As you may have noticed, there is an election tomorrow. Now more than ever there is a large amount of conflicting advice offered to people who are wondering who to vote for. I wanted to write a brief guide to help them to think this through.
This guide is entirely impartial. I’m not going to suggest who you vote for or encourage you to vote one way or the other. My goal here is simply to try and increase engagement and encourage people to think in a structured way about their vote. The more confident you are that you have voted in the best way you could, the better you will feel. Believe me, it’s true!
I’m going to explain how, whatever your beliefs and what you want politics to be like, no vote is ‘wasted’, as long as you vote with clear objectives.
OK, let’s go.
Step 1 - What do you really believe?
The first thing to do is clear your mind of anything to do with political parties. Try to ignore any preconceptions. Forget about your MP, the leaders of the parties, how you have voted before, or anything else. Why? Because we need to identify your core values. This is the essential first step for casting your vote.
Take a few minutes to consider things that are important to you that a government can change. It doesn’t matter what they are - just jot them down in the order that they occur to you. Your list could include education, healthcare, defence. Don’t think about it to0 much, just write them down as they pop into your head.
Congratulations! Your list is more or less automatically in the order of importance to you. Don’t question it too much at this point, because the more you question it the more existing biases come in.
Now, starting at the top of the list, think of any of your ‘deal breakers’ in that area. These are things on which you absolutely will not compromise. Not everyone has these, but if you do it’s important to note them down to remind yourself of them later. Examples might be that you will not vote for climate change deniers, renationalisation, NHS privatisaion, nuclear weapons… it’s up to you - big moral certainties with no blurred edges.
That’s it - well done! You’ve got your own very basic priority list. That’s all you need.
Step 2 - Examine policies without bias
When you read a manifesto it’s almost impossible not to go into it with either a positive or a negative bias, depending on your existing impression of the party or the people in it. This is not good for sound reasoning. What is required is a way to see the policies without seeing who wrote them and choose the one you prefer, then see which manifesto has the most policies you agree with. Thankfully that tool exists.
Using a Web browser go to Vote For Policies. This is a neutral site which does just that - it allows you to see corresponding policies from all of the parties without seeing which party they are from. You don’t have to enter your name or any identifying information, just your postcode at the end if you want to see how other people in your constituency have chosen.
Go to the site and fill-in as much as you can. When you start it will ask which areas are important to you. Make sure you select as many of the items from your list in step 1 as you can, and ideally more. The more you choose the longer the quiz will take, but the more accurate the answer will be.
Make sure you are honest with yourself and rule-out any policies which are deal-breakers you identified in step 1.
When you have completed the quiz the site will give you a result in the form of a pie chart. This illustrates a percentage showing how many of your results corresponded to each party. The party with the largest percentage is the one you agree with most.
The result may not surprise you, or it might. Whatever the case, it is an undeniable, unbiased illustration of which party represents your views most closely.
So, who should you vote for? Let’s see.
Step 3 - Who can you actually vote for?
Now that you know who you agree with most you must find out if they standing in your constituency. If you are not sure simply go to Who Can I Vote For? and type in your postcode.
At this point you will also see any independent candidates who are standing. It’s impossible for these to appear on the Vote For Policies site, so now is the time to consider if they are more closely aligned to your views than the party identified in step 2. It’s not always easy to do this - the best way is to either go to a hustings or contact them directly.
Note down the name of your constituency if you didn’t know it as you will need it later. It might not be what you expect, such as the name of your town.
If your chosen party isn’t standing and there are no independents (or you don’t agree with them), you can substitute the party that next most closely aligned to your views in step 2.
Step 4 - Who should you vote for?
For some people this is the tricky part, and it’s all down to our unfair electoral system. ‘first past the post’. This means that the makeup of parliament does not reflect the number of votes cast nationally. The result of this is unexpected situations like a majority government being elected with under 40% of the vote, and some MPs being elected on just over 6,000 votes while others receive over 47,000.
I consider it vital for democracy that we have electoral reform in the UK. I’m not going to discuss that further at this point, but in the vast majority of democracies the ‘who should I vote for’ discussion would end at this point because the number of MPs elected reflects the national vote, so you only have to consider who you like best. It shames us that it isn’t the case here. Join an organisation that campaigns for electoral reform, such as Make Votes Matter, and help to ensure you can vote for what you believe in at future elections. If your favourite party doesn’t support electoral reform (they all do expect the largest two), work hard to change their minds.
Anyway, it is absolutely a valid decision to ignore the unfair electoral system and vote for the party you believe in most, regardless of quirks in the electoral system. In many ways that is the most democratic action and the one that is truest to yourself. However, you should consider the effects of first past the post.
What are ‘marginals’ and ‘safe seats’?
Some constituencies are referred to as ‘marginals’. These are seats where the winner has a majority of fewer than 3,000 votes. You have probably noticed if you live in one of these as you will have a lot more leaflets and perhaps people knocking on your door than people you know in constituencies that are ‘safe’.
Marginal constituencies are the ones that are likely to elect an MP from a different party than last time. The opposite is a ‘safe’ seat, where it is very unlikely that an MP from a different party will be elected. If you live in a safe seat it’s possible that you will receive hardly any election material at all.
