The vote-swap election: how voters were forced to game the system

Tactical voting has peaked in this election but we shouldn’t need it, argues Jess Blair.






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While all attention is now on the next steps of Theresa May’s minority government, it was just a few days ago that we all visited our local school, community centre or church hall, took a selfie and marked a cross in a box to indicate who we wanted to be our next MP.

The big story of the night that followed is one that is completely unexpected to where we were just a few short weeks ago. In Wales Labour increased their vote share by 12% taking three seats off the Tories, and we have power-sharing negotiations in Westminster.

This came just a couple of months after Theresa May announced a snap election, which to many look set to be an emphatic victory for the Conservative Party. Even in Wales, polls suggested that for the first time the Conservatives could win a majority of seats in Wales.

Yet on June 8th the party failed to win a majority on an increased vote share. As Boris Johnson pointed out in *those* leaked Whatsapp messages “she won more votes than anyone since Thatcher”. Indeed, 42.4% (the Tories’ total vote share) was the highest for the party since 1979. In Wales they increased their vote by 6.4%.

What they hadn’t counted on was an increased Labour vote at 40%, up 9.5 percentage points from 2015. How did that happen?

In the obligatory election post mortem many commentators will rightly talk about the role of the campaigns, May’s gaffes and Corbyn’s surprise success among voters – particularly those from a younger generation. But part of the answer lies in the voting system and the way that many of us decided to play it at its faults and game the system.

Tactical voting was, arguably, a far bigger issue in this election than those that have been before, at least for those I can remember. ERS Cymru research prior to the election found just shy of a quarter of voters in Wales said that they were voting for the candidate most likely to beat the candidate they disliked the most. At a UK, level 20% of voters intended to vote tactically, compared to 9% in 2015.

Indeed, tactical voting hit the headlines at numerous points during the campaign. Gina Miller raised £400,000 through crowdfunding – money used to back candidates across the country that represented the values her organisation, Best for Britain, while other organisations such as Progressive Alliance and More United launched similar campaigns.

We also saw the rise of websites such as tactical2017.com and swapmyvote.uk, which paired up voters to ‘swap’ their vote and have more impact locally. Avaaz, a campaigning organisation, ran campaigns in 50 constituencies where the Conservatives either held a marginal seat or looked set to make a gain:

“Flooding them [the constituencies] with 1.9 million Facebook ads, sending 3 million emails with voting information, reaching 737,000 people, 48% of women voters on Facebook, and making sure young people turned out to vote. Finally Avaazers SMSed 50,000 people on polling day.”

They say their campaign was successful in 45 out of the 50 constituencies they targeted.

But the problem with tactical voting is that it’s necessary at all. If the voting system worked properly, voters wouldn’t need to game the system. To achieve the outcome they want voters have been forced to hold their noses and vote for parties they don’t believe in.

If we need any more convincing that this voting system doesn’t work this is the third election in a row where First Past the Post has failed – producing two hung Parliaments, and in 2015 a wafer-thin majority amid the most disproportional result in British history.

This voting system is forcing people to second guess each other, to vote against their political gut instinct and even with all of this still fails to deliver a majority government. A more proportional system would allow seats to actually match votes, rather than produce millions of wasted ballots.

Something has to change. Now is the time to change it.

Jess Blair is the Director of ERS Cymru.