Left Out Liberal

A left-wing/liberal look at the UK's General Election of 2005.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Analysis: Turning Tactical

I think a lot of us made big mistakes. I forecast that tactical voting could be a major issue in this election. I feel now that I was wrong.

The situation out in the country swung wildly over the evening. If ever anyone wanted to make a case for the argument that there is no such thing as national swing, then 2005 was your night to prove it. On the face of it, all those sensational swings could well have been the result of people voting tactically all over the place - that's the kind of odd thing you normally get with tactical voting.

But it's not. All of that was down to a more boring explanation: it was just conventional voting. People seemed in this election to continue to vote more for what they actually believed in. Many Labour voters were fed up with Labour, and so decided to switch to the Lib Dems. This may well have been a protest vote, but it isn't a tactical vote. People were prepared to vote for the Lib Dems regardless of how the seat ended up. Indeed, this voting pattern resulted in a number of Tory MPs - though not many - slipping in through Peter Hain's infamous back door. This is principled voting, something which we should be doing anyway if we had a better electoral system.

In seats where tactical voting could have played a role, such as in the Lib Dems decapitation strategy, it didn't seem to have any impact. The Labour vote refused to be squeezed even further than it already has been, indicating that there are limits to tactical voting eventually. It is possible the message was not put around well enough, but that is something I'd find it to difficult to believe.

It is possible that some people voted tactically for a Tory to rid themselves of a Labour candidate, as the Backing Blair website suggested many people do, but I don't think this was ever likely. If we're cynical, third parties were invented for tactical and protest voting purposes! That's what we use them for! There is anti-Tory tactical voting, but the Lib Dems are the main beneficiary.

But that seemed to unwind as well in this election. Lib Dems who may have voted Labour to keep a Tory out decided that the Tories were the lesser of two evils and so returned back to their home party. This is a step back for tactical voting in the election where it was supposed to take the giant leap forward.

This is both good and bad. I can see the merits in this concept given our electoral system. Change has to come from somewhere, and if this is the only way of making seats marginal, we have to use it. But it would be so much better if we could get true voting reform so that everyone really could vote for the party of their choice without being whipped into fear that their vote could have unintended side-effects.

We have not yet seen any data from those websites that were setup to encourage people to exchange votes for this election. Last time, tacticalvoter.net claimed that their efforts turfed out two Tories. I'm sure they will claim they were also responsible for some in this election, but it's not nearly enough. The fact remains that out of the Top 10 targets on Tacticalvoter, they only achieved the 1st one, and in many others the Tories managed to massively shore up their vote to defend against it. Given that there are so many more people on the internet now, you would have expected this to have made much more impact. The Lib Dems should have taken Orpington, that's for sure, but they ended up missing it by thousands. What happened?

Meanwhile, turnout was up slightly at 61.3% from 59.3%. Better than nothing, that's for sure. Yet, in certain parts of the country, turnout reached spectacular highs. Solihull in Birmingham managed to achieve an astonishing 83% turnout, up 20%! There are many theories in psephology (the science of elections!) that the more an election has salience, the more people turnout. I considered this theory in an essay I wrote recently, and I believe it to be one of the key factors, far and above the impact of education levels of the electorate.

In certain areas... and Solihull, being a middle-class constituency, is a good example... this election was very relevant to the electorate. The issue of trust resonates far more among certain demographics than others, and it is probably true to suggest that it did here. Iraq was the same, often dismissed as being of little interest to anyone other than the chattering classes who have the time and effort to worry themselves about legality and technicality.

Well, it seems they did. Time and again in similar constituencies, turnout was up between 5 and 10%... and in all of these places turnout was higher than the average anyway. Very impressive indeed. But if it wasn't because of the issues, then it was because the contest was close - as we saw in most of the marginals - i.e. because it was salient.

Turnout is still a problem - but now we can see clearly that it is beginning to be confined to inner cities, where the result is very predictable, and where the issues are not relevant or engaging to the electorate. They do not address their concerns or their issues. This rising disenchantment is a danger to our democracy, and the politicians must do something about it. It is part of the general decline in social cohesion which is felt most in the inner cities, and this problem requires much more than just a close election. Politics just isn't seen as relevant - it doesn't change anyone's lives in these areas. Well... it does, but it isn't seen like that.

Politicians need to be able to talk the language of these people. If they can do that... and perhaps the best way is by leaving inner city parties to select their own candidates, preferably one who is representative and has the ability to communicate with the disaffected masses (for they are masses in these areas), then they will begin to change the situation.

There is a lot to learn from this election beyond the result. Hopefully, I've been able to shed some light on two key issues.


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