New Labour has a whopping majority in the House of Commons – despite getting only 40.7% of the national vote in 2001, they got 413 seats (or 62.7% of the House). The disproportionality the first-past-the-post system lends to the resulting balance of power is not exactly news, but until recently the only solution has been to complain and advocate PR – and what Government is going to introduce a system to supplant the one that got them into power in the first place?
So – Internet to the rescue! The 1997 and 2001 elections saw the rise of tactical voting websites. Now, with a sizeable minority of the liberal left dissatisfied with New Labour (and more specifically, Tony Blair), there is extra impetus to giving them a bloody nose at the next election.
The result is a plethora of tactical voting sites – Strategic Voter, So Now Who Do We Vote For?, Backing Blair, all out to register a protest vote against Labour.
The problem with so many sites is that the message differs – for my old hometown of Cambridge (Edinburgh, like the rest of Scotland, has lots of boundary changes so making a call here is nigh-on impossible) – Strategic Voter says it’s a marginal seat so vote Lib Dem, while Backing Blair says its unlikely to make a difference. Both sites suffer the fatal flaw in their databases that the sitting MP, Anne Campbell, opposed the Iraq war and quit herGovernment post, so an anti-war vote to unseat her would be misguided.
At the very least, more complex data are needed for intelligent decisions to be made (none of the sites seem to make use of what’s available elsewhere – marrying their location data with data from publicwhip on issues like Iraq would be a good start).
But merely past performance isn’t really enough. Very little thought has been given on what happens after the election – what will happen to this Labour party after the election, with its reduced majority. The makeup of the parliamentary power has a heavy influence on the leadership election for Blair’s successor, so shouldn’t anti-Blair campaigners focus on voting out Blairite Labour MPs, rather than all Blairites? Of course, whether an MP is Blairite or not is not a simple judgement, you could look at how rebellious or loyal an MP is, perhaps. A decision based purely on that data though would make Gordon Brown one of most Blairite MPs (he has not rebelled in this Parliament at all).
As well as possibly encouraging misinformed or underinformed decisions, the tactical voting sites lack much introspection. How did Labour get such a whopping majority in the first place? Not just because the Tories were hated, but they were so hated that many resorted to tactical voting, and sites like Tactical Vote to kick them out in 1997, and make them stay out in 2001.
I oppose first-past-the-post, with the disproportionate power it hands to the minority of the population who happen to be swing voters in marginal seats and thus, how it focuses the political agenda only on the issues that concern that minority. Tactical voting sites only try to solve the symptoms rather than the cause. In fact, all it does is allow another minority, the tech-savvy, to wield undue influence over the protest. The sites and their campaigns may succeed (on their terms) in the short term, but if you really want to make voting more representative in the long term, then you’re going to have to start thinking about reforming the system, rather than just trying to hack with it.
(Ta to Damian for some interesting chat on the subject earlier in the week, which inspired this post.)