‘Tactical Voting’ in 2019: Unpacking the Need for Electoral Reform

Megan Kenyon discusses the need for electoral reform .

On a particularly wet and windy day in December 2019, the UK once again headed to the polls. Hurrying to polling stations up and down the country, voters pulled on their warmest clothes and huddled out the door, braving the cold in order to exercise their democratic right. Of some 47 million people who cast their vote, almost a third of them undertook what had been the zeitgeist of the campaign: ‘tactical voting’. To advocates of electoral reform like myself, such a move seemed to be a moment of exposure for our disproportionate system of ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP). Slowly, but surely, it seemed as though many were waking up to the desperate need for change.

Electoral reform is not a sexy topic. Prior to the last election, when discussing the particulars of the need for proportional representation (PR), the eyes of my interlocutor would often glaze over.  Yet, during the 2019 general election campaign, such discussions gained a new lease of life. As mentioned previously, according to polls conducted by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), shortly prior to the election, 30 per cent of voters stated: “they would choose the best-positioned party/candidate to keep out another party/candidate that I dislike”. Among my contemporaries, talk of ‘tactical voting’ was rife. With concern for the environment, Brexit, and the fate of the NHS, many questioned whether to vote for the candidate they actually supported or the one who would ensure that their least favourite was kept out.

Still, while the ‘tactical voting’ campaigns, useful infographics and specially designed websites identified the problem, the solution was nowhere to be found. It goes without saying, this election was fought on Brexit. Electoral reform - which it is painfully obvious is required - was left out in the cold on that December evening. The voices of numerous voters, so crucial to a fully-functional democratic system, were inevitably left behind.

Throughout the day on 12 December, over 32 million votes were cast. Of that 32 million, only 9.4 million “were ‘decisive’ in securing a candidates election”. Under FPTP, even if a voter casts their vote for the winning candidate, once the number of votes has reached above a certain threshold, any other ballots are left redundant. According to the ERS: “in seven constituencies, over 90 per cent of the votes went to waste in this way”. Making the case for electoral reform in 2016, Caroline Lucas stated: “By swapping to a proportional system, people would be able to take power into their own hands and, like in the referendum, we’d have elections where every vote really counts”.  In the aftermath of the 2019 general election, her words seem particularly pertinent.

Of course, a more proportional electoral system has the propensity to lead to more coalitions, which can prove difficult to navigate. But, with the impending threat of the climate crisis and the economic aftermath of covid-19, further cross-party cooperation is explicitly a good thing. Being constitutionally mandated to share power paves the way for further and lasting collaboration and the age of party-political point-scoring will eventually come to an end.

Reforming our electoral system to be more proportionate will see the advent of an electorate that is no longer disenfranchised. Instead of shuffling to the polling station, knowing that in reality there is a possibility that your vote might not even count, voters will be equipped to make real and lasting change. With a system such as single-transferable-vote, in which voters are able to rank candidates, every vote counts no matter when, where or for whom it is cast.

The move to introduce PR in the NEC elections is a step in the right direction, but it must lay the foundations for definitive support for electoral reform from the Labour party in the future. As the party of ‘the many not the few’, Labour must ensure that next time we enter the polling station, the voices of the many are unequivocally heard.

This article was shortlisted as one of twelve finalist pieces in the Young Fabians Political Writing Competition 2020. 

Megan Kenyon is a freelance reporter and currently a student on the MA Newspaper Journalism course at City, University of London.

She tweets at @meganekenyon.

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