Find out what type of constituency yours is by finding it in this list. This will list a large amount of information for each entry, including the majority of the winning party last time. Remember, if the majority is under 3,000 you are definitely in a marginal. The higher it is over that, the safer it is. Of course, things can change. Have a look at the polls as close as you can to polling day and work out how that national swing would effect your constituency. If you live in even a moderately safe seat then it probably won’t, by itself.
Next consider local factors. This time around (2019) there are many constituencies where one party standing in 2017 has stood aside, so that immediately ‘frees up’ those votes. In other constituencies there are local factors such as scandals hitting a party, or a particularly strong campaign that might change. It may be impossible to judge how this might change how people vote. It might not at all. You must use your best judgement to assess this and whether it realistically results in change given majority of the party who won last time.
Remember, it’s always true that most seats are safe seats.
What is ‘tactical voting’?
This is when you choose not to vote for the party you like best based on the fact that a party you really dislike might win, and by voting for a party that isn’t your favourite, they might not. It’s a compromise. The more marginal the constituency is, the stronger the argument for tactical voting.
Some of the larger parties will try to tell you that you should always vote tactically. This is wrong. In a safe seat there is no such thing as a tactical vote, and that’s more true the safer the seat is.
There is also no such thing as tactical voting in a constituency where it’s not clear who the two largest parties will be.
As an illustration, take a look at this list of Conservative-held seats. These are in order of the swing needed to beat the sitting Conservative. As you can see, where the seat is a marginal it can be won from the Conservatives with a swing of 4% or less. The swing needed then goes up a lot as the majority increases.
The national swing is nearly always lower than people think. The largest ever swing from Conservative to Labour was 10.2%, and the largest ever from Labour to Conservative was 5.3%. These are all-time records - national swings are usually much lower.
You can see the current predicted swings here. At the time of writing, the day before the election, the Conservatives are down 0.3% and Labour are down nearly 8%.
So now you have as good an idea as anyone else how likely your constituency is to vote for an MP for a different party this time. You will be in one of two categories, one of which is much more clear cut than the other.
Should you vote ‘tactically’ in a safe seat?
If you are in a safe seat you should go ahead and vote for the party you identified as the one you agree with most. Your vote won’t change who is elected and won’t change who is in government.
If that’s the party that won last time, great - lucky you! If it’s not the party who won last time you should definitely still vote for them.
If your chosen party is not standing in the safe seat, consider chosing the ‘next best fit’ party from step 2 as long as it supports electoral reform. Chosing the one of the big two parties, which reject reform, is a vote for more elections where you can’t vote for what you really want.
If your chosen party is standing but not the one that won last time, you should definitely still vote for them. You might wonder what the point is if they won’t win, but there’s always a point. More than one, in fact:
- You will help your party keep its deposit. Parties have to pay £500 to stand, and this is a large amount of money for smaller parties. They get this deposit back if they get at least 5% of the vote. Your vote can help them to get that money back and spend it on things like local elections. Parties that struggle to win in general elections often have many hundreds of councillors, so that money can be used to get councillors of the party you like best onto your local council
- Media companies cover parties more when their national vote share increases. Since parties struggle to break through without media coverage, your vote will help your party become a serious contender in the future. This is in your interests since they most closely represent your views
- You will help the MPs elected elsewhere in your chosen party. There is state funding for political parties called ‘Short Money’. All opposition parties with MPs receive funding based on the number of votes nationally, whether they win in that constituency or not. For every 200 votes they receive an extra £33. In smaller parties without much money this makes a huge difference. For example, the Green Party currently have one MP, but the national vote share results in Short Money that pays for parliamentary researchers who can help her find the data she needs to hold the government to account. By voting for your party, even if you are told they are a ‘wasted vote’, you are helping their MPs elected elsewhere speak up for what you believe in Parliament. This is vital.
Should you vote ‘tactically’ in a marginal seat?
This is a personal decision. Its easier if you don’t really mind the two parties most likely to win in your constituency - let them fight it out and vote for the party you like best anyway, for the reasons in the list above.
If you strongly oppose one of the two parties most likely to win then you have a tougher choice. The more marginal your constituency is, the more you may feel you have to vote for one of the two to ‘keep the other out’. This in understandable and I’m not going to try to persuade you otherwise. All I would suggest is that you make yourself feel better about this compromise, and help the party that you really wanted to vote for, by ‘vote swapping’.
To vote swap, go to Swap My Vote and enter the party you want and the one you are willing to vote for tactically. You will be matched-up with someone willing to vote the other way. In this way you can help stop the party you dislike winning your constituency while at the same time helping your chosen party gain national vote share, or perhaps even win in a different constituency. It doesn’t feel as good as voting for who you like best, but if you feel you have to vote tactically it’s the next best thing.
Whatever you do - go and vote!
Do vote. It’s important. But equally importantly, don’t let anyone try to bully or convince you to vote for someone you don’t want to vote for. You have the tools you need to find out if you really do agree with a party. You have the information here to know if a ‘tactical’ vote makes sense. The only wasted vote is one that you haven’t considered, is one blindly made on the advice of people whose agenda may be different to yours, or one you simply don’t believe in.
I hope this guide has been helpful to everyone. We all have our biases but I have been careful to make it politically neutral, so it should help you however you vote.
Please do contact me with any suggestions for changes!