storm of tactical voting – turn out to be in practice? Is a Progressive Alliance a realistic expectation in terms of actual, concrete results?

According to an essay by Stephen D. Fisher on the topic of tactical voting, the Conservative Party tends to lose most when many people decide to vote tactically. However, Fisher also suggests that coordinated efforts at tactical voting are difficult to realise in practice.

Essentially, there are three main types of tactical voting: 1) you support a party that is likely to come in third in your constituency, and therefore you vote against the party you’d least want to win; 2) you vote for a small party, such as the Greens, because you’d like to help raise their profile; 3) you vote against your own party because you’d like to see its majority limited.

Less than one in four voters in the UK find themselves in constituencies where their favoured party is likely to come in third. Between 1992 and 2010, roughly one in five voters who favoured a ‘third place party’ voted tactically. During the same period, about as many people – regardless of what party they supported – also voted tactically, but in a way that wasn’t effective. The parties these voters actually favoured had unexpectedly finished in the top two; accordingly, their votes, although intended as ‘tactical’, ended up having the opposite effect.

In other words, tactical voting can go wrong when people misread the political situation in their constituency. Voters may incorrectly conclude that their favoured party can’t win, whereas in reality it has much more support than appearances let on.

Statistically, Fisher says, the Conservative Party tends to gain net votes from tactical voting. This is because of two reasons: 1) few of the people who favour the Tories will have any reason to vote tactically, because the Tories are usually in the top two, and 2) they will gain support from Tory leaning Lib Dems who vote tactically. The Labour Party, on the other hand, won’t gain or lose much in terms of net votes from tactical voting, as there tends to be a fairly even spread between Labour votes to the Lib Dems and Lib Dems votes to Labour.

Crucially, however, the Conservative Party is the party that loses out in terms of seats won and seats lost from tactical voting. This is because Lib Dems tend to favour Labour candidates over Conservatives, and because Labour voters tend to favours Lib Dems over Tories. In other words, tactical voting means that the Tories gain more net votes, but that the Labour Party and the Lib Dems win more seats.

Now, this is, of course, all fine and dandy, but what does it actually mean? We know that tactical voting will make a difference if one’s aim is to damage the Conservatives’ majority. We don’t, however, know how significant that damage might be. What would a perfect storm of synchronised voting amount to in practice?

In the General Election of 2015, 11.3 million people voted for the Tories, and 9.3 million voted for Labour. Put together, the Greens, the SNP and the Lib Dems got around 5 million votes. Had these three parties combined with Labour in order to create a so called Progressive Alliance, then they would easily have beat the Tories in terms of net votes. But in terms of seats?

In this article, published by the Guardian earlier this year, Martin Robbins makes the case that tactical voting — even if perfectly executed — won’t be enough to prevent a Conservative majority in 2017. According to this General Election prediction, the Tories are currently set to win 396 seats on June 8th; Labour 180; Lib Dems 5; Greens 1; and SNP 49. If, based on the election results of 2015, the Labour Party, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats combined their tactical voting efforts to maximise Tory damage, then that would, according to Robbins, result in 47 more Labour seats and 10 more Lib Dems seats. But even under those perfect circumstances, the Tories win more than enough seats (given current predictions) to form a majority government, and the Labour Party only win about 250.

Now, given this data, how much sense does it actually make to coordinate tactical voting efforts? The best possible result would amount to pretty good damage control, but it wouldn’t, in all likelihood, prevent the Tories from improving on their current majority. The best possible outcome would also be contingent on almost impossibly well-coordinated tactical voting efforts, and is unlikely to actually happen.

So what to do?

Well, why not forget about tactical voting? Instead, vote for the party you actually think best represents your political beliefs (and let’s hope that party is the Green Party!). If this means that the Tories win by a few more seats, then so be it. Let them have it. Let the Tories have another five years, and then let’s watch them implode in the election of 2022. The way things are currently going, there isn’t, to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek, light at the end of the tunnel; instead, there’s an oncoming, speeding train, and the best way to effect real change might just be to let the Tories run straight into it. And if nothing else, then at least let your vote be a testament to the need for proportional representation, and make sure that you campaign for electoral change.

Ideally, though: #VoteGreen2017 to #ChangeTheGame. The best anti-Tory recipe for change is to elect Caroline Lucas, Molly Scott Cato, Natalie Bennett, Siân Berry, Amelia Womack, Vix Lowthion, Eleanor Field and many more Green MPs to represent your political beliefs in the House of Commons.

